U.S. Returns 4,000-Year-Old Cuneiform Tablet and Prism to Iraq

An investigator says the artifacts were “almost certainly” looted from the Middle Eastern country

group of men and women in business attire standing outdoors in front of U.S and Iraq flags before two displays of stone tablet artifacts
Earlier this month, U.S. officials agreed to return two seized cuneiform artifacts to the Iraqi consulate in Los Angeles. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Federal agents have returned two stone artifacts to Iraq, reports Matthew Ormseth for the Los Angeles Times. Experts say the items—a fragment of a stone tablet inscribed with cuneiform characters and a prism used to teach children the cuneiform alphabet—are at least 4,000 years old.

Special agents with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presented the objects to Iraqi officials during a January 20 ceremony at the Iraqi consulate in Los Angeles, according to Wallace Ludel of the Art Newspaper.

“We appreciate [the] ongoing efforts and coordination to repatriate two extremely rare ancient Iraqi artifacts,” says Iraqi Consul General Salwan Sinjaree in an ICE statement. “These efforts highlight the significant cooperation between the Iraqi and American authorities.”

one circular stone relic with hole in middle and rectangular stone block with one end chipped off and ancient inscriptions
Experts working with U.S. officials determined that a stone prism (left) and a tablet fragment with cuneiform inscriptions were taken from Iraq. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Authorities first became aware of the stone tablet when an American buyer purchased it in an online auction in July 2020. United States Customs and Border Protection officers seized the cuneiform-covered object when it was shipped from the United Kingdom without proper documentation, per the statement. Scholars consulted by the agents suggested that 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 failed to provide proof of title. As the Los Angeles Times notes, a local gallery subsequently turned the artifact over to ICE.

An expert in Sumerian literature told ICE that the cuneiform prism dates to the Old Babylonian Period (2000 B.C.E. to 1600 B.C.E.) and probably originated in modern-day Iraq. The scholar knows of only two such similar prisms. One is housed at Yale University, while the other is believed to be missing.

Because they cooperated with authorities, the Los Angeles gallery and the tablet’s online buyer and seller will not face criminal charges.

“Somebody who buys something at an online auction and knows nothing about it, I’m not looking at them criminally,” Chad Fredrickson, a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who oversaw the case, tells the Los Angeles Times.

Iraq does not permit artifacts of cultural significance to be imported without the government’s consent. No such approval was granted for either the prism or the tablet. While the exact provenance of the items is unclear, they were “almost certainly” looted from Iraq, says Fredrickson.

“Investigating cultural property and antiquities is a unique part of our mission at Homeland Security Investigations,” says Eddy Wang, acting special agent in charge of HSI Los Angeles, in the statement. “We are proud to return these artifacts, steeped in history, to the people of Iraq.”

Per the Los Angeles Times, the consulate will transfer the cuneiform artifacts to Iraq’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which will, in turn, send them to a museum.

Last year, the U.S. returned more than 17,000 smuggled artifacts to Iraq. Among the objects was the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a 3,500-year-old cuneiform block forfeited by Hobby Lobby in July 2021. Officials repatriated the tablet to Iraq during a ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in September, as Colleen Long reported 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 artifact theft “continued unabated” during the Covid-19 pandemic and, in some instances, “even surged to new heights.” In total, the global crimefighting group tracked the seizure of 854,472 cultural property artifacts—including coins, paintings, sculptures, archaeological items and library materials—in 2020.