Jerrold S. Cooper is W.W. Spence Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages Department of Near Eastern Studies Johns Hopkins University. He made some remarks at the panel on ASOR Ethics at the November 2013 ASOR Meeting in Baltimore which have now been worked up into a short article (Jerrold S. Cooper, 'All Things Assyrian, Cuneiform Exceptionalism', ASOR blog 12 February 2014).
He argues that since "cuneiform tablets were leaving Iraq at the rate of thousands per month" (this was an estimate of 2004, the year following the US-led invasion of Iraq), "it was immediately obvious that in a few years, the total number of recently looted tablets would equal or exceed the number of tablets currently in museums and public collections worldwide".
These tablets are the cultural heritage of the Iraqi people and of all humankind. They must be conserved, studied and published, not left to deteriorate unseen in warehouses in Switzerland or the Gulf, nor should they be hastily repatriated to an uncertain fate in the storerooms of the Iraq Museum. I will leave legal arguments about ownership to others; I am making an ethical argument.The first point to make is it is not so much the tablets themselves that are the heritage, they are lumps of clay, but it is the knowledge that they convey which is. That knowledge cannot be fully accessed without knowing the context of deposition of the artefacts. But, yes the "cuneiformist"is right, this is not so much about legal aspects, but professional ethics. (see also here "It's perfectly legitimate")
There has been a painful divide among Mesopotamiansts over the publication of unprovenanced artifacts. The most passionate anti- publicationists are archeologists, and the most ardent defenders of publication are cuneiformists. This is not coincidence: Archeologists dig sites, and looting destroys sites. Cuneiformists study tablets, and looting supplies tablets.The "cuneiformist" may not worry so much, says Professor Cooper about provenance, for "cuneiform tablets, [...] unlike unprovenanced alphabetic inscriptions, are almost never forged". In addition, as addressed sources (ones made with the intention of carrying information) Professor Cooper comes out with the time-worn argument of those whose blinkered world focuses on studying addressed archaeological sources (citing the publication of "the horde [sic!] of documents [...] from the Schøyen Collection published in a Cornell University series" as an example):
the text of a tablet can provide important contextual information: date, place of origin, prosopographic (personal names) and archival data.Professor Cooper asks, seemingly rhetorically whether "publishing those tablets, and thousands of other unprovenanced tablets, help create a market for cuneiform tablets and thus encourage looting and site destruction". The answer is one worthy of the ACCG:
I have seen no well-founded answer to this question, and I can’t pretend to know what motivates the small number of serious collectors of these rectangular bits of inscribed mud. I personally find working with dealers to identify and market looted tablets reprehensible. In any case, nearly all the unprovenanced tablets being published today are off the market, in large public collections, where they are well cared for. It makes no sense to ignore them, or to stigmatise scholars who have saved them from oblivion. It is quite possible that the number of tablets illicitly excavated since the first Gulf War in 1991 is as large as the number of all the tablets that came to light in the century and a half before 1991- perhaps 200,000. Can a scholar willfully ignore half of the evidence bearing on his subject? I can’t. My concluding plea: conserve, study, publish, and then, if appropriate, repatriate.They of course materialised out of thin air (brought to the unsuspecting collector as he slept in the night by the
Tablet Elves no doubt) and the fact that wealthy collectors, with their unfathomable-for-Professor-Cooper's motivation (try "greed" and "search for prestige") paid those who supply them money and not magic beans has absolutely no connection with any trade in illicit antiquities. Professor Cooper finds reprehensible "working with dealers to identify and market looted tablets", but when they've done with marketing their unidentified tablets and pocketed the money, the collector can then get in touch with a loot-friendly "cuneiformist"who has no problems telling him what he's bought, and boosting the resale value quite a bit. Is that a way to discourage collectors buying unidentified tablets from unknown sources, or it it a way to encourage them? I say you do not have to be a professor emeritus of logic to see the answer to that on.
From the ASOR blog - "other links to check out":
Hey, mister — wanna buy a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet for $10?
Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq
David I. Owen, To Publish or Not to Publish — That Is the Question
Vignette: "Cunie-elves" will help salve a scholar's conscience.