Friday, 31 May 2019

A New Museum in Lebanon Raises Questions About Archaeological Looting

The collector Jawad Adra 
The Nabu Museum in northern Lebanon, opened in September 2018, has been open for less than a year but already it has become a subject of controversy over suspicions that some of the objects in its collection may have been illegally removed from Iraq ( Abdul-Salam Subhi Taha, 'A New Museum in Lebanon Raises Questions About Archaeological Looting' al-Fanar,  31 May 2019) .
Named after the patron god of writing and wisdom in ancient Mesopotamia [...] the privately owned museum states on its website that it aims to preserve the heritage of the Levant from loss and is interested in documenting it and making it available to the public to get acquainted with the origins of their civilization. The museum’s collection includes about 2,000 artifacts that its owners have acquired since 1990 by direct purchase from auction houses, international halls (sic) and other sources.
These objects include a number of Mesopotamian clay tablets 'covering a long time span extending from the Sumerian city-states era to the Middle Babylonian period (ca. 2600 to 1100 B.C)'.
 Some 331 clay tablets have been officially documented so far, the texts of which has been deciphered and published in two stages by David Owen, a cuneiform expert at Cornell University in New York. Owen published his study in two parts, the first in 2013 in Nisaba, Studi Assiriologici Messinesi, Volume 15, in which he documented his readings and deciphering of a total of 144 tablets. The second phase, with a total of 187 tablets, was published in a separate study with Bertrand Lafont titled “From Mesopotamia to Lebanon: The Jawad Adra Cuneiform Collection in the Nabu Museum, El-Heri, Lebanon,” available from the Penn State University Press.
The problem is that Owen and Lafont’s study have shown that the museum’s collection includes about 100 clay tablets that came from the archaeological site called Iri-Sagrig, in the central part of Iraq, which has not been officially excavated so far and which has been discussed on this blog already a number of times. As the article says:
This raises many questions about how the museum obtained these pieces, including whether they are linked to a much bigger collection that was seized in the United States in 2017 and later returned to Iraq. That case involved thousands of ancient artifacts that the Hobby Lobby craft store chain purchased for its Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., and which the U.S. Department of Justice determined had been smuggled out of Iraq. [...] Some of the items have suffered damage caused by poor storage and handling, which reflects the ignorance of thieves and smugglers. 
It is fairly clear from what we know of the way that these tablets entered the market, that the clay tablets from Iri-Sagrig have been illegally excavated and smuggled out of Iraq, and thus acquired illegally in the wake of the looting that broke out after international sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. This may well apply to other  tablets in the Nabu Museum too.
So far, the Nabu Museum’s owners have declined to respond to any queries for clarification about the source of some of their artifacts. It was later learned that some pieces had been removed the public display in an apparent attempt to circumvent any questions about their provenance.
There are also other questions about the collecting history and origins of some other objects in this collection.

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