Does It Belong In a Museum?

eBay, Organized Crime, and Evangelical Christians: The Ethical Minefield of Studying Ancient Civilizations

Iraqi artifacts smuggled into the US by Hobby Lobby contain new evidence of a lost Sumerian city, and have scholars divided over whether to study the looted relics.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

A tablet from Irisagrig that lists “fodder for the dogs of the palace.” Image courtesy of Eckart Frahm

When Eckart Frahm entered the New York City warehouse in 2016, he knew that a wealth of rare artifacts lay inside. Roughly 250 cuneiform tablets, looted cultural treasures dating from 2100 BCE to 1600 BCE, had been sequestered there by the federal government.

Frahm, a professor of Assyriology at Yale University, had been asked by the Department of Homeland Security to assess these artifacts. But he had no idea what he was about to discover—tangible evidence of Irisagrig, or Āl-Šarrāki, a lost Sumerian city that held great importance during the Third Dynasty of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia. Until recently, it was only known through word of mouth, with no physical evidence, and its exact location has never been confirmed.

“It was entirely unclear to me what kinds of materials I would get to see,” Frahm told me in an interview this week.

These clay relics were among 5,500 Iraqi antiquities purchased by Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based corporation known for its chain of arts and craft stores. It is perhaps more famous for the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in which Hobby Lobby’s lawyers successfully argued that, due to the company’s religious ownership—the Green family is evangelical—it could not be forced to pay for insurance coverage of birth control.

The artifacts were smuggled into the United States beginning in 2010, near the end of the Iraq War—falsely labeled as tile samples, and eventually intercepted by Customs and Border Protection. Hobby Lobby agreed to surrender them last year, forfeiting an additional $3 million, after a civil complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

About 3,800 artifacts, including the tablets, were returned to Iraqi officials yesterday in Washington, DC. Just when the research community has gotten access to these rare artifacts, further proving the existence of the lost city of Irisagrig, they’re gone. Now, scholars are debating the ethical cost of studying antiquities that were almost certainly stolen.

*

Evangelical Christians are often fascinated by ancient Mesopotamia, “where everything, according to the Bible, began, and where figures such as Abraham allegedly once lived,” Frahm told me. Many evangelicals, for example, believe that Abraham was born in Ur, a long-gone Sumerian city-state in present day Iraq, around 2,000 BCE.

“Sometimes, cuneiform tablets do confirm Biblical accounts,” Frahm added. “But in other cases, especially when early history is concerned, including that of the Biblical patriarchs, the cuneiform evidence rather contradicts the Biblical accounts.” Still, these items continue to allure evangelicals.

Hobby Lobby’s founder, David Green, had big plans for the relics. He hoped to send them to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, which promises visitors “an immersive and personalized experience with the Bible,” and boasts artifacts “spanning 3,500 years of history.” Chiefly funded by Green, it opened last year, and has been accused of displaying fake artifacts, which the museum has disputed.

Hobby Lobby did not respond to Motherboard’s questions about the Irisagrig tablets or yesterday’s repatriation ceremony. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Green told CNN last year.

As to why Frahm was specially chosen (a point of minor jealousy for his contemporaries, I sensed), a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said he came highly regarded. “It is also one of the perks of the field of Assyriology that it offers such wide horizons,” Frahm said.

At the warehouse in New York, Frahm pored over the tablets for nearly three days, which meticulously chronicle life in Irisagrig. All the artifacts were carefully wrapped, though most were worse for wear. Salt incrustations, maybe due to water damage, plagued the Irisagrig (pronounced ee-ree-sah-grig) tablets. Others were broken and illegible. Frahm only had time to survey half of them.

Some, which he managed to photograph, still showed their Sumerian text in striking relief.

According to Frahm’s translation, one of these tablets lists “fodder for the dogs of the palace,” and another catalogues the rations of weaver women in the month of Nig-Enlila—forty liters of soup and twenty fish per day, between the first day to the thirtieth. (Several month names were unique to Irisagrig and its immediate surroundings.)

Tablet showing the food rations of weaver women in Irisagrig. Image courtesy of Eckart Frahm
A mid-third millennium collection of incantations, addressing the gods An, Enlil, and Enki. Image courtesy of Eckart Frahm

The fastidious notes of some bygone scribe portray life in the 4,000-year-old city. The gifting of plots to royal dependents; the distribution of waterskins; and the missions of political envoys, to inspect a canal or “royal road.”

Other, unrelated objects that Frahm observed were sign lists used in Old Babylonian schools, a text dated to the reign of Persian king Artaxerxes, and a rare collection of incantations from 2500 BCE, invoking the Mesopotamian gods An, Enlil, and Enki.

“They’re not Gilgamesh,” Frahm joked, referring to the epic poem, but the tablets are exciting in that they reveal telling details from daily life as it played out thousands of years ago. Until the early 2000s, when stolen Irisagrig texts began to appear on the market, modern scholars only knew the city by name.

“We can safely say that the history of Sumerians, who invented writing and created the first urban centers in the history of mankind, is now substantially better known thanks to [catalogued Irisagrig texts],” Manuel Molina, a research professor with the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, told me in an email.

But the precious Irisagrig texts, now restored to Iraq, may be out of reach for scholars like Molina.

*

In 2003, the US invasion of Iraq put Irisagrig on the map. Yet artifacts from the lost city were also among the war’s many cultural casualties, as the country was subjected to devastating looting. Roughly 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, and thousands more were plundered from archaeological sites. Texts from Irisagrig were scattered everywhere, some popping up on eBay and at auction sites, and as far and wide as Australia and South America. Many were also evidently purchased by Green.

In July 2003, Jordanian customs officials confiscated at least 167 tablets whose provenance was traced to Irisagrig by the late Giovanni Pettinato, a former professor of Assyriology at the University of Rome. More appeared on eBay, and in auction houses and art galleries.

“The precise location of Irisagrig is only known by those who excavated it illegally,” said Molina, who has studied tablets that were looted from the Third Dynasty of Ur within the last thirty years.

Still, he was able to speculate where Irisagrig might be, using textual data and simple arithmetic. His theory even reads like a math problem: On the Tigris River, it took four days to tow a boat upstream between Irisagrig and neighboring Umma, one tablet said.

“Assuming a towing rate of 15 to 20 kilometers per day, this seems to suggest that Irisagrig can be located some 75 kilometers North of Umma,” Frahm said, reciting Molina’s theory.

This would place Irisagrig on the banks of the Tigris River, as it existed then (the river’s course has since changed), and near the ancient city of Nippur. No excavations or field surveys are currently planned for the site.

David Owen, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, has catalogued and published two volumes encompassing 1,400 Irisagrig texts, many of which he found online.

“I regularly look at the internet and search for these unpublished tablets,” Owen told me in a phone interview. “I became obsessed with trying to locate as many as I could.”

Whenever he found an Irisagrig text, Owen would download a photo, translate the writing, and record it for posterity. Today, his translations are a foundational reference point for researchers like Frahm. His treatise on palace dogs, for example, explains that canine “fodder” was mostly bread, donkey meat, and, weirdly, grapes.

Many academics argue that stolen antiquities should not be studied. Doing so, they say, can legitimize black markets, and embolden real-life Indiana Joneses. Beyond that, antiquities trafficking in the Middle East has been shown to fund organized crime. ISIS, in particular, reportedly exploited this tactic. And elsewhere around the world, looting is connected to terrorism and violent crime.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention was aimed at preventing such trafficking. Today, 136 states are members of a treaty that bans the theft of cultural property, and encourages states to return stolen antiquities.

Frahm, Molina, and Owen agree the Irisagrig tablets were trafficked. However, they hope the texts can be conserved, documented, translated, and published anyway.

“Almost everything you’ll find in museums is technically stolen,” Owen said. “An artificial line was drawn in the sand...and what everybody was doing suddenly became illegal.”

Whether to return artifacts to their rightful owners is an issue of intense debate in museums worldwide. Trafficked objects are one thing, but what about legitimately acquired pieces? Some people, like Owen, say that museums are walled gardens preventing outside scholars from accessing their collections. Others argue that indigenous artifacts should be cared for and seen in their proper contexts, and that repatriation is a much needed course-correction for centuries of cultural pillaging by Westerners.

“I believe the issue of documentation should be detached from the issue of legal ownership,” Fraim said. “But I have faith in my Iraqi colleagues, who are aware of their responsibility...and who have shown in recent years a laudable willingness to collaborate with scholars from other countries.”

“I think it is clear that we should not ignore this new and important historical information,” Molina said. “Otherwise, we would be condemning these cuneiform tablets to a second disaster...they would fall into oblivion forever.”

The Embassy of Iraq did not respond to questions about the fate of the repatriated artifacts. But a spokesperson told NPR that the items are destined for the National Museum of Iraq.

“To say these texts are useful is to say more of these would be good,” Joel Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University and co-author of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, told me in a phone interview. “That seems to be very dangerous. The basic equation going on here is, what is the inherent value of historical information versus the value of looting?”

*

In 2010, Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, traveled to the United Arab Emirates to meet with local and Israeli dealers, according to a civil complaint. He surveyed a cache of artifacts, including numerous cuneiform tablets, or writing slabs, clay bullae, and cylinder seals—objects belonging to an Israeli family collection, the dealers claimed.

A cultural property expert warned Hobby Lobby’s in-house counsel about the artifacts, saying they may have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq. Still, Hobby Lobby signed a purchase agreement for $1.6 million in December 2010, wiring the money to seven different bank accounts.

Considering the evidence of the tablets’ theft, Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa, said in an email that these tablets can tell scholars and the public about both the ancient world—revealing the economics and society of Irisagrig—and the modern one, in terms of how they were procured.

“I find it interesting that people who claim a right to study the tablets for what they can tell us about the ancient world are more than happy to suppress what they can tell us about the modern world,” Brodie, who thinks they should only be published with Iraq’s permission, told me. “What would the public want to know more about? The ancient or the modern?”

Hobby Lobby’s public reckoning may have sparked greater awareness about the theft of cultural property. The popular reaction that “Hobby Lobby funded ISIS,” though patently false, suggests this, and the news about Irisagrig will surely spark an even wider conversation on a topic that academics have been debating for years.

Meanwhile, there’s reason to be hopeful that the study of Irisagrig will continue.

Elizabeth Stone, a professor of Ancient Near Eastern Economy and Society at Stony Brook University, who was asked by the Department of Homeland Security to survey the Iraqi cylinder seals forfeited by Hobby Lobby, thinks that accessing the collection should not be a problem.

“I have not known of a situation where foreign scholars were denied access to materials that they wanted to study,” Stone told me in an email.

The tablets will go home, carrying still-untold knowledge about ancient Mesopotamians. In the end, the legacy of Irisagrig has not been lost to time, but the circumstances of its reappearance only underscore the complicated task of saving physical history. Maybe now, the people in Iraq will be given a chance to decide for themselves how that history should be told.