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Hobby Lobby and the Case of the Smuggled Tablets

This is just a fascinating story. As you can imagine I frequent Hobby Lobby to get clay for sculpting and materials for puppets (which I’m still struggling to complete) and a few other things they have that fit my creative side. As many of you know Hobby Lobby is a Christian-based organization much like Chick-fil-A. They aren’t exactly a corporation one would imagine being a front for an antiquities smuggling operation – but that’s just what they did! Toward the end of the active conflict in Iraq they smuggled artifacts from Iraq into the United States in boxes labeled as “tile samples”. Customs and Border Protection actually found out and Hobby Lobby had to give them back and lost, not only the cost of the artifacts but an additional $3 million.

And what makes this story even more fascinating is the reason behind it. They did it BECAUSE of their Christianity! The land of Iraq was once ancient Babylon and Ur which was in Mesopotamia and where many believe the prophet Abraham was from. Abraham of course is the main prophet of Judaism and Islam and plays a key, though lesser role, in Christianity (with the exception of Mormonism who view him with greater importance than others). So the folks at Hobby Lobby were hopping to obtain the tablets, covered in cuneiform writing, have them translated, and excitedly see what information about Abraham or other well-known religious figures might be written about. This was all to take place at a museum that Hobby Lobby was going to donate them to.

Half the tablets were gone over before Customs took them and they told of daily life in and around the palace. What a wonderful glimpse into the past! I hope that they are eventually all cataloged and the translations released to the general public. But, smuggling, even if your intentions are to carefully translate and store the items in a museum is illegal. I do wonder sometimes why that is though.

Who owns the past? I have several (legally obtained) artifacts in my study. I enjoy looking at them, handling them, and pondering the past. I am especially interesting in thinking about who touched them before me. I am especially drawn to personal objects like pottery, weapons, even pipes (though I don’t smoke). Someone handled the objects, hunted with them, drank from them. Some are ancient, some are just very old. My great-grandfather was a coal miner back in the day when the only light in the mine was the carbide lamp fastened to his helmet. It’s only about 100 years old but it represents so much more than the time. It represents the person. There are similar things from ancient Pompeii where they unearthed cups, dishes, cookware, and pans. The items of daily life. Those mean more to me to see than the artwork and statuary. I do understand the draw such things would have on the people at Hobby Lobby looking for a great connection to the past as well as some kind of evidence of their religion.

Is the past something that is just for museums or can it be bought and sold? Who gets to decide just who owns the past?


Iraqi artifacts smuggled into the US by Hobby Lobby contain new evidence of a lost Sumerian city, and have scholars divided over whether to study the looted relics.

Source: eBay, Organized Crime, and Evangelical Christians: The Ethical Minefield of Studying Ancient Civilizations

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