On September 23, 2021, the U.S. confirmed the return of the poem tablet that is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The return was confirmed when the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. signed the certificate of transferring ownership as a part of a repatriation ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum. In July 2021, the U.S. announced that it would return 17,000 looted artifacts.
Tablet’s journey to the U.S.
A majority of the artifacts entered the U.S. illegally when an international auction house sold the tablet to craft store Hobby Lobby based in Oklahoma for their Museum of the Bible. Then in 2019, the U.S. authorities obtained a seizure warrant and seized the items.
According to an amended U.S. complaint documents, in 2003, a U.S. antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from a London dealer. The dealer then shipped the tablet to the U.S. without informing authorities of the item. The tablet was unreadable and had dirt, but after a cuneiform cleaned it, it was discovered that the tablet contained a poem, a part of the Gilgamesh epic.
In 2007, the dealer sold the tablet and included a letter that mischaracterized it and labeled it “miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments.” Over the years, the tablet traveled around the world, going from seller to buyer from different countries and parts of the world. Then in 2014, the tablet returned to the U.S. from London, and after that, Hobby Lobby admitted to the tablet’s forfeiture.
“Today, Iraq is reclaiming a piece of its cultural history,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh of HSI New York. “We are honored to have played a role in the repatriation of this rare tablet that was pillaged from Iraq, only to be sold without a valid provenance and any regard for his cultural value. HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program will continue to work tirelessly to interrupt the criminal activities of those who loot antiquities and seek to profit off the theft of a country’s rich history.”
The backstory of the Artifact
The Gilgamesh epic poem is about the main character or a protagonist that details his dream to his mother; his mother responds with an interpretation of that dream, which is that he is to expect the arrival of a new friend, she said to her son “You will see him and your heart will laugh.” “The names of the hero, Gilgamesh, and the character who becomes his friend, Enkidu, are replaced in the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet with the names of deities Sin and Ea,” according to the Department of Justice press release.
Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis for the Eastern District of New York said that “This office is proud to have played a central role in making this rare and ancient cuneiform tablet available for repatriation to its country of origin and the people of Iraq,” and continued to say that the U.S. will continue to use the law to go after illegal activity in cultural treasure so that it “may be restored to their rightful place in a country’s history.”