I was taking photos in the main hall of the Sulaymaniyah Museum and came across a display case containing a small clay tablet. The description beside it said the tablet was part of the Epic of Gilgamesh and a fragment of tablet V. Immediately I thought it was a ‘replica’ as the description was superficial. It did not say the tablet was genuine, that it was newly discovered or even told about the many new pieces of information it had revealed.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq and the dramatic looting of Iraqi and other museums, the Sulaymaniyah Museum (directed by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan) started an initiative. They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries. No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from. The Sulaymaniyah Museum believed this condition kept smugglers from selling their merchandise to other buyers, as they would have otherwise done so ‘with ease and without any legal consequences.’
In late 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum acquired a collection of clay tablets: The collection was composed of 80-90 tablets of different shapes, contents and sizes. All of the tablets were, to some degree, still covered with mud. Some were completely intact, while others were fragmented. The precise location of their excavation is unknown, but it is likely that they were illegally unearthed from, what is known today as, the southern part of the Babel (Babylon) or Governorate, Iraq (Mesopotamia).
While the seller negotiated the prices, Professor Farouk Al-Rawi (of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London) rapidly examined each item in terms of its content and originality. He even found a few fakes! The seller wanted a large sum of money for the tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He did not know what it represented, he only knew it was relatively large. Still, this tablet captured the attention of Professor Al-Rawi when he skimmed the cuneiform inscriptions on it. He immediately intervened and told Mr. Hashim to buy it, “just give him what he wants, I will tell you later on,” Al-Rawi said to Abdullah. The final price was $800.