Ancient Artifact Goes On Display In Kurdistan After Museum Deal With Smuggler

Should museums make deals with smugglers and looters in order to protect and preserve history?
A picture taken on March 14, 2014, shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus.
A picture taken on March 14, 2014, shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus.

WASHINGTON -- Syria lost one of its iconic ancient treasures Sunday, when ISIS blew up the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra. The incident drew attention to another destructive consequence of crises in ancient areas, in which well-preserved ruins and artifacts fall victim to modern-day warfare.

But in a less noticed piece of news, a valuable artifact in another war-torn country was actually saved and displayed for the public, Live Science reported Friday.
The Sumerian-age tablet, which contains 20 previously lost lines of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," was bought from smugglers, reflecting an uncomfortable ethical dilemma for museums and other institutions: Should they make deals with smugglers and looters in order to protect and preserve history?
The tablet was one of a group of 80 to 90, and bought for $800 off a smuggler in Iraq in 2011 by the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Slemani, Kurdistan, which is directed by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The tablet rewrites the setting of an important scene in the epic, a pre-Homeric Sumerian poem widely regarded as the first great work of Western literature.
The tablet's translators, scholars F. N. H. al-Rawi and A. R. George, wrote of their findings in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies in 2014: "The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by the new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest." Al-Rawi and George cite descriptions of the chatter of birds and monkeys that color what was once thought to be a tranquil and unassuming forest.
The museum started an initiative to make deals with smugglers after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent looting of museums in the country, according to Ancient History Etc., a U.K. nonprofit online publication.
"They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries," according to the publication. "No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from."

But that program is out of step with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's stance on buying artifacts from smugglers, which it likens to the U.S. stance on paying ransoms.

"The position of not just UNESCO but the international museum community is that we don't buy back looted objects because it encourages looting. Simple. Full stop," Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaymaniyah Museum Project -- an effort to assist the Kurdish government in running the museum -- told CNN in 2011.

The Kurdish council of minsters, however, was not held to the same standards when they controversially decided to regain these goods by any means necessary.

"The Kurdish authorities took a very difficult and I must admit a very courageous position and they said we are going to buy these objects," Gibson added.

The looting and smuggling of ancient artifacts is so common because it is so lucrative. Looters ravaged The Iraq Museum in Baghdad in April 2003, taking about 15,000 items -- only a fraction of which have been recovered, according to the museum's website. Now, the Islamic State has jumped on board.

After U.S.-led airstrikes targeted and debilitated most of the Islamic State's oil revenue, the group turned to selling rather than destroying some of the artifacts around it, Bloomberg Business reported in June. Just one vase can go for as much as $250,000, according to Bloomberg.

Iraq and Syria together have 10 of the 802 cultural properties on the UNESCO World Heritage site list. And within these properties revelatory artifacts much like "The Epic of Gilgamesh" tablet could still be uncovered.

But when they fall into the hands of ideological fanatics, the possible promises of preservation are precarious at best.

Lawrence Wright, writing about the capture of Palmyra in the New Yorker in July, described how Islamic State commander Abu Laith al-Saudion told a local Syrian radio station they would not touch the city.

"Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it ... What we will do is pulverize the statues the miscreants used to pray to,"al-Saudion told the station, according to Wright. The Islamic State has since destroyed the Temple of Bel and the Temple of Baalshamin, both also in Palmyra.

In August, the group also beheaded the archeologist in charge of the site, Khaled Asaad.

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