Artifacts still being stolen from Iraq by collectors

A 3,500-year-old clay tablet discovered in the ruins of the library of an ancient Mesopotamian king, then looted from an Iraqi museum 30 years ago, is finally headed back to Iraq, the Associated Press reports.

The $1.7 million cuneiform clay tablet was found in 1853 as part of a 12-tablet collection in the rubble of the library of Assyrian King Assur Banipal. Officials believe it was illegally imported into the United States in 2003, then sold to Hobby Lobby and eventually put on display in its Museum of the Bible in the nation’s capital.

Federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations seized the tablet — known as the Gilgamesh Dream tablet — from the museum in September 2019. The Gilgamesh tablet is part of a section of a Sumerian poem from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is one of the world’s oldest works of literature, and one of the oldest religious texts.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, began a civil forfeiture court proceeding that resulted in a repatriation ceremony on Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian with officials from Iraq.

Farreed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said the looting of the museum in the 1990s hit Iraqis hard.

“The real core of what happened, though, is that people, individual people, did the right thing,” he said. But there is much more to be done to preserve cultural heritage across the world. “Artifacts are still being stolen, they are being smuggled out.”

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