The Nature of Our Ruin: Part 4

The Nature of Ruin: | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

In Part 4 of The Nature of Our Ruin, Erin Thompson discusses the troubled provenance of newly discovered fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and its complex ethical implications for archaeological research. 

Just Give Him What He Wants

In the article describing his discovery of new lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi remarks that the tablet on which he read them “was acquired by Sulaymaniyah Museum in the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government in 2011 with other Babylonian antiquities of the kind found in southern Iraq; its exact provenance is therefore unknown” (72). Here, the passive voice conceals a complicated story: the Sulaymaniyah Museum bought the tablet from an antiquities smuggler.

The fall of Saddam Hussein led to widespread looting of Iraq’s archeological sites, sometimes by those desperate to feed their families and cut off by the conflict from their usual means of making a living, sometimes by those taking advantage of reduced scrutiny to make a profit on the global market for antiquities, where an Ancient Near Eastern statuette, barely three inches tall, can sell for more than $57 million.

In reaction to this looting, which has left many Iraqi sites looking like the surface of the moon, cratered with looters’ pits, the Sulaymaniyah Museum instituted a policy of paying smugglers for antiquities before they left Iraq—no questions asked. In late 2011, the Museum acquired a collection of around 80 clay tablets, still covered in mud. Al-Rawi helped the Museum negotiate with the smuggler, picking out a few fakes and insisting that the Museum “just give him what he wants” when the smuggler asked a high price for the large tablet which Al-Rawi, intrigued, would soon discover held the lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Scholars have an unsavory history of collecting materials from other cultures by means of violence and looting.

Many archeologists argue that demand drives looting. Like ivory poachers, antiquities looters would not undertake the hard, risky, and illegal work necessary to bring their goods to market unless they knew someone was going to pay a high price. And a buyer is a buyer—looters do not care if the buyer is a scholar, or a collector who will encourage scholars to use his or her collection. And of course, we need to keep in mind that our picture of the scholar as pondering pottery in a peaceful, pipe-smoke-filled office, doing harm to no one, is a very recent conception. Scholars have an unsavory history of collecting materials from other cultures by means of violence and looting.

For scholars of the Ancient Near East, there is the additional complication of the history of “biblical archeology.” The first Western excavations in the Middle East, begun in the 19th century, were those of Christian archeologists who ignored the local meaning of ancient sites in order to attempt to use their finds prove the truth of the Bible. They set off disputes over the interpretation and ownership of sites that can still be seen in the taunts of the Islamic State (IS) that its destructions of antiquities have “served to enrage the non-Muslims, a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.”

Scholars who wish to use epigraphical material with unclear provenance must ask themselves whether the discoveries they make are worth the potential that their work will encourage looting.

The difficult balance between knowledge production about the past and preservation of historical sites presented by the Sulaymaniyah tablet is not unique. Among many other examples, in 2013, new lines written by the Greek poetess Sappho were discovered on a fragment of papyrus that probably left Egypt along with thousands of other antiquities that have been looted in the political and economic chaos following the Arab Spring. Scholars who wish to use epigraphical material with unclear provenance must ask themselves whether the discoveries they make are worth the potential that their work will encourage looting, especially since publication can dramatically increase the market value of an antiquity. On the other hand, scholars who refuse to use unprovenanced material wonder whether their theories about the past would be very different if they also examined looted evidence.

And the issue will probably become even more acute in years to come. IS is currently funding its campaigns of terror through sales of looted antiquities from the territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, using bulldozers to annihilate entire archeological sites in search of saleable artifacts. Looted inscribed objects such as tablets may become the only record we have of entire cities or even civilizations—but how can we know that using them will not encourage more destruction?

In the new tablet, Enkidu laments that “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland.” (74). The endless cycle of conflict and looting in the Middle East is doing the same to our past. And perhaps to our ecological future, since only by working on undisturbed sites can archeologists do the painstaking work, for example, of tracing ancient migration corridors to help us plan meaningful conservation allotments today. A few tablets and trinkets from a looted site do not contain the pollen grains, animal bone fragments, and other materials necessary for such inquires. These are simply part of the “mud” that is washed away by smugglers preparing their finds for the fine art market.

Was learning of Enkidu’s lament worth the destruction of an archeological site that might have told us how to save our own forests? Or is the reality of the situation that turmoil in many antiquities-rich areas of the Middle East means that looting will continue even for the smallest of rewards, just as we see when rainforests are clear-cut for access to soil with quickly exhausted fertility? In considering environmental and archeological issues alike, we need to understand the broader cultural and economic causes of harmful behavior, rather than, like biblical archeologists intent on finding Noah’s Ark, swooping in without regard for the consequences of our actions.


F. N. H. al-Rawi, and A. R. George. “Back to the Cedar Forest: The Beginning and End of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of  Gilgamesh”. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 66 (2014): 69–90.


America’s only full-time professor of art crime, Erin Thompson (John Jay College, CUNY) studies the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art. Currently, she is researching the ways in which terrorist groups both sell and destroy art in order to support their genocidal campaigns. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors, is forthcoming from Yale University Press (May 2016).