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 Of the remainder, 670 are marked as “unpublished assigned”, meaning that their study and publication is planned or ongoing, and 4,792 are marked as “unpublished unassigned”, meaning that there are no immediate plans for their publication.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

Ongoing trade in cuneiform tablets

TimeLine Auctions has been doing a brisk trade in Iraqi cuneiform tablets this year. In its February sale, it offered and sold 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects for a total of £38,088 at an average price of £2,721. In its June sale, it offered 20 objects, selling 18 for a total of £36,810 at an average price of £2,045. A further 10 objects are offered in its forthcoming September sale. The tablets generally are of singular interest and look to be derived from one or more private collections. Provenance descriptions are vague as usual, usually anonymous, though often providing a date range to indicate the approximate timing of an object’s arrival in a private collection outside Iraq. The dating breakdown for 43 objects is as follows:

Provenance datingNumber of objects
1935-19651
1975-19851
Late 1980s–early 1990s24
Before 19922
1990-20004
1990s2
19981
Before 20001
No date7

Provenances can be invented and fabricated, but taking these TimeLine provenance dates at face value, only two objects can be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661. UNSCR 661 placed a trade embargo upon Iraqi goods, including cultural objects, and the embargo on cultural objects is still in force. It was reaffirmed in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483. Article 7 of UNSCR 1483 specifically states that the trade in Iraqi cultural objects would be prohibited when ‘reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed’ from Iraq since the adoption of UNSCR 661. On 14 June 2003, UNSCR 1483 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:

Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.

Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:

Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.

Thus the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any objects moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency.

The TimeLine tablets that cannot definitively be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990 (all but two) were quite obviously not surrendered to law enforcement, presumably because it was impossible to prove that they actually did move out of Iraq after that date (which isn’t to say that they didn’t). Thus unless TimeLine has documentation with more precise dating information that it has decided not to share, the provenance dates provided for most objects straddle the 6 August 1990 threshold and are useless for determining the legitimacy of a piece according to UK law. Perhaps the objects concerned did all leave Iraq before 6 August 1990 – there is no way of knowing.

Having said that, three objects do look particularly suspect. The first is lot 259 sold for £16,000 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a rare Jemdet Nasr pictographic tablet that according to its provenance was published in 2016 by Salvatore F. Monaco as no. 131 in Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections. Monaco commented that the texts published therein had been taken from photographs of tablets sold on the Internet that:

all come from Illicit excavations, which, although carried out by looters since the middle of the nineteenth century, had recently attained, as a consequence of the political situation, an unprecedented level of growth (Monaco 2016: 1).

The second is lot 242 sold for £2,800 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a New Babylonian foundation brick from Larsa carrying an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. Nearly a decade ago now, I drew attention to similar bricks appearing on the market, showing how they had been cut down from their original size, presumably to facilitate transport (Brodie 2011: 125-126). Since then, I have been sporadically monitoring the market and I have now logged more than 30 examples of similar cut-down bricks. Although some have unconfirmed provenance dates stretching back to the 1960s, none was documented publicly before 2003 and the suspicion persists that these bricks were all looted from Larsa in the early 2000s.

Finally, there is lot 175 in the forthcoming September 2020 sale, which is a large Ur III administrative tablet attributed to Adad-tillati of the site of Garšana. There is no date included in the provenance description. Garšana is notorious as a site looted sometime during the 1990s and the source of a large archive of Adad-tillati tablets, most of which are in the possession of Cornell University (Owen and Mayr 2007; Molina 2020: 325-327).

The sale of these three objects calls into question TimeLine’s due diligence. If I can discover suspicious uncertainties about their provenance, anyone can. Does TimeLine simply take the consignor’s word at face value, or does it conduct its own provenance research or validation? Apparently, it leaves responsibility (and any culpability) with the (anonymous) consignor. In its extremely small print terms and conditions, TimeLine has this to say:

TimeLine do not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.

No guarantee or duty of care regarding provenance. Caveat emptor. The small print continues:

in submitting any Lot for sale, the Seller warrants and represents to TimeLine the matters set out in the Property Acceptance/Receipt and Seller’s statement of provenance.

That is the summary of TimeLine’s due diligence: requesting the consignor to sign off on provenance. TimeLine is protecting itself but not the buyer.

Contrast TimeLine’s policy of absent due diligence to the more proactive one advocated by the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in its code of conduct:

Members undertake to carry out Due Diligence, as set out under this Code, to ensure, as far as they are able, that objects in which they trade were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property and are lawfully on the market for sale.

Members will make all reasonable enquiries to ascertain earlier ownership history of any object they are considering purchasing, mindful that the illicit removal of archaeological objects from their original context is damaging to our knowledge and understanding of the past.

The ADA subscribes to the tenets of the Hague Convention and will pay particular attention to items that may have originated from conflict zones.

In these instances further documentation should be sought from the seller demonstrating they have been in circulation outside the conflict zone prior to conflict.

The ADA is also governed by the following: Objects originating from Syria are subject to restrictions as required by (EU) Council Regulation No. 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013 amending (EU) Council Regulation No. 36/2012 of 18 January 2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria. The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 prohibits the importation or exportation of any cultural property illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990.

Thus for objects from Iraq, the ADA requires its members to seek ‘further documentation’ supporting an object’s legitimacy, not simply to secure a warranty. TimeLine is not a member of the ADA and so is not in contravention of the ADA’s code. TimeLine is a member of the Association of International Dealers (AIAD), which states in its own more limited code of conduct:

4. PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.

8. The Member agrees not knowingly to deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).

According to its small print terms and conditions, TimeLine interprets ‘reasonably achievable’ as meaning nothing at all. And if it isn’t actively looking for evidence of illegal trading it will not find it and cannot knowingly deal in cultural objects that have left Iraq since 6 August 1990, even if they have. This looks a lot like wilful avoidance of disagreeable and commercially damaging evidence of wrongdoing. It casts doubt upon the integrity of TimeLine, and because it is in full accord with the AIAD code of conduct, upon the AIAD itself.

Prominently displayed on the TimeLine website is the logo of the Art Loss Register (ALR). I have complained previously about the ALR badging TimeLine, and the logo now qualifies that:

All lots with an upper estimate value of £1,000 and above, and all Western Asiatic lots are searched against the Art Loss Register database.

So, all these cuneiform tablets (Western Asiatic lots) will have been searched against the ALR database. This is necessary but not sufficient provenance research. ALR certificates state that they do not provide a clean bill of health for antiquities, merely that searched antiquities have not been reported stolen. For looted antiquities, clandestinely excavated, that can never be the case. For cuneiform tablets of the type being discussed here, a search is practically worthless. it obviously failed to uncover anything untoward about the three suspect objects I have highlighted. So the prominent placement of the ALR logo, while technically and legally correct, might give the impression to a naïve customer that the provenance of an object being offered for sale has been well researched, which is not in fact the case. The logo provides the appearance but not the substance of appropriate due diligence. It does more to protect TimeLine’s reputation than it does to ensure its commercial probity. It remains the case that the ALR needs to reconsider its association with a company openly failing to conduct its own provenance research and placing itself outside generally accepted standards of professional practice as advertised by the ADA.  

If any or all of the cuneiform tablets offered by TimeLine were taken from Iraq after 6 August 1990, which seems possible if not likely, it demonstrates how after a period of time spent languishing in anonymous private collections they can be sold openly without fear of any police or legal action. The objects are in effect ‘gray’, as in Mackenzie and Yates’ second sense of the term. Three are very dark gray indeed – almost black.

References

Brodie, Neil, 2011. Academic involvement in the market in Iraqi antiquities, in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell. New York: Springer, 117-133.

Molina, Manuel, 2020. The looting of Ur III tablets after the Gulf Wars, in Dealing with Antiquity: Past, Present & Future, edited by Walter Sommerfeld. Münster: Ugarit, 323-352.

Monaco Salvatore F., 2016. Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 31). Bethesda: CDL.

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