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Last month, customs officials handed over to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., thousands of ancient artifacts that had been smuggled into the U.S. They were bought by Hobby Lobby, the craft store giant. And now the artifacts are headed back to Iraq. NPR's Jane Arraf tells us from Baghdad about the lost, looted city they came from.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm at the Iraq Museum in downtown Baghdad. It's Iraq's main archaeological museum - infamously looted in 2003 after U.S. soldiers failed to protect it when Baghdad fell.
LAMIA AL-GAILANI: That's another one from those who have stolen from 2003. And they took it and slide it down the stairs and broke all the stairs.
ARRAF: That's Dr. Lamia Al-Gailani. She's 80, and she's been an archaeologist here and in Britain since the 1960s. It's an amazing museum, filled with room-sized reliefs from Assyrian palaces. But the most valuable stuff isn't here. Why are
there so many things still in storage - the bank vaults, a lot of...
AL-GAILANI: They are afraid of getting them out. So that's why you have hardly any gold. It's still not good town. Don't you think?
ARRAF: And by that, she means it's not clear whether Baghdad will remain secure. In the south of Iraq, where there are still thousands of unexcavated sites, protecting antiquities is even harder. That's where Hobby Lobby comes in. In May, U.S. prosecutors said thousands of artifacts from Iraq were smuggled into the U.S. under false labels. They were shipped for the craft store giant, whose president founded the new Museum of the Bible in Washington. Hobby Lobby said it made regrettable mistakes and paid a $3 million fine. Some of the objects, up to 4,000 years old, were turned over in a ceremony in Washington to the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Fareed Yasseen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FAREED YASSEEN: I thank you all for coming to this important event. The repatriation of some 3,800 ancient artifacts by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ARRAF: They include about 450 cuneiform tablets, many of them from an ancient city in the south of Iraq, Irisagrig. At the Iraq museum, Gailani tells me that until looted tablets mentioning the city started finding their way to market after 2003, no one had heard of it.
AL-GAILANI: It's a small town, probably, and in the south, near what we call the city of Omar (ph) because apparently, quite a lot of these tablets that were found mentioned Omar. We don't know where it is, but we know the area.
ARRAF: There's so little known about Irisagrig because it hasn't been discovered by archaeologists. There are hundreds of those sites.
AL-GAILANI: If we take only sort of ancient era, it's 3,000 years. And so they didn't live in one or two cities. The place is absolutely full of these little mounds of towns, not necessarily big cities.
ARRAF: The Hobby Lobby tablets are said to be a complete archive, a lot of them dealing with contracts, buying and selling and a few incantations to summon the gods. There are also hundreds of cylinder seals - small, engraved stone cylinders that were rolled out on clay to be used as signatures.
AL-GAILANI: The south is rich of antiquities, much more than the north, you see. The south is easier and attractive because it's small objects - tablets. Everybody wants tablets. It's written things, you know, Sumerian, Babylonian, and it's easy to get. You dig a hole, and most probably you find something.
ARRAF: And the biblical connection - largely that these tablets were written roughly in the same period that some believe the prophet Abraham was around.
The Hobby Lobby collection will be coming back to the Iraq Museum in fall. Gailani says she fears the looting of Iraq's unprotected sites will continue. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.