Lost city of Irisagrig comes to life in the old stolen tablets

A satellite image, which in Sept. 14, 2017, shows “site 1056,” which could be in the old city of Irisagrig.


Hundreds of old stolen tablets, seized from the company Hobby Lobby and returned to Iraq, give clues about what a lost 4000 years old city, called Irisagrig was.

Billionaire Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green began collecting artifacts in 2009 and quickly built a collection of 40,000 strong, which he used for the filling of the newly created Museum of the Bible in Washington, D. C. However, some of these artifacts had been smuggled illegally into the US, and last summer, officials from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized thousands of looted items from his collection. These artifacts were recently returned to Iraq. They are about 450 tablets holding cuneiform text, many of which describe Irisagrig.

“The new texts of the Irisagrig cast some fascinating light on what is, indeed, literally, a ‘lost city'”, says Eckart Frahm, a professor of Oriental languages and civilizations at Yale University. ICE asked Frahm to assess the content and origin of the seized tablets in the autumn of 2016. [In the Photo: the Ancient City Discovered in Iraq]

“I only had about two and a half day to study them in the warehouse where they were temporarily stored, in fairly bad lighting conditions,” Frahm told Science in an e-mail. “Each individual tablet was wrapped, and it took a considerable amount of time to unpack, and the number of them, and then rewrap them again.”

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Many of the tablets are fragile, “with salt deposits cover large parts of the surface are,” Frahm said. “It seems likely that these tablets all come from the same repository, which must prey to destruction at a particular point in time, with the tablets falling on the ground, with one side exposed [as possible] to the water, and the other protected.”

In the end, Frahm was able to review approximately 250 of the cuneiform tablets. And he did that many came from the lost city.

“One of the most exciting tablets of the piece inspected by me is a large document records the assignments of maintenance of plots to the members of the royal family, and other records distributed food to the” dogs of the palace, ” who were apparently well-fed,” Frahm said.

Some of the tablets record food allocations for the royal envoys and other officials, and give them their missions, including the inspection of work on a canal, the improvement of the “royal road,” Frahm added.

The lost city

The tablets seized from Hobby Lobby are far from the only tablets of Irisagrig that have appeared on the antiquities market in the past two decades. Live Science combed through the Cuneiform Digital LibraryInitiative(CDLI) database, the Database of Neo-Sumerian Texts and numerous articles in magazines, and found tablets of Irisagrig that are now in collections in Texas, California, Illinois, New York, Australia, Japan, Canada, Israel, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, and France, among other places.

“In my eyes, it is certain that all of the tablets identified by scholars as coming from the old Irisagrig stolen,” said Manuel Molina, a research professor with the Spanish National research council, who has done research in Irisagrig. “The reason for this is simply because the only ones who know the location of Irisagrig are the looters of the site, which was around 2003.”

A few of these tablets provide geographic information that helps in defining the location of Irisagrig, Molina wrote in an article published in the book “Of the 21st Century BC to the 21st Century: proceedings of the International conference on Neo-Sumerian Studies Held in Madrid 22-24 July 2010” (Eisenbrauns, 2013).

Molina has narrowed the probable location to an area in the south of Iraq, near the modern town of Afak. One of the most promising candidates within this area is a “tell” (a mound formed by the ruins by the old inhabitants), the so-called “site 1056” that has never been excavated by archaeologists, Molina wrote in the book. Satellite images show that the tell was heavily looted between 2003 and 2009, Molina wrote. [25 Strangest Sights on Google Earth]

New video footage of the site by DigitalGlobe suggests the looting has decreased since 2009, according to Molina, that in comparison with the new images with images from earlier.

But even with the new images, archaeologists can’t be sure of his site 1056 is Irisagrig, said Molina, who noted that there are other possible candidates for the lost city. On-the-ground-archaeological work is needed to come to conclusions, ” he said.

Origin hunt

Live Science contacted a number of the identified owners (which remains anonymous) of the tablets listed in the databases in the hope of tracking down the looters to discover the location of the city and the motivations behind the looting. Ultimately, trying to find the looters were not successful.

Just a few of the owners responded. For example, Jim Falk, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, pointed to his website, he gives his tablet of Artemis Gallery in September 2015. It was held by Harlan J. Berk, Ltd., that did not respond to requests for comment.

Source Lipkin, a retired doctor and collector, who is the owner of the company the Collector Antiques, has not ever owned a Irisagrig tablet. But some of the owners contacted him to ask for help in deciphering the text.

“After all this time, I have no easy way of working that collector was that tablet,” Lipkin said, adding that he recalls some of the individuals had bought the tablets on eBay, and that three tablets came from an Australian dealer.

Documents of the U.S. Department of Justice said that the artifacts returned to Iraq were sold to Hobby Lobby three unnamed Israeli antiquities dealers. Live Science also found that one of the largest and best known private collections of tablets from Irisagrig (with more than 100 tablets) belongs to Jawad Adra, a businessman in Lebanon. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Back controversy

There has been a debate about whether the cuneiform tablets should be sent back to Iraq before they have been investigated and described in scientific journals. David Owen, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Cornell University, who has published descriptions of hundreds of tablets of Irisagrig, has called for them to remain in the United States for the study.

“As soon as they are in the bosom of the Iraq Museum, it is unlikely scholars will still have access to them, nor are there the Iraqi scholars capable of publishing them, given the many thousands of unpublished texts already in storage in the museum for generations and usually not accessible for scholars,” Owen told Live Science.

Frahm said that, while “it would have been useful if the tablets have a properly documented before they are sent on another trans-Atlantic journey,” and that the conservation work is urgently needed on the tablets, he thinks Iraqi scholars will be able to get the job done.

“I have faith in my Iraqi colleagues, who are aware of their responsibility not only to protect, but also to publish the archaeological and epigraphic heritage of their country, and who have shown in the past few years, a good willingness to work together with scientists from other countries in an attempt to do this in the best possible way,” Frahm said.

Owen, on the other hand, it is not certain that these tablets will be published after their return to Iraq. “Who knows what the new data of the tablets sent to Iraq to contain,” he said in Live Science. “But we will never see this new evidence now thanks to the stupidity of our government.”

Owen Jarus can be reached at

Originally published on Live Science.

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