UK Returns Seized Archeological Tablets to Iraq

By John Lee.

The British Museum has handed over of an important collection of 156 cuneiform tablets to the Government of Iraq.

This is the largest such group to be seized in the UK and returned to Iraq. They are Mesopotamian texts written on clay in cuneiform script and were incorrectly declared on entry to the UK in February 2011. After an investigation by HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service, they were identified and seized from a freight forwarder, near Heathrow Airport, in June 2013. Now they are being returned to Iraq through the British Museum.

An important part of the British Museum’s work on cultural heritage involves the partnership with law enforcement agencies on illicit trade being brought into the UK. Objects that are seized are brought to the British Museum for analysis, conservation and cataloguing. The Museum then liaises with colleagues in the national museums of the countries concerned to arrange the return of these objects.

An important collection of cuneiform tablets

The tablets range in date from the mid-third millennium BC to the Achaemenid period (sixth-fourth centuries BC). The earliest are Sumerian Early Dynastic administrative tablets and the latest are dated to the reigns of Darius I and Artaxerxes I or II but most date to the period between 2100 and 1800 BC and belong to the Ur III and Old Babylonian dynasties. Some carry cylinder seal impressions and some are still enclosed in their clay envelopes.

The documents are mostly economic documents but also include letters, legal and school texts and a mathematical text. Some of the third millennium BC tablets may be from Umma and some Old Babylonian texts come from Larsa, but many belong to administrative archives coming from a place called Irisagrig. This city was unknown until tablets referring to it surfaced on the art market in 2003 when the site – like many others in southern Iraq – must have been heavily looted in the immediate aftermath of the American-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Saddam-led government. All of these tablets will be returned to the Iraq Museum which is part of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said:

“The British Museum is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage. This is an issue which concerns us all. I am delighted that we are able to assist in the return of these important objects to Iraq, via the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in London. It is a symbol of the very strong working relationships we have with our Iraqi colleagues and developed over many years”.

The Directorate General of Museums of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq said:

“We highly appreciate the initiative by the British Museum in restoring stolen artefacts from Iraq and we look forward to further collaboration in supporting and protecting Iraq’s heritage”.

Dr Saleh Altamimi, Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq, expressed his gratitude to the British Museum, the Metropolitan Police, HMRC and Border Force for all of their work on this and previous cases and added:

“We are grateful today for the cooperation from the British authorities in returning an important collection of 156 cuneiform tablets. The protection of Iraqi heritage is the responsibility of the international society which we hope to continue for future generations”.

Rebecca Pow, Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism said:

“The UK is a world leader in the protection of cultural heritage both at home and abroad, and our work in tackling the illicit trade of artefacts is a key part of this. Thanks to the combined efforts of HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service and the British Museum, we are able to return these important cuneiform tablets to the collection of the Iraq Museum where they rightly belong.”

(Source: British Museum)

(Image copyright: Trustees of the British Museum)

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