Cuneiform Tablets: Origins, trafficking, and best practices for the future

On September 5-6, 2019, TARII US Director, Amanda Long, was honored to partake in this conference coordinated and hosted by Dr. Katharyn Hanson - TARII Institutional Board Representative for the Smithsonian Institution.


Dr. Hanson, Cultural Heritage Preservation Scholar for the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), organized this invite-only event that convened international and Iraqi cuneiform tablet specialists, cultural heritage practitioners, and US law enforcement professionals at the Smithsonian Institution to share insights on recent developments in the technical analysis of tablets. This two-day conference offered for more precise hypotheses on the origin of tablets that have been illegally imported into the US. The goal of the conference, to strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration on tablet conservation and repatriation, and improve the effectiveness of legal procedures combatting their illegal trade, was greatly needed and well received. It included frequent cross-disciplinary discussions facilitated between presentations that would regularly extend into the breaks.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Morag Kersel from DePaul University, using her research through the Follow the Pots Project (more information here) discussed the possible path of trafficked cuneiform tablets by examining the laws, networks, transit points, markets, and actors who may have facilitated the illegal and legal movement of these artifacts. She was joined by speakers from all over the world, including the University of Baghdad, Smithsonian Institution, Spanish National Research Council, University of Reading, Yale University, and Brigham Young University. Also in attendance were representatives from the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq, Department of State, National Endowment for the Humanities, Department of Justice, Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and more.


The conference included a mini workshop on proper tablet handling and packaging procedures lead by MCI conservation specialists Jessica Johnson, Head of Conservation, and Rebecca Kaczkowski, Preventive Conservator.

Photo Information:

Header Image: Smithsonian cuneiform tablet by Olivia Kuzio, MCI (Smithsonian Institution, 2019)

Right Image: (left to right) Dr. Laith Hussein - Head of the Department of Archaeology, University of Baghdad; Ahmed Utaifa - Second Secretary and Cultural Attaché, Embassy of the Republic of Iraq; Dr. Katharyn Hanson - Cultural Heritage Preservation Scholar, Smithsonian Institution (photo credit: TARII, 2019)

Left Image: (left to right) Dr. Edward Stratford - Associate Professor, Brigham Young University; Dr. Lee Drake - President, Decision Tree, LLC; Dr. Katharyn Hanson; Dr. Klaus Wagensonner - Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University (photo credit: TARII, 2019)