The 10,000 inscribed clay blocks date from the fourth millenium BC and offer scholars an unmatched record of daily life in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.
New York antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen and his family began donating and lending the tablets to Cornell in 2000. Many scholars have objected to the arrangement, suspecting the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which unleashed a wave of plundering in the archaeologically rich expanse of southern Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Among the tablets is the private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.
During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.
"It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman," said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.
Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.
The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law.
Investigators also looked into potential violations of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which at the time barred doing business with Iraq, and tax fraud, the records said. The 1,679 tablets were valued at less than $50,000 when they were imported, but the donor received a $900,000 tax deduction when they were given to Cornell in 2000, the records said.
Ultimately, there were no findings of wrongdoing because investigators could not determine precisely when or where the objects were found, the records show.
Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets "were legally acquired" and that the federal investigation found "no evidence of wrongdoing." He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen's late mother, Miriam.
"It has always been the Rosen family's intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world," Grunfeld said.
The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets last year, and the U.S. attorney's office in Binghamton, N.Y., is brokering the transfer.
"We're not accusing anyone of a crime, but we believe they should be returned," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Miro Lovric.
Cornell officials declined to comment pending a formal announcement but issued a statement saying that the university "appreciates the opportunity it has had to participate in the preservation and study of these invaluable historical artifacts and welcomes the opportunity to continue this work in participation with the U.S. and Iraqi governments."
Other American universities have recently agreed to return ancient art after evidence emerged that the objects might have been recently looted. Last year, Princeton University returned about 170 objects and fragments to Italy after authorities there linked them to antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia, who was investigated for trafficking in looted objects. That same year, Ohio's Bowling Green State University signaled it was willing to return a dozen ancient mosaics to Turkey after evidence emerged that they had been looted.
Such cases often involve universities accepting donations from antiquities dealers, raising complex questions about the role that academia plays in a market that is rife with recently looted objects.
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