WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. immigration officials on Wednesday returned nearly 4,000 looted antiquities to Iraq after they were purchased by arts and craft giant Hobby Lobby in an attempt to collect biblical artifacts.
The Oklahoma-based company, headed by outspoken Christian president Steve Green, agreed last year to forfeit the artifacts and pay $3 million after federal prosecutors filed a complaint over its collection of historically important manuscripts and antiquities with biblical resonance.
A repatriation ceremony was held Wednesday at the Washington, D.C. home of Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States.
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue of the Eastern District of New York explained during the ceremony that Hobby Lobby began building a collection of biblical artifacts in 2010. Though its own expert warned it to tread lightly given how much of Iraq’s cultural property has been looted, the company bought from dealers a set of artifacts for $1.6 million.
The items, which are thousands of years old, include cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals and clay bullae. Researchers from Stony Brook University and Yale University lent their expertise to help authenticate the relics.
Mesopotamians invented the wheel and the 60-minute hour, Donoghue said at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“But today,” he continued, “we celebrate their invention of writing.”
Far from being the “tile samples” indicated by their phony shipping labels, the cuneiform tablets are mostly legal and administrative documents and are as many as 4,000 years old.
Donoghue said they detail contracts and messages about the distribution of grain, fish and even palace dogs. A press release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the tablets include a “bilingual religious text.”
Also among the tablets are written incantations, which according to Cornell University researchers could have been used for everything from exorcising demons or easing pain to purifying water and conjuring the affections of a would-be lover.
“Cuneiform” refers to the style of writing, which its ancient authors accomplished by pressing a stylus into soft clay. Many of them have been traced to the lost Sumerian city of Irisagrig, the remains of which have never been found.
The seals in the artifact collection were essentially hand-held stamps, probably used to press clay into a unique signature for sealing letters and documents. The bullae, Donoghue explained, were attached to sealed containers to identify the goods inside.
Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said the agency has returned over 1,200 other artifacts to Iraq since 2008.
“Stealing a nation’s cultural property and antiquities is one of the oldest forms of organized transnational crimes, that many times funds terrorist activities,” Homan said at the ceremony.
Ian Saunders, acting assistant commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“The pillaging, theft and trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities not only results in physical destruction of irreplaceable objects but also the loss of valuable historical context, and information belonging to us all regarding those objects — and the opportunity for deeper learning and understanding of our shared history and heritage,” he said.
Iraq was initially one of the Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s so-called travel ban, though it was later removed. ICE raids around the country last year, though, resulted in the detainment of 300 Iraqi nationals.
The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, passed in 2008, was intended to speed up the resettlement process for Iraqis who helped the U.S. war effort there and face increased risk as a result, but according to the nonprofit Human Rights First, the U.S. is lagging in its promises – it says 60,000 Iraqis are currently stuck in the U.S. refugee resettlement backlog.