Last year, the U.S. federal government filed civil action against the craft store chain Hobby Lobby to forfeit more than 5,500 artifacts that had been illegally imported from Iraq in 2010. Today, the U.S is repatriating many of those artifacts of cultural heritage to Iraq in a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Before returning the cache, Owen Jarus at LiveScience reports that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) revealed something intriguing about the stolen artifacts. Some of the 450 cuneiform tablets included in the seized lot are believed to hail from Irisagrig, a lost Sumerian city.
Cuneiform, which was used in ancient Mesopotamia, is one the earliest systems of writing. In a statement, ICE reportedly said many of these clay tablets date from 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. While many of the writings are of a legal or administrative nature, there are also Early Dynastic incantations and a religious text from the Neo-Babylonian period.
In a 2010 paper that Jarus cites, Manuel Molina Martos of the Spanish National Research Council describes Irisagrig as “a Sumerian city never excavated before and whose location remains unknown.”
It is not immediately clear how ICE was able to pinpoint the Irisagrig origin of the tablets, Sarah Emerson at Motherboard reports. But these are not the only tablets to be associated with Irisagrig. Martos reports that since the late 1990s, he and colleagues have tracked other tablets from the city that show up in antique shops and auction houses. While archaelogists have some guesses for where the city may have been, they have not yet found the site.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Hobby Lobby began assembling its massive collection of tablets, seals, manuscripts and other historical items circa 2009. Despite being warned by experts that a 2010 deal was filled with "red flags" and contained likely looted heritage, the company went through with the $1.6 million deal, importing shipments of artifacts to Hobby Lobby stores and corporate affiliates. The packages falsely disguised the Iraqi origin of the contents and the significance of the “clay tiles” and “ceramic tiles” they contained.
In 2015, scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden first broke the story that U.S. Customs agents had detained shipments of these Iraqi heritage artifacts, which they reported were intended to go in the collections of the $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., the private museum funded by Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, which opened in the fall of 2017.
The Museum of the Bible, for its part, has since denied the artifacts were intended to go in its collection.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York filed a civil complaint against Hobby Lobby in July of 2017. The company’s settlement required it to hand over the artifacts, pay a $3 million fine and cease dealing in antiquities for the following 18 months.
An official from the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., told NPR’s Sasha Ingber this week that the repatriated items may go on display at Iraq’s National Museum. "These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home... To Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces,” the official said.