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Cornell Returning 10,000 Ancient Cuneiform Tablets to Iraq

November 3, 2013
One of the 10,000 ancient tablets Cornell University has agreed to return to Iraq. They were donated by the family of antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen. (Elizabeth Stone / February 1, 2011)

One of the 10,000 ancient tablets Cornell University has agreed to return to Iraq. They were donated by the family of antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen. (Elizabeth Stone / February 1, 2011)

An amazing story in today’s Los Angeles Times, Cornell University is preparing to return some 10,000 ancient cuneiform tablets to Iraq.  The hoard, which dates back 6,000 years, came from, “New York antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen and his family [who] began donating and lending the tablets to Cornell in 2000.” [The article is authored by Jason Felch, co-author of the book Chasing Aphrodite and Web site of the same name, where additional coverage appears.]

Why? “Many scholars … [suspect] the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which unleashed a wave of plundering in the archaeologically rich expanse of southern Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.”

According to the article, no accusations of wrong doing are being made by US officials:

The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets last year, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Binghamton, N.Y., is brokering the transfer.

“We’re not accusing anyone of a crime, but we believe they should be returned,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Miro Lovric.

Moreover:

Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.

“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.

The article includes the following:

Rosen, a benefactor to several American museums and universities, was for years a business partner with antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, who sold the J. Paul Getty Museum several antiquities that have been returned to Italy.

Cornell’s acceptance of the cuneiform tablets from Rosen has stirred controversy among scholars who contend that publishing studies of antiquities that were possibly looted increases their value on the art market and fuels the illegal digging seen across the region in recent years.

Damage from illegal excavations in Iraq has far exceeded the more notorious thefts from the Iraqi museum in 2003, experts say. At the ancient Sumerian city of Umma, for example, thousands of tablets like those at Cornell have been found by looters who have dug pits over an area the size of 3,000 soccer fields in search of new finds. At the height of the looting, an estimated 150,000 cuneiform tablets were being stolen from Iraq every year.

OK … but that’s no smoking gun.

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On the other side of the debate are scholars such as [David] Owen, the Cornell Assyriologist who has led the research of the Rosen tablets. Owen has argued that ancient texts should be studied regardless of how they were excavated. To do otherwise, he said, would be to forsake valuable information about the ancient world.

Thanks to funding provided by Rosen, Owen and a team of international scholars have worked with experts at UCLA to carefully conserve, photograph and study the tablets, publishing their work in more than 16 volumes over six years.

“Study of these cuneiform tablets is providing much new data on the history, literature, religion, language and culture of ancient Iraq that is filling major gaps in our knowledge of Mesopotamian civilization,” Owen said in a statement released by Cornell.

Some have questioned whether Iraq is stable enough to care for the delicate tablets once they are returned. About 600 antiquities that the U.S. returned to Iraq in 2009 later disappeared.

“We know there are problems there, but the Iraq museum seems to be secure at this point,” said Richard Zettler, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, which will soon return tablets borrowed from Iraq decades ago. “The real thing is, they belong to Iraq.”

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