Ancient tablet from Iraq returned to country after sale to Hobby Lobby

Written by Aandona Hayward, CNN

An ancient tablet containing the earliest evidence of writing and our earliest daily rituals have been returned to the Iraqi state, which bought them back from US retailer Hobby Lobby.

According to the Middle East Center for American Progress, the tablets were originally part of the body of wood that former Iraqi ruler Isa bin Wasik (2500-2250) carved into a 10.5-by-13.5-inch (24.5-by-36-by-50-centimeter) sheet, carved with all manner of animal heads and masks.

They were on display at the Supreme Court Museum in Athens from 2006 to 2017 before being offered for sale to Hobby Lobby. It was purchased by the company’s CEO, Steve Green, who reportedly paid $255,000 (2.78 million Iraqi dinars) for the tablet in 2007.

However, the ministry of antiquities intervened, as it had for similar items sold by Green in the past. It subsequently submitted an application to have the tablets returned, which a US judge approved earlier this month.


“(A) delay in proceedings may allow Hobby Lobby to review the contents of the tablet and determine whether its attributes are that of what it represented when owned by the USA and are likely to be sold in the future to the public, as a work of art,” wrote US District Judge Reggie Walton.

The tablet described by Hobby Lobby does not bear any writing. According to the U.S. State Department, the reference section reads, “For trying to break the net, Sarah and Mary; And all whom shall know the spell.”

A 2004 picture of one of the tablets recovered by the US. Credit: REUTERS

There is nothing in the tablet that marks its antiquity — and the connection to Isa bin Wasik is absent. The tablet is only believed to be from the 10th century B.C.

But if Iraq possesses other tablets with similar details, it is unlikely they will be publicly displayed. The court’s opinion underscores how seriously the Iraqi ministry takes other antiquities trafficked from the country, saying, “There are credible reports that other tablets with similar languages and similar thee particulars may be being smuggled out of Iraq.”

The tablets were originally part of the body of wood that former Iraqi ruler Isa bin Wasik carved into a 10.5-by-13.5-inch (24.5-by-36-by-50-centimeter) sheet. Credit: COURTESY OF BIRAHEIM HALAI

The precise meaning of the words on the tablet has also not been established. It is unclear whether Isa bin Wasik was referring to an animal, a human, or a combination. Even the judge’s conclusion is still vague, writing, “The ancient Assyrian capital Nergis, located in the Nineveh Plain, has been rumored to contain a figurine that interprets a universe of possible representations, from animal skin to human skin.”

Hobby Lobby’s Green has shown a willingness to donate previously owned antiquities back to their host countries.

In 2014, Green donated three stone masks from the city of Ur, the seat of ancient Mesopotamia, to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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