Federal agents have returned two stone artifacts to Iraq, reports Matthew Ormseth for the Los Angeles Times. Experts say the objects – a fragment of a stone tablet engraved with cuneiform characters and a prism used to teach the cuneiform alphabet to children – are at least 4,000 years old.
According to Wallace Ludel of art diary.
“We appreciate [the] ongoing efforts and coordination to repatriate two extremely rare ancient Iraqi artifacts,” Iraqi Consul General Salwan Sinjaree says in an ICE declaration. “These efforts highlight the important cooperation between Iraqi and American authorities.”
Authorities first became aware of the stone tablet when an American buyer purchased it at an online auction in July 2020. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials seized the cuneiform-covered object when it was shipped from the UK without proper documentation, the statement said. Specialists consulted by agents suggested the ancient artifact was looted from what is now Iraq in the early 20th century.
Law enforcement officials found the other recently returned item in a warehouse last year. Its owner had hoped to donate the cuneiform prism to an institutional collection upon their death but did not provide proof of title. As the Los Angeles Times notes, a local gallery then donated the artifact to ICE.
A Sumerian literature expert told ICE that the cuneiform prism dates from Old Babylonian period (2000 BCE to 1600 BCE) and probably originated in modern Iraq. The scientist knows only two similar prisms. One is housed at Yale University, while the other is missing.
Because they cooperated with authorities, the Los Angeles gallery and the tablet’s online buyer and seller will not be subject to criminal prosecution.
“Someone who buys something at an online auction and doesn’t know anything about it, I don’t look at that as a criminal,” said Chad Fredrickson, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). who oversaw the case. Los Angeles Times.
Iraq does not allow the import of culturally significant artifacts without government consent. No such approval has been granted for the Prism or the Tablet. Although the exact provenance of the items is unclear, they were “almost certainly” looted from Iraq, Fredrickson says.
“Investigating cultural property and antiquities is a unique part of our mission at Homeland Security Investigations,” Eddy Wang, Acting Special Agent in Charge of HSI Los Angeles, said in the statement. “We are proud to return these artifacts, steeped in history, to the people of Iraq.”
Speak Los Angeles Times, the consulate will transfer the cuneiform artifacts to the Iraqi Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which will in turn send them to a museum.
Last year, the United States returned more than 17,000 smuggled artifacts to Iraq. Among the objects was the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a 3,500-year-old cuneiform block fbroke by Hobby Lobby in July 2021. Officials returned the tablet to Iraq in a ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in September, as reported by Colleen Long for the Associated press (AP) at the time.
According to a survey published by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) last October, illegal excavations and theft of artifacts “have continued unabated” during the Covid-19 pandemic and, in some cases, “even reached new heights”. In total, the global crime-fighting group tracked the seizure of 854,472 cultural property artifacts – including coins, paintings, sculptures, archaeological objects and library materials – in 2020.