Cornell cuneiform

I have just noticed that in June 2019 Cornell University’s Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Cuneiform Tablet Collection (CUNES Collection) was closed permanently. At the time of its closure, the collection was said to consist of approximately 10,000 cuneiform-inscribed objects. The announcement stated that “in the 20 years the cuneiform tablet collection was at Cornell, it was studied by dozens of scholars and has led to over 3 dozen books and articles, with more in press”. It didn’t say why the CUNES Collection was being closed.

The CUNES Collection was established in the early 2000s (or, if the announcement is accurate, in 1999) by a donation of possibly 1,500 cuneiform objects made by the collector Jonathan Rosen, with further donations in view (D’Arcy 2003). Many had been in the possession of Rosen since at least 1997 (Mayr 2007: ix; Owen 2007: vii), and Cornell’s acceptance of the tablets was dependent upon Rosen’s assurance of legal acquisition (Gottlieb and Meier 2003). Cornell used the donation to create the Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Ancient Near Eastern Studies Seminar in the Department of Near Eastern Studies under the curatorship of David I. Owen, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Its mission was to house the tablets and facilitate their study. Rosen financed the creation of research and technical support positions (Owen 2007: viii). The CUNES Collection continued to grow in size after its establishment, as shown in the table below from its website statements. By 2013, it was reported to comprise approximately 10,000 objects (Felch 2013), so it must have reached its 2019 size sometime between 2011 and 2013.

Website dateNumber of objects
December 2009c. 6,500
October 2011c. 9,000
November 2015c. 10,000

The CUNES Collection has been entered into the database of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). The CDLI database records 10,435 CUNES cuneiform objects, the overwhelming majority comprising clay tablets. Just under half that number (4,973) have been published. Of the remainder, 670 are marked as “unpublished assigned”, meaning that their study and publication is planned or ongoing, and 4,792 are marked as “unpublished unassigned”, meaning that there are no immediate plans for their publication.

The CDLI database provides “provenience” information for 4,061 objects, though the term “provenience” is used in relation to the name of an ancient settlement, not always its modern location. Many of the ancient settlements are known only from references in the cuneiform texts themselves and their actual locations remain a mystery. As this next table shows, 15 settlements are named as provenience. Most of them are believed to be situated within the boundaries of Iraq. One obvious exception is the Syrian site of Ebla.

SiteNumber of objects
Adab (modern Bismaya)1,168
Du-Enlila (location unknown)1
Dūr-Abī-ēšuḫ (location unknown)349
Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh)1
Ešnunna (modern Tell Asmar)1
Garšana (location unknown)1,485
Girsu (modern Tello)4
Irisaĝrig (location unknown)92
Isin (modern Bahriyat)9
KI.AN (location unknown)4
Larsa (modern Tell as-Senkereh)4
Nippur (modern Nuffar)197
Puzriš-Dagan (modern Drehem)14
Šuruppak (modern Fara)19
Umma (modern Tell Jokha)713

There is no record of how the objects reached Rosen or when they left Iraq. Assyriologists working on CUNES objects have occasionally claimed that they “derive from clandestine collections”, were “illicitly excavated”, or “come from illicit excavations”. I could give references but I am trying to spare scholarly blushes. David Owen is usually more circumspect, suggesting for example that the tablets have an unclear or suspect pedigree (Owen 2013a: 336). Sometimes he is less guarded, writing that the tablets “were evidently the product of clandestine excavations in Iraq sometime during the last [i.e. twentieth] century” (Owen and Mayr 2007: 1). Other knowledgeable Assyriologists have expressed their opinions that many of the CUNES objects were “looted after 1991” or “discovered through illicit excavations”. I cannot verify any of these allegations as I am not privy to any kind of provenance documentation. Other than the fact that the tablets were acquired from Jonathan Rosen, Cornell has consistently refused to release any information about their ownership histories. This active censorship of important evidence relating to the provenance and ultimately the legitimacy of the CUNES objects is surprising and regrettable in an academic context.

In 2001, US Customs in Newark intercepted and confiscated a shipment containing 302 cuneiform tablets en route to the Sumer Gallery of New York from Bin Jassim Transglobal of Dubai (Studevent-Hickman 2018). In 2010 the tablets were returned to the possession of Iraq. After study and publication (with the permission of the Director General of Iraqi Museums), 145 of the tablets were shown to be part of an Ur III (2100-2000 BC) archive belonging to a man named Aradmu, discovered at a presently unknown site somewhere in the vicinity of Nippur. These 145 tablets confiscated by US Customs comprise only one part of a larger archive, which includes a further 224 tablets in the CUNES Collection (Studevent-Hickman 2018: 4). Of the 197 CUNES Nippur objects registered on the CDLI database, only eight have been published, and a further 16 are marked “unpublished unassigned”, mainly dating to the Middle Babylonian (1400-1100 BC) period. The remaining 173 objects, all dating to the Ur III period, are marked “unpublished assigned”. Presumably they constitute the matching part of the Aradmu archive confiscated by US Customs in 2001.

The gradual increase in size of the CUNES Collection from the date of its establishment through to 2013 is evidence that Rosen continued to donate material over a prolonged period of 14 years. Perhaps he was making intermittent donations for his own financial reasons, or perhaps he was continuing to acquire material on the market and passing it on to Cornell. Behind the numbers, the evidence suggests that Rosen was indeed continuing to be active on the market. By 2013, the CUNES Collection had acquired at least 89 tablets from the site of Irisaĝrig (Owen 2013b: 3), and in 2020 the CDLI listed at least 92 Irisaĝrig tablets in its possession. Jordanian customs confiscated 167 Irisaĝrig tablets in 2003, but tablets from Irisaĝrig did not start appearing on the international market until 2004 (Viano 2019: 49; Molina 2013: 72). Thus, it seems likely that Rosen and then Cornell could only have acquired Irisaĝrig tablets sometime after 2003, at least four years after the establishment of the CUNES Collection. Owen himself has confirmed this fact, writing in 2013 that the Irisaĝrig tablets he was publishing had only appeared over the preceding eight years (Owen 2013a: 28).

Rosen’s initial donation to Cornell was said to be associated with a significant tax break (D’Arcy 2003). Customs documents obtained by Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act dating to 2004 but reporting an investigation opened in 2001 recorded an import of 1,679 tablets valued in total at less than $50,000, which secured a $900,000 tax deduction when they were donated to Cornell (Studevent-Hickman 2018: 212-213). The name of the donor was redacted but subsequently revealed to be Rosen (Felch 2013). The investigation concluded that any allegations of wrongful import were unsubstantiated. Based on the evidence of the customs documents, a rough calculation suggests that Rosen purchased each tablet for $30 and donated it to Cornell for an appraised value of $536. Multiplying up, he could have bought the entire CUNES collection of 10,435 objects for about $313,000 and donated them to Cornell for a tax deduction worth $5.6 million. Writing about the Green family’s Hobby Lobby tax deduction schemes, Candida Moss and Joel Baden (2017: 24) state that “the magic ratio for the Greens was 1:3: for a given investment to be financially viable, they had to be able to write it off at three times the amount that they purchased it for”. If the figures suggested for his donations to Cornell are anywhere near correct, Rosen was working to a ratio of 1:18. Some of his profit was ploughed back into Cornell for research support, though presumably that too would be tax deductible.

In November 2013, Rosen’s attorney was reported as saying that Rosen had always intended that the tablets should reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research (Felch 2013). But it seems that Cornell was planning on returning the CUNES objects to Iraq (Felch 2013). At about the same time, David Owen wrote in apparent contradiction of Rosen’s attorney that the plan had always been for the tablets to be returned (he used the word donated) to Iraq once they had been conserved and published (Owen 2013: 352). Not surprising really. Once Rosen had extracted what money he could from the tax system and Owen and his colleagues had extracted the historical information of the texts, why would Cornell want to pay in perpetuity for the curation and conservation of the tablets? Better to give them back to Iraq and let the Iraqi taxpayer pay. But where is the justice in that? The return of the tablets alone, shorn as they are of their monetary and informational values, cannot compensate Iraq for the losses caused by their removal (Brodie 2020). Surely the beneficiaries should be prepared to share some of their profits with Iraq, which is after all the ultimate loser in this dubious business. If Cornell really is planning to return the tablets, at the very least it should make a financial contribution towards the long-term costs of storage once the tablets are back in Iraq. But what would be an appropriate sum of money?

Negotiations are currently under way between Hobby Lobby and Iraq over the return of 6,500 cuneiform objects (MOTB 2020; Brodie 2020). In a welcome precedent, part of the plan is for Hobby Lobby to provide financial support for the ongoing study and conservation of cultural objects, rumoured to be in the region of $15 million (Moss 2020). How exactly that money might be spent is yet to be determined. My own opinion is that it should be used to establish a trust fund for the future financial support of Iraqi cuneiform scholarship. But the point is that for 6,500 tablets, Hobby Lobby has judged appropriate recompense for losses suffered by Iraq to be $15 million, or about $2,300 for each tablet. Applying the same valuation to the 10,435 CUNES tablets, it would imply that Cornell might choose to pay Iraq $24 million. That is a lot of money. Perhaps Rosen might want to help out.

References

Brodie, Neil. 2020. Restorative justice? Questions arising out of the Hobby Lobby return of cuneiform tablets to Iraq, Revista Memória em Rede 12: 87-109.  

D’Arcy, David. 2003. Collector gets tax break for donating cylinder seals to university, Art Newspaper, no. 139, September: 5.

Felch, Jason. 2013. Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq, Los Angeles Times, 3 November.

Gottlieb, Martin and Barry Meier. 2003. Ancient art at Met raises old ethical questions, New York Times, 2 August.

Mayr, Rudolf. 2007. Acknowledgements, in David I. Owen and Rudolf H. Mayr, The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3), ix-x. Bethesda: CDL Press.

Molina, Manuel. 2013. On the location of Irisaĝrig, in Steven Garfinkle and Manuel Molina(eds), From the 21st Century BC to the 21st Century AD, 59-88. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Moss, Candida. 2020. Is Iraq getting screwed in a looted treasures deal with Hobby Lobby? Daily Beast, 27 August

Moss, Candida and Joel Baden. 2017. Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

MOTB. 2020. Statement on past acquisitions, Museum of the Bible, press release, 26 March.

Owen, David. 2007. Acknowledgments, in D.I. Owen and R.H. Mayr, The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3), vii-ix. Bethesda: CDL Press.

Owen, David. 2013a. Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig/Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period. Volume 1: Commentary and Indexes, (NISABA 15). Bethesda: CDL Press.

Owen, David. 2013b. Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig/Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period. Volume 2: Catalogues and Texts, (NISABA 15). Bethesda: CDL Press.

Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr. 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Volume 3). Bethesda: CDL Press.

Studevent-Hickman, Benjamin. 2018. Sumerian Texts from Ancient Iraq: From Ur III to 9/11. Atlanta: Lockwood Press.

Viano, Maurizio. 2019. On the location of Irisaĝrig once again, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 71, 35-52