Sturt Manning: Hobby Lobby bought items that will forever lack context
Their actions have helped to rob us of part of this history, Manning writes
Editor’s Note: Sturt Manning is Goldwin Smith Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cornell University and the chair of the Cultural Heritage Committee for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Human history stretches back many, many millennia, but for much of the world (all of North America, for example), we lack any written history until very recent times. There are a few extraordinary exceptions.
Cuneiform tablets provide such a key resource, offering a direct written history of people and their activities in the ancient Near East beginning over 5,000 years ago, around 3000-500 B.C. Much of this precious record of humanity comes from archaeological sites in modern-day Iraq and Syria.
Protecting these historical resources has been a major international focus, especially since the second Gulf War. Cuneiform texts are the first items listed on the International Council of Museums’ “Red List” – which compiles the most endangered archaeological objects and works of art in the most vulnerable areas of the world to prevent them from being sold or illegally exported – for both Iraq (issued 2003, updated 2015) and Syria (issued 2013).
The news that Hobby Lobby, in a deal that the Department of Justice described as “fraught with red flags” and against the advice of a cultural property law expert who warned the company that cuneiform tablets and other objects for sale are often looted, nonetheless bought over 5,000 artifacts in December 2010 is tragic.
According to the DOJ, a dealer in the United Arab Emirates shipped to Hobby Lobby items falsely labeled as “ceramics” and “samples” whose origin was falsely listed as Israel and Turkey. However, export of archaeological objects from Turkey would have been prohibited under long-standing Turkish laws. Israel unfortunately has, despite antiquities laws and criticism from the Israel Antiquities Authority, a well-known and active antiquities trade, although very recent efforts are trying at last to clamp down on it.
These objects have been ripped out of archaeological sites with no documentation and now forever lack context and key associations – the kind of valuable information possible only with careful scientific excavation by archaeologists. This looting occurs because there is, sadly, a market for these objects – even if this trade is illegal in many countries. We will now never know the full archaeological history of the 5,548 objects Hobby Lobby bought for $1.6 million.
Hobby Lobby said in a statement that it wanted to collect objects and information relevant to the period before and around the time of the Bible. Instead, their actions have further contributed to the destruction of the increasingly rare and endangered archaeological record of this fascinating era.
It will not end with these particular objects. Their willful interest in collecting artifacts that are so often obtained through looting will only make things worse. This is the real travesty.
Hobby Lobby has acknowledged that “regrettable mistakes” were made in the transaction, but while they have to pay a $3 million fine and have agreed to return the artifacts as well, no compensation can fully reverse this disaster.
War and extremism have severely damaged cultural heritage in the Near East, most notably in the destruction of ancient monuments in places like Palmyra and Mosul. Hobby Lobby’s actions are arguably harmful in a similar fashion, and all the more embarrassing as the company now acknowledges that it “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, said in a statement.
He added: “At no time did Hobby Lobby ever purchase items from dealers in Iraq or from anyone who indicated that they acquired items from that country.”
The vanishing material traces of the past are a vital educational resource for the world today. They reveal the rich and complex story of humanity – showing a plural past of many peoples, ideas and faiths – the very plurality that today’s extremists typically seek to deny and to destroy in favor of a single, narrow, tyrannical vision.
For example, cuneiform texts uniquely reveal much evidence about the roles of women in the ancient Near East – including, for example, a female doctor, or azu-munus, working at Ebla in northern Syria some 4,000 years ago – a city where we have a rich archaeological and textual record (now sadly lost to the war in Syria).
We need to know much more about ancient objects, and especially those with contexts and associations, that can help undermine modern extremism and bigotry. The actions of Hobby Lobby have helped to rob us of part of this history and further threaten our valuable record of the human past.