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Why is the return of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet a blow to contraband?

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A A 3,500-year-old wedge-shaped clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, which was seized by authorities in 2019 and officially confiscated by the U.S. store chain Hobby Lobby in July, was due to be officially returned to Iraq on Thursday.

The handover ceremony in Washington DC was both a victory for US and Iraqi officials and a symbolic warning to looters that both governments are committed to eradicating the illicit trade in cultural objects.

The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and senior leaders of the US and Iraqi governments were to meet at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for the return of the dream tablet by Gilgamesh, a 6-inch tablet by 5-inch Clay Artefact that is part of an epic poem considered to be one of the world’s earliest literary works. The rare piece had previously been on display at the Museum of the Bible, the institution built and run by Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green, which opened in Washington in 2017.

The ceremony ended a long effort to make the artifact invaluable to its homeland and highlights the continuing struggle against cultural smuggling. While the fragment of Gilgamesh’s poem is the star of the event, it represents more than 17,000 items that US officials returned to Iraq.

The Director General of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay, describes the restitution as historic and affirms that it is crucial for the recovery of Iraq. The tablet is expected to be sent to Iraq and displayed at the National Museum in Baghdad, she said.

“The Gilgamesh tablet is the most symbolic of the 17,000 cultural objects seized,” writes Azoulay. “The 3,500-year-old Assyrian tablet contains a segment of Sumerian The epic of Gilgamesh poem, which is considered one of the oldest literary works in history. It is a foundational story that inspired the great monotheisms, because this myth has been reinterpreted time and time again. He also influenced The Iliad and The odyssey. It is therefore a jewel of our common humanity and a bulwark against all obscurantism and the identities that separate us.

“The return of the Gilgamesh tablet to Iraq and its display at the National Museum in Baghdad is also a big step forward in bringing back the cultural heritage that has been looted in Iraq during decades of conflict. It is crucial for the reconstruction and recovery of Iraq.

Highlighting the return of the artifacts could deter further looting and trade, says Katharyn Hanson, a cultural heritage preservation specialist at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, who has worked with Iraqi cultural heritage practitioners for many years.



We lose so much information when an artefact is looted, when it is torn from its archaeological context.

“We don’t see large repatriations like this as often as we should. I’m very hopeful that this will raise awareness of the problem, ”Hanson said last week. “It’s going to be a joyous event. Gilgamesh’s poem holds a special place in human history, in Iraqi history.

Hobby Lobby bought the tablet for almost $ 1.7million (£ 1.24million) in 2014 to display at the museum under construction. The artifact was allegedly looted from a museum in Iraq in 1991 and smuggled into the United States in 2007, according to UNESCO. It was seized by U.S. officials in 2019, and in July the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ordered Hobby Lobby to confiscate it.

The looting and sale of cultural objects has increased due to the armed conflict in the region, according to Unesco. Although the extent of the looting is not known, the organization estimates that the United States accounts for 44% of the global art market.

The recovery of looted objects is slow and difficult, said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, UNESCO director for culture and emergencies.

“Some have false documents and it takes years to detect them,” Assomo says. “To this, add the fact that each country has its own legal framework, its judicial framework and its laws regulating the art market.”

The handover highlights the collaboration between the United States and Iraq, both signatories of a 1970 Unesco convention that created a legal framework to prevent the trafficking of cultural objects and ensure their repatriation, a declared Assomo. Iraqi officials also note the efforts of Bible Museum officials to facilitate the return of what they have described as a record number of artifacts.

The Bible Museum in Washington, where the tablet was displayed

(Washington Post)

“In May 2020, when we learned of the fraudulent importation and the documentation provided for the item by the previous owners, we announced our full support for the efforts of the US government to return this item to Iraq,” Curator Jeffrey Kloha in chief of the Museum of the Bible, writes.

“We are grateful for the work of Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen and the US State Department in helping us return this and other items to the Iraqi people. We look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with our friends in Iraq to study and preserve its rich cultural heritage. ”

The ceremony also underlines the importance of cultural diplomacy in combating the illicit trade in cultural goods, Azoulay said, adding that she hopes it will serve as a model.

“This restitution is unprecedented, both in terms of the number of objects and their value. We hope this will send a clear message that the days when looted or illegally exported items could be easily sold in the market are over, ”she said. “We also need art market players to play an active role in protecting cultural heritage around the world. Museums are reviewing their acquisition policies, while collectors and auction houses are now paying more attention to provenance information and adhering to professional ethical codes of conduct.

Hanson of the Smithsonian says the demand for ancient artifacts, especially those like the Gilgamesh Tablet which are linked to the origins of writing, remains high and that it is very easy, she says, “for the wicked to do. of profit ”.

“We lose so much information when an artefact is looted, when it is torn from its archaeological context,” she explains. Not only is the object removed from its country of origin, but its connection to history is also severed. For example, Hanson says, the systematic excavation of an artifact like the Gilgamesh would provide researchers with specific location data and other potentially important details.

“We don’t know what it was found in. Is it from an intentional archive or from the recycle bin? Was it carefully sealed for the future? she says. “It’s exciting to see him come back, and I want that joy to overcome the sadness of what we’ve lost.”

© The Washington Post


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