A 3,500-year-old epic text begins its journey home

The Iraqi culture and foreign ministries have said this week that 17,000 ancient artefacts, looted from the country during the 2003 invasion, are making their way back home in a massive repatriation bid from the United States.

The items have, for the past two decades, been held by various museums and collections including the Museum of the Bible, a Washington organisation run by the wealthy evangelical owners of successful craft-store chain, Hobby Lobby. 

Among the precious artefacts set to be repatriated is the Dream of Gilgamesh Tablet, a 3,500-year-old fragment of a clay tablet that records part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic poem. The artefact was seized by the US Department of Justice in July on the grounds that it was sold to Hobby Lobby using a false provenance, and was illegally looted from Iraq.

“The more recent waves of conflict in the Middle East and in Iraq, in particular, have created a kind of security vacuum in which various operatives of all different shades have been looting antiquities,” says Benjamin Isakhan, a professor of International Politics at Deakin University, in Victoria, and a researcher in heritage destruction across the Middle East. 

Isakhan says that there’s a blurred boundary between legitimate private markets and illegal private sales which has been further obfuscated by the chaos of civil conflict. It’s in this grey area, he says, that items of precious historical significance can vanish.

The Dream Tablet: an ancient story, a modern smugglers’ tale 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian text, originally inscribed on 12 clay tablets in cuneiform script, the world’s earliest form of writing. The epic tells the story of the escapades of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, who ruled during the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2,100 BC, and his rival-turned-companion, Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods. Cuneiform persisted in the region for 3,000 years until the advent of the alphabet circa 100 AD. Early proto-cuneiform first developed as a means of record-keeping, noting supplies and transactions made in one of the world’s earliest complex economies.

The Dream Tablet – the fragment set to be returned next month – recounts part of the story in which Gilgamesh tells his mother about strange dreams he’s been having.

A translated passage reads, evocatively: “The stars of the heavens collected together, a boulder of the sky fell by me. I lifted it but it was too heavy for me, I pushed it, but could not dislodge it. All of Ur was gathered around me, the… young [man] was not able to budge it.”

The tablet is centrally important to the tale, and a priceless artefact of cultural significance. 

“In this epic story, there are lots of things about the blurring of the dream world and the spiritual world and the real world,” says Isakhan. In this way, the epic is regarded as a powerful and atemporal exploration of the nature of being human.

Hobby Lobby bought the tablet from Christie’s in a private sale in 2014: the auction house’s brochure from the time reports its provenance as having been sold by Butterfield and Butterfield in San Francisco, on 20 August 1981, but the US Justice Department later found it was imported to the US illegally in 2003 with a fudged provenance by an American antiquities dealer, and that it was taken from Iraq in the midst of the chaos of the 2003 US Invasion.

Returning artefacts to their rightful homes

The US Government have said the repatriation efforts mark their good-faith intention to return stolen goods to their countries of origin.

“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” says acting US Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts.”

Watch ‘A Hundred Year Journey’: Indigenous / First Nations Award winner of SCINEMA International Science Film Festival 2021, presented by The Royal Instituion of Australia. The documentary film is based on the Helinä Rautavaara Museum’s project. It documents a rare encounter between cultural objects, the heirs of their original ow ners and creators, and two museums. Available to watch until 31 August 2021. Register for free.

Isakhan says the items being returned mark an important step in repatriation efforts, but the scale of looting in the Middle East is huge, and he says the bulk of illegally traded artefacts don’t come from Iraqi museums where they’re easier to provenance, but straight from the ground. 

“The looting of museum collections in the Middle East is a tiny, tiny fraction of the looting of archaeological relics that’s going on across the region,” Isakhan says. “I would say at least 90% of it is being illegally looted from the archaeological sites themselves.”

Those artefacts that are looted from archaeological sites lack documentation, and so vanish without anyone missing them. 

“It’s very good to get back this stuff that comes from museums,” Isakhan says. “But it’s the absolutely mind-blowing scale of the looting of archaeological relics that is undocumented, that’s going on from archaeological sites right across the Middle East.

“We’re losing one more piece of the puzzle of human civilisation. And that’s the more tragic side of the story.”

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