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Iraq reclaims 17,000 looted ancient artifacts held in the US

Thousands of items were being held by the Museum of the Bible, which was founded by the family that owns Hobby Lobby, and Cornell University.

Mesopotamian clay cones with cuneiform inscriptions

Mesopotamian clay cones featuring cuneiform inscriptions are among the thousands of looted Iraqi artifacts returned by the US.

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Thousands of archaeological artifacts stolen from Iraq returned home last week, according to a Tuesday report by The New York Times. Around 12,000 of the 17,000 items, which included Mesopotamian clay tablets and seals, were held by Washington, DC-based Museum of the Bible, founded and funded by the family that owns Hobby Lobby craft stores. The other 5,000 pieces were held by Cornell University and had been donated to the university by an American collector in 2000, according to the Times. 

The US Department of Justice fined Hobby Lobby $3 million four years ago "for failing to exercise due diligence in its acquisitions of more than 5,000 artifacts," the Times noted. Some of those artifacts returned to their home country last week. Following the government suit, the company agreed to implement stronger policies and procedures when it comes to artifact acquisitions, and the museum reportedly came across thousands of other questionably obtained artifacts when it conducted a voluntary review of its collection.

Iraq has been the victim of looting for three decades, the Times noted, as the country has grappled with various conflicts and invasions. Widespread looting took place in 1991, after the first Gulf War, when Iraqi forces lost control of some southern regions. These looting practices continued following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

One item that has yet to return, but is expected to make its way back to Iraq in the coming weeks, is a 3,500-year-old clay tablet fragment from Mesopotamia inscribed with part of the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world's oldest pieces of literature. The Department of Justice says the tablet, called the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, entered the US against federal law, and was later sold by an international auction house to Hobby Lobby to display at the Museum of the Bible. Law enforcement seized the tablet in 2019. It currently sits at a federal warehouse in Brooklyn, according to the Times.

Hobby Lobby didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.