Penn Museum Returns Ancient Iraqi Artifacts

Between 1922 and 1934, University of Pennsylvania archeologists dug up thousands of small clay tablets in Iraq and brought them to Philadelphia. Now, these tablets are making the return trip home.

The tablets came to Philadelphia through an agreement between the British government, the Iraqi government, and the Penn Museum. At the time, no one in Iraqi could read the cuneiform text on the tablets, so they were brought to America to be studied. Researchers discovered that the tablets were receipts from the Ur III dynasty in 2,000 B.C.

Earlier this month, Penn Museum staff  brought to tablets to the Iraqi embassy in Washington to initiate the return. From there, the tablets will likely be sent to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Brad Hafford, a research associate with the Penn Museum, explained that this return was not the same as repatriation.

“Although repatriation means giving back to the country of origin, and we are doing that, it has taken on the meaning of getting things that have been looted or stolen. These were excavated under a perfectly legal permit, and we had always promised to give them back. So essentially we are giving back a very long-term extended loan,” he told WHYY.

The Penn Museum will still hold about 3,500 pieces of these tablets. Many of these fragments are not being returned because they are too small to reveal anything significant.