More than 17,000 looted artifacts are being returned to Iraq following their seizure by the United States government. Most of the stolen items were smuggled out of Iraq amid the chaos that followed the 2003 invasion. A high profile tablet containing a passage from the Epic of Gilgamesh is among the items being returned, having been seized from Hobby Lobby after it was discovered that the provenance of the object had been fabricated.
Stolen artifacts returned to Iraq
Looting became an extremely widespread activity in Iraq as the regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed and central authority disintegrated following the American invasion.
Notoriously, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was savagely looted and many priceless and irreplaceable artifacts from the museum still remain missing.
Additional artifacts were looted from archaeological sites which were not previously excavated, meaning that even if these items are recovered much of their historical context will remain lost.
As the birthplace of civilization Iraq is perhaps the most archeologically rich country in the world, with countless sites stretching back thousands of years.
Unfortunately, this has also placed Iraq at the center of the global black market trade in antiquities, an extremely lucrative trade for smugglers who evade capture.
While they publicized their destruction of many artifacts and sites, ISIS also engaged in the black market antiquities trade as one of their principal methods of funding their operations.
International anti-smuggling effort
Many of the items being returned to Iraq may have been stolen during this period and used to purchase weapons and other resources by the insurgents.
In addition to the loss of priceless historical knowledge this is one of the most important motives for the international effort to crack down on antiquities smuggling.
Anyone purchasing an artifact from ancient Iraq must be aware of the risks and prepared to extensively research the background of the item to ensure that it was not looted.
Hobby Lobby, which purchased the Gilgamesh tablet for the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., was apparently warned that the provenance of the artifact may not have been authentic.
A court recently ruled that the tablet had been forfeited by Hobby Lobby, paving the way for a return to Iraq along with thousands of other artifacts.
While the items may have been safer in the United States, the fact that they had been looted from museums and archaeological sites in the first place means that they were already stolen cultural heritage when they arrived in this country.