On Tuesday, a decade after Hobby Lobby was first forced to hand over illegally purchased antiquities to the U.S. government, Brooklyn prosecutors ordered the forfeiture of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a cuneiform piece containing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest religious texts in the world.
In 2014, as the Green family — the billionaire Evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby — was preparing to open the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., their company acquired the five-by-six-inch Gilgamesh Dream Tablet for $1.6 million from an art dealer who provided a letter of provenance claiming the piece had originally been found in a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased at auction in 1981. However, prosecutors state that the document was false and that the 3,500-year-old Akkadian tablet was most likely looted from Iraq after 1991. Its sale, therefore, violated a U.S. law banning the importation of cultural objects removed from Iraq after August 1990. The statute, known as the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, was passed in 2004 to stop the importation of looted antiquities, which had flooded the international market in the wake of both U.S. invasions. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities stated last year that its officials were trying to determine if the tablet had been stolen from one of the nation’s regional museums during the looting that followed the 1991 invasion. U.S. prosecutors have previously referred to the work as “stolen Iraqi property.”
The tablet itself details the dreams of Gilgamesh — an Akkadian mythological hero and likely an actual Sumerian king — as he describes them to his mother. The engraving is one of just a few pieces of the Epic of Gilgamesh to have survived. The poem describes the hero’s struggles with the Mesopotamian gods and the search for eternal life and was rediscovered by archaeologists working north of modern-day Mosul in 1853. Since then, it has been a subject of scrutiny by some Christians, who have observed that the great flood depicted in the poem bears a resemblance to the Genesis flood story and Noah’s ark.
As Candida Moss and Joel Baden write in their study of the Green family’s Evangelical vision for America, Bible Nation, Hobby Lobby’s decision to ignore expert advice on antiquities collecting led to several high-profile forfeitures of illegally trafficked items and the purchase of several counterfeit objects. In 2017, the organization agreed to a settlement with the United States Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, in which they paid $3 million and eventually returned over 11,000 pieces — mostly papyrus fragments, cuneiform tablets, and small clay seals — to Egypt and Iraq. “I knew little about the world of collecting,” Hobby Lobby president Steven Green told The Wall Street Journal last March.