The "dream tablet" nears the end of a long journey home

A 3,500-year-old clay tablet bearing part of one of humanity’s oldest epics was handed over to the Iraqi government on Thursday, the cul...


A 3,500-year-old clay tablet bearing part of one of humanity’s oldest epics was handed over to the Iraqi government on Thursday, the culmination of a 30-year odyssey that saw the object of the size of a hand looted from a museum in northern Iraq, sold by a British auction house and displayed in a Washington collection before being seized by Homeland Security agents.

Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, the object is the latest – and most famous – of some 17,000 artifacts which have been publicly visited in Iraq since August as part of a global campaign to draw attention to the illicit trade in ancient treasures.

“This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism”, declared the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, whose agency participated in the organization of the restitution ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

“By returning these illegally acquired objects”, she added, “the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history.”

Although its exact origins are unknown, researchers say the tablet, a jagged piece of cuneiform writing painstakingly inscribed in the Akkadian language, was discovered in 1853 in the ruins of an Assyrian library in northern Iraq.

The tablet tells part of the Sumerian story of King Gilgamesh, a superhuman demigod whose adventures include slaying a monstrous bull, outwitting a sea serpent, and surviving a destructive flood of the world. The text on the rendered tablet fragment tells of the hero describing his vivid dreams to his mother.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, according to Justice Ministry officials, the tablet was stolen from his museum, only to reappear in 2003, when a Jordanian antiquarian bought it, encrusted and illegible, from a London coin dealer. The reseller shipped the tablet to the United States without declaring its official entry, as required by law, officials said.

Once in the United States, a cuneiform expert recognized it as part of the epic of Gilgamesh. In 2007, the reseller sold the tablet to another buyer with a fake letter of provenance stating that the tablet was in a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased in San Francisco in 1981.

The fake letter traveled with the tablet as it was sold several times in different countries and eventually by auction house Christie’s in London in 2014. The tablet was purchased for $ 1,674,000 by Hobby Lobby, whose founder , Steve Green, wanted to include it among the main exhibitions presented at the Bible museum, which he was building in Washington. The tablet was seized from the museum by Homeland Security Investigations in 2019.

Mr Green said last year that he “trusted the wrong people to guide me and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers.” Hobby Lobby consented to the confiscation of the tablet based on illegal imports of the tablet into the United States in 2003 and 2014, US officials said.

Hobby Lobby has since sued Christie’s in connection with the sale, charging it in court documents with “deceptive and fraudulent conduct”. Christie’s has denied any wrongdoing.

Federal officials said the return is emblematic of efforts to help Iraq recover from the looting of the Baghdad museum and other ancient Mesopotamian sites during the 2003 US invasion.

New York Homeland Security Special Agent Peter C. Fitzhugh said his agency “will work tirelessly to stop the criminal activities of those who loot antiques and seek to profit from the theft of rich history. of a country”.

The tablet was on display during Thursday’s ceremony, in which Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, recalled the desperation he felt during the looting of the Baghdad museum. He described the return of the tablet, which will now reside in this museum, as the culmination of years of efforts to heal the wounds of Iraqi cultural heritage. He also called for more multinational efforts to curb the illegal trade in cultural heritage objects, especially online sales on the black market.

“In these artifacts the Iraqi people can rediscover our unique heritage, which predates Saddam and ISIS’s stains on our history,” he said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The "dream tablet" nears the end of a long journey home
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