A New Museum in Lebanon Raises Questions About Archaeological Looting

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.

Artifacts on display at the Nabu Museum (Image: Nabu Museum Facebook page).

Displaying stolen artifacts in a museum “means legitimizing the looting,” Porter said. She explained that under international guidelines, all artifacts displayed in museums must have legal documents to prove they are taken legitimately from their original location. Speaking of the Nabu Museum, she added: “This museum cannot assume the role of guardian of the Iraqi antiquities, a role that can only be played by the Iraqi authorities.”

International Protocols

Of course, a museum’s acquisition of stolen artifacts would constitute a public violation of international laws and regulations that protect the heritage of peoples, and would violate United Nations resolutions on Iraq. For example, Security Council Resolution 1483, adopted in 2003, states that “all Member States shall take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions of Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from the Iraq National Museum, the National Library, and other locations in Iraq since 1990 … as well as the items with existing reasonable suspicion that they have been illegally removed.”

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.

I appreciate the museum owners’ noble ends and stated desire to preserve the archaeological holdings of war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria, but believe they should also certify the provenance of all objects in their collection and take restorative action regarding any acquired through sources operating in violation of U.N. protocols.

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Displaying objects obtained through illicit or unethical means will encourage more looting and illegal circulation under the pretext of exhibiting them in museums.

The biggest dilemma of archaeological looting is the loss of the historical-temporal context of the artifact, which will be treated as a rare piece removed from its womb, without its excavation record. The overall result of archaeological understanding will be incomplete and the result’s reading will be subjected to various interpretations. If we keep silent, this may also encourage the opening of other museums as havens for stolen pieces under the pretext of displaying them to the general public.

Therefore, all the artifacts in the museum halls and stores that are found to have been acquired illegally must be unconditionally returned to the Iraqi government. Any proposal to negotiate the return of the pieces through dubious protocols and understandings is unacceptable, because the public possession of stolen international antiquities cannot be accepted under any name or justification. It is necessary to stand firmly against such attempts and hold those in charge accountable under the law. Any other approach would amount to covering up suspicious acts in a way harming the prestige of the Lebanese state and the reputation of its longstanding cultural institutions. For peoples’ rights to their own cultural heritage do not fall with acts of intimidation and are imprescriptible.

Abdul-Salam Subhi Taha is an Iraqi writer and scholar who specializes in Iraq’s archaeological affairs. He issued the Memoirs of the late Iraqi archaeologist Dr. Behnam Abu Al-Soof, and translated, in collaboration with others, a book titled Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past. He also contributed to a forthcoming book titled “The Atlas of Iraq’s Ancient History” and has written a series of articles on the pilfering of Iraq’s cultural heritage in the black market. Taha is a member of Iraq’s Living Heritage Committee and the founder of the Iraq in History foundation.


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