November 5, 2013

Cornell Will Return 10,000 Tablets to Iraq

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Correction appended: The original version of this article wrongly implied that Cornell was the subject of a Department of Homeland Security investigation regarding ancient tablets being illegally removed from Iraq and used in tax fraud. In fact, while the tablets were the subject of an investigation, Cornell itself was never investigated by the DHS. The error has been removed from the story.

Editor’s Note: The updated article contains language that was lifted from the Nov. 3 Los Angeles Times story it was based off of, “Cornell to Return 10,000 Ancient Tablets to Iraq.” Although The Sun’s article clearly attributes all facts taken from the L.A. Times, several paragraphs in the article contain nearly identical wording and syntax as the L.A. Times piece.

Plagiarism is never acceptable. While we expect our writers to recognize this and meet The Sun’s standards, we as editors also failed to adequately vet the story before it was published. Moving forward, we will redouble our efforts to educate our staff on editorial best practices.


In what may be the biggest return of antiquities by an American university, Cornell is preparing to return 10,000 tablets to their native Iraq.

The clay blocks, which date back to the 4th century B.C. and offer researchers a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient Mesopotamia, were donated by Jonathan Rosen and his family — of the Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen Ancient Near Eastern Seminar — in 2000, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Some of the tablets, which were part of the private archives for a Sumerian princess in the 21st century B.C. in the city of Garsana, have been the source of much controversy. Critics believe the tablets were looted from Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, when many archaeological relics went missing, according to the L.A. Times.

The tablets were the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security when they were suspected to be illegally removed from the country of origin. Possession of antiquities illegally removed from countries who claim them as government property violates U.S. law, the L.A. Times reported.

There was also an investigation into whether the exchange of the tablets constituted tax fraud or violated the Trading With the Enemy Act, which prohibited any business with Iraq during the war. According to the L.A. Times, the Garsana tablets were valued at less than $50,000 when they were imported, but Rosen received a $900,000 tax deduction upon their donation in 2000.

There were no findings of wrongdoing because investigators could not determine the precise details of when or how the tablets were acquired, according to the L.A. Times. Additionally, Cornell was never the subject of a DHS investigation, according to John Carberry, University spokesperson.

Last year, the Iraqi government requested that the tablets be returned, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Binghamton is brokering the transfer, according to the L.A. Times.

In a statement, the University said that it is undergoing negotiations with Iraq’s government for the tablets’ return.

“Cornell appreciates the opportunity it has had to participate in the preservation and study of these invaluable historical artifacts and welcomes the opportunity to continue this work in participation with the U.S. and Iraqi governments,” the statement said.

The tablets have played a crucial role in helping scholars learn about the roles of women during the time, showing that women attained a high status in their society. The Garsana tablets show that a princess, Simat-Ishtaran, took over the estate after the death of her husband, according to the L.A. Times. Other women supervised men, received equal salaries to men and worked in construction.

“It’s our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,” Professor David Owen, chief curator for the Cuneiform Library, said to the L.A. Times.

Some of the other tablets show detailed administrative records, temple rituals, agricultural outputs and information about resettled refugees, according to the L.A. Times.

The University said in a statement that it is proud of the work done on the cuneiform tablets since 2000.

“While the cuneiform tablets have been at Cornell, scholars have participated in a project to conserve the tablets and publish them, not only for historic preservation but also for the research and cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq,” the statement said.

According to the L.A. Times, Cornell is not the only University returning ancient artifacts that scholars suspect may have been lotted. Princeton University returned 170 objects to Italy last year after they were linked to an antiquities dealer being investigated for trafficking looted objects. Last year, Bowling Green State University in Ohio also announced the return of a dozen ancient mosaics after evidence revealed they had been looted.