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Historic Repatriation of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

Oct 13, 2021 | By Ella Weiner

The repatriation of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the United States to the Republic of Iraq took place on Thursday, September 23rd. The ceremony was presented by the U.S. Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee (CHCC) and the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq and hosted by the Smithsonian Institution. 

The Mesopotamian cuneiform clay tablet fragment dates to the Middle Babylonian period. Written in cuneiform, the Akkadian text provides a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest epic narrative. What started as five Sumerian poems focused on Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, later became a combined epic, written in Akkadian in twelve parts, or tablets. Only a few tablets and fragments survive, making this tablet particularly important. It primarily describes Gilgamesh telling his mother about a dream that she interprets to represent the arrival of a companion – a foreshadowing of the arrival of the hero’s friend Enkidu. This tablet fragment is unique among all known versions of the epic in its use of distinct deity names for its two main characters and an alternate place name, thus providing insight into possible regional variations of the epic. 

Accompanying the tablet for the ceremony was a Sumerian ram sculpture, ca. 3,000 BC, likely used for religious vows at temples. It likely comes from the Umma Archaeological Site in Nasiryyah Province, Southern Iraq. 

The ceremony and return of the tablet represent the years of effort spearheaded by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Department of Justice after the seizure from the Museum of Bible in 2019. The physical presence of the tablet and the ram also represent the more than 17,000 items that the United States returned to Iraq this year, the largest ever repatriation of Iraqi antiquities. One of the officers who led the investigation into the Gilgamesh tablet for HSI went through training supported by the U.S. Department of State, hosted by the Smithsonian, and organized in collaboration with HSI, another successful example of U.S. government interagency cooperation to protect cultural heritage.

The Smithsonian was honored to host the ceremony at the National Museum of the American Indian, signaling the many years of successful collaborations between the Institution and various entities in Iraq. The Smithsonian was also proud to assist the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in the safe re-packing of artifacts being returned. 

Ceremony Program 

Moderated by Dr. Richard Kurin 
Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large, Smithsonian Institution 
Stacy White 
Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State 
Joey Hood 
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State 
Kenneth Polite 
Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice 
Steve Francis 
Executive Associate Director, Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Department of Homeland Security 
Ambassador Fareed Yasseen 
Ambassador of Iraq to the United States of America 
Dr. Hassan Nadhem 
Minister of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities, Iraq 
Dr. Laith Hussein 
Deputy Minister of Culture and Director, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Iraq 
Audrey Azoulay 
Director-General, UNESCO 

The CHCC, one of the co-presenters of the ceremony, coordinates diplomatic and law enforcement efforts to combat antiquities trafficking, disrupt trafficking networks, and protect against the looting and destruction of cultural property around the world. The U.S. Department of State established the CHCC in 2016 pursuant to the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, with the Cultural Heritage Center as its secretariat.