A cuneiform tablet purchased by Hobby Lobby (all images via justice.gov)

Last week, news broke that the U.S. Justice Department had fined Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts store chain, $3 million and forced them to relinquish 3,594 cuneiform tablets and other artifacts (out of a total of over 5,500 in the same purchase). Hobby Lobby had been the subject of federal investigation since 2011, as first reported by Candida Moss and Joel Baden in The Daily Beast in October 2015. The government’s complaint and stipulation of settlement, both filed on July 5, attest that the artifacts originated in Iraq and had been smuggled into the country. Hobby Lobby president Steve Green and Cary Summers, the president of the Museum of the Bible – which is funded by the Green family and whose collection centers on the Green family’s antiquities – have insisted this is a case of improper paperwork and inexperience in collecting antiquities rather than illegal intentions. However, several experts, among them, Donna Yates and Roberta Mazza, have suggested that the actions of Hobby Lobby are not innocent. In fact, the Greens had sought the advice of Patty Gerstenblith, a leading expert on cultural property law, in 2010 – and proceeded to ignore her warnings.

This case has already seen extensive discussion. Claire Voon reported it here in Hyperallgeric several days ago. There have been many scholarly analyses worth reading, such as those by Yates and Mazza, but in terms of larger context, I think much of the response from scholars and the general public alike has been misdirected. The case brings up several vital issues relating to cultural heritage, theft, and war in West Asia. Our response should be to focus more sharply on these broader issues. Here are four areas where that can be done:

  1. Claiming a connection between Hobby Lobby and ISIS to score points against the conservative organization trivializes a very serious situation.

One common take in the aftermath of the announcement was some variant of “Hobby Lobby is funding ISIS.” This claim has been used to condemn Hobby Lobby, or else to mock them, given the incongruence of a relationship between ISIS and the famously conservative Christian Green family. However, there is a problem with this take: It simply isn’t true. The seized antiquities were purchased by Hobby Lobby in 2010–2011, before ISIS controlled territory in Syria or Iraq, a fact, that was first reported in 2015 when the story broke.

There’s a broader problem with this take: the threat to antiquities and cultural heritage is reduced — as it too often is — to a single group, ISIS. In reality, in West Asia, most looting and most damage to cultural heritage generally is not being carried out by ISIS. This is not to belittle the horrible acts culminating in murderous violence that are committed by ISIS. Rather, the problem is ignoring the massive scale of threats to cultural heritage by focusing solely on one entity. Over the last few years there have been several dangerous forces active in the region, particularly in Syria: the army of the Assad government, the Nusrah Front, and other rebel and jihadist groups. All are damaging or destroying monuments and artifacts simply through the conduct of war. And they are engaging in looting — and, more importantly, in killing, torturing, and oppressing civilians.

YouTube video

2. This may actually be something of a victory for Hobby Lobby.

Many have pointed to this incident as a black mark on Hobby Lobby, the Greens, and the Museum of the Bible, and a serious setback for them. But archaeologists like Amr Al-Azm have suggested that this is more like a slap on the wrist: though they are being forced to forfeit thousands of artifacts in question, they are paying what (given the Green family’s massive wealth) is essentially a token fine, and serving no jail time. Even worse, the $3 million amount may not even be a fine, but a settlement for additional objects purchased by the Greens that they are not forfeiting, as Joel Baden has suggested. The Green Collection includes some 40,000 artifacts. As Yates writes, it is simply impossible for this number to have been accumulated without a huge quantity of them — many more than the 3,594 forfeited artifacts — being looted and smuggled. The Greens’ lack of transparency about their acquisitions only raises suspicions even further, suspicions, but no proof of any further wrongdoing. And so the Greens will keep the vast majority of their questionably acquired objects.

While many of their critics have celebrated an apparent defeat for the Greens, their collecting and the Museum of the Bible’s opening can now continue without further interruption.

3. These looted artifacts are above all the cultural heritage of Iraq and Iraqis, not of American and European scholars.

The role of experts in framing the case and emphasizing key points and wider issues is crucial. Here is Yates, a lecturer in antiquities trafficking and art crime, highlighting the theme of loss:

We’ve all experienced a loss here. Because people like Green are willing to buy these things, the rest of us lose a massive amount of interesting information about the ancient past. These tablets have no context. Were they bits and pieces looted from many sites? Were they all one library? Did the looters trash crumbly tablets that weren’t pretty enough for the market but, in the hands of archaeologists and epigraphers, could have told us marvellous and ground-breaking things? What else was WITH the tablets? We don’t get to know because a rich guy felt his desires were more important than history and heritage.

This is all true. Looting involves destruction and loss of information on a truly massive scale: not only do the objects themselves lose all contextual information, but after being looted, any object deemed valueless on the antiquities market will be discarded or destroyed. Looting pits may be quite deep, and all material located above the looted artifacts is destroyed or lost. This is one of many serious problems with collectors’ buying, and scholars relying on, unprovenanced artifacts – artifacts without a clear, traceable chain of custody back to an archaeological excavation.

But we must also remember that this is a case of theft. In such cases, the real loss is not “ours” as Westerners or as scholars. It is above all a loss for those from whom the artifacts were stolen — the Iraqi people. (Yates unfortunately does not mention them in her post.) Hundreds of years of European and American interaction with the Middle East have routinely involved valuing the past of those lands at the expense of the present, of staking a claim to their artifacts and their past, of insisting that we are the rightful heirs and owners of that past. We see this disturbing history replicated today in cases like Palmyra, where we value the ruins — “our” ruins — more than “those” people who live in the modern town of Palmyra/Tadmur that we consistently forget to mention. However much value these tablets and other artifacts from the Hobby Lobby case may have for us as scholars, they are first and foremost the cultural heritage of Iraq and its people, and of the communities who live near the looted sites. We must never forget this.

4. Scholars who work on looted, smuggled, or otherwise undocumented material play an indirect but pivotal role in the process of destroying cultural heritage.

It is easy to criticize the Greens. They certainly deserve it in this case — for buying looted antiquities, smuggling them into the country, rejecting the warnings of experts, and attempting to diminish the seriousness of their wrongdoing. For scholars in particular, Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible are acceptable targets. The conservative Christian Greens are generally not part of most academics’ professional or cultural world. But what about criticizing those scholars and institutions who do work with the Greens? The Museum of the Bible is partnering with (that is, significantly funding, in return for loans of material) major institutions like the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Rome State Archives. The museum is also currently funding a major archaeological excavation in Israel at Tel Shimron. Through the Green Scholars Initiative, a number of academics — including prominent scholars like Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University and Dirk Obbink of Oxford — are spending years publishing the Greens’ antiquities, authenticating them, and legitimizing their collection. As Neil Brodie has pointed out, this activity helps to drive up the price of antiquities without a clear provenance, which are most often looted (or forged). This only helps to create incentives for more looting (and forgery).

Another cuneiform tablet purchased by Hobby Lobby

While academics such as Yates and Mazza have been critical of this activity, criticism of fellow scholars is much more muted than that directed at academic outsiders. Unfortunately, it is natural for scholars not to want to criticize those with whom they have worked and socialized for years, and upon whom they depend for many of the privileges of their profession, such as tenure, awards, and intellectual recognition. And if it is hard for scholars to criticize their colleagues working on the Green collection, it has been even harder for them to criticize scholars working on other unprovenanced material — material not associated with a culturally or religiously conservative institution like the Museum of the Bible. In such cases we look to scholars of the ancient world as experts who shape academic and popular opinion; the experts’ response to looted material, unfortunately, often suggests that there is no problem.

Looted, smuggled, or otherwise undocumented material is pervasive in scholarship: many scholars are probably unaware of how pervasive this material is. From just the last decade we can point to several troubling cases: the Al Yahudu tablets, records of the deported Jewish community in Babylonia in the sixth century BCE; the “Afghan Geniza,” records of a Jewish merchant family in medieval central Asia; and Aramaic magic bowls, used in magic rituals in late antique Babylonia. Each of these assemblages consists of hundreds of items and shares a very similar profile to the Green Collection artifacts: almost certainly looted from a warzone in recent decades (that is, after the advent of national laws and international treaties meant to crack down on this type of activity); smuggled out of their country of origin; acquired by dealers in foreign countries and sold by them at great profit to collectors and institutions in America, Europe, or Israel.

As with the Green Collection, several scholars — often respected, prominent scholars — are closely associated with the looted material, publishing it, even authenticating it for dealers. In one case, a senior scholar, Shaul Shaked of Hebrew University, who has worked on several different groups of unprovenanced artifacts over his career, admitted that his authentication of the so-called “Afghan Genizah” helped to drive up the price that the National Library of Israel paid for these almost certainly looted and smuggled artifacts. To reiterate, through this activity these scholars help create incentives for more looting and forgery, and so — instead of preserving the past, as they claim — they take part in the process of destroying it.

If Hobby Lobby and the scholars working with the Greens deserve heavy criticism (and they do!) for their involvement with illegal antiquities, so do other collectors, institutions, and experts. But mostly, scholars remain silent.

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In the short term, the result of this settlement may indeed be a victory for the Greens. The Museum of the Bible will likely still open in the coming months, and the Greens will still own the vast majority of their apparently unprovenanced artifacts. But the settlement and the publicity it has received can still have a positive effect. They present an especially good opportunity to educate both the public and other scholars about these vital topics concerning the importance of provenance, adherence to best practices for collections, and the critical role scholars often play in the destruction of cultural heritage. We can emphasize the need to stop damage and theft, the need to hold our colleagues accountable, and the need for greater transparency. Art crime professor Erin Thompson has made a start here, putting the Hobby Lobby complaint into a broader context and using it in a discussion of how to re-think museums.

This is a teachable moment for dealing with the past more responsibly. Let’s not let it slip away.

Michael Press is an archaeologist who writes on Middle Eastern archaeology, biblical studies, and how these fields are presented to the public. He received a PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern...