The Nabu Museum in northern Lebanon 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.
Named after the patron god of writing and wisdom in ancient Mesopotamia, which corresponds with most of present-day Iraq and some neighboring regions, 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 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.
Owen and Lafont’s study reveals the museum’s collection includes about 100 clay tablets that came from an archaeological site called Iri-Sagrig, in the central part of Iraq, which has not been officially excavated so far. 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.
Experts believe that the clay tablets from Iri-Sagrig and other tablets in the Nabu Museum are stolen, smuggled and acquired illegally from their motherland. Some of the items have suffered damage caused by poor storage and handling, which reflects the ignorance of thieves and smugglers. This region and neighboring areas became subject to heavy looting after international sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s.
“I feel so disappointed. It is a very suspicious museum and the issues related to it must be dealt with seriously,” said Emily Porter, an Iraqi-British scholar and former art historian at Newcastle University who is fighting to preserve the antiquities that remain in Iraq and to restore those that have been stolen.