Editor’s Note, September 23, 2021: Two months after Hobby Lobby forfeited the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to the United States government, the 3,500-year-old artifact is officially headed home to Iraq. As Colleen Long reports for the Associated Press (AP), the cuneiform tablet will be repatriated this afternoon in a ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history,” says Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a statement. “This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism.”
Read more about the rare artifact below.
In 2014, the craft retailer Hobby Lobby purchased a rare cuneiform tablet inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known works of literature. The artifact was acquired for display at the Museum of the Bible, a Washington, D.C. institution funded by the family of Hobby Lobby founder David Green. But this week, reports Jordan Freiman for CBS News, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered the tablet’s forfeiture on the grounds that it was illegally imported into the United States and sold to Hobby Lobby under false pretenses.
Known as the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” the artifact is inscribed in the Akkadian language and details a dream sequence from the ancient epic, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). It is around 3,500 years old and originated in modern-day Iraq.
The artifact’s forfeiture is part of a sweeping effort to return around 17,000 archaeological objects looted during the decades of instability spurred by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, reports AFP. Over 36 hours in April 2003, some 15,000 treasures were stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad alone.
Qahtan al-Obaid, director of antiquities and heritage at the Basra Museum, tells AFP that it is “impossible to quantify the number of pieces that have been stolen from archaeological sites.”
The trove of restituted goods will return to Iraq on the aircraft of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who arrived in Washington to meet with President Joe Biden earlier this week. It was not “immediately clear” if the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is among these artifacts or if it will be returned separately, according to AFP.
A U.S. antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from the family of a London-based coin dealer in 2003, says the DOJ in a statement, adding that the object was shipped into the country “without declaring the contents as required.” The tablet was so caked in dirt that it was initially unreadable, but upon cleaning it, experts realized that it detailed part of the famed Gilgamesh epic. In 2007, the artifact was sold with a false provenance letter claiming it had been among “a box of miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments” purchased at auction in 1981.
The tablet changed hands several times, making its way back to London, where Hobby Lobby purchased it from an auction house in 2014. Law enforcement officials seized the tablet from the museum in 2019; per the DOJ, Hobby Lobby has “consented to the tablet’s forfeiture based on [its] illegal importations into the United States in 2003 and 2014.”
The move “represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” says Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which ordered the forfeiture, in the statement.
This development is the latest in a string of scandals involving Hobby Lobby’s acquisition of antiquities. In 2017, the craft chain agreed to pay a $3 million fine and surrender thousands of cuneiform tablets and Iraqi artifacts that had been smuggled out of the Middle East bearing shipping labels that described them as “ceramic tiles.” Two years later, the Museum of the Bible said it would return 13 biblical fragments on papyrus following an investigation that alleged an Oxford scholar stole the artifacts and sold them to Hobby Lobby.
Another controversy arose in March 2020, when a study commissioned by the museum found that its collection of Dead Sea Scrolls, acquired by Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, was composed entirely of fakes. That same month, Green agreed to return 11,500 artifacts from his collection to Iraq and Egypt because their provenance could not be confirmed.
“In 2009, when I began acquiring biblical manuscripts and artifacts for what would ultimately form the collection at Museum of the Bible, I knew little about the world of collecting,” said Green in a statement at the time. “It is well known that I trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years. One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased.”
Some experts have been more pointed in their criticism of Hobby Lobby’s acquisition practices. According to Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian, at a conference of the Society of Biblical Literature held last November, Manchester University papyrologist Roberta Mazza accused the Green family of “pour[ing] millions on the legal and illegal antiquities market without having a clue about the history, the material features, cultural value, fragilities and problems of the objects,”
This type of irresponsible collecting, she added, “is a crime against culture and knowledge of immense proportions.”