May 21, 2020

Epic of Gilgamesh tablet to leave Hobby Lobby’s Bible Museum


An image of the tablet (U.S. District Court Eastern District of NY)

The arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby is known as much for its extra-retail pursuits  as it is for model airplanes and macrame kits. The most widely publicized of these pursuits is the store’s hobby for lobbying for their right to impose their management’s religious baggage on its workers.

In fact, the company literally constructed a museum dedicated to that baggage, in the form of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this week, the Feds announced the forfeiture of a particularly literary piece from the Museum’s collection: a cuneiform tablet with part of the Epic of Gilgamesh etched on it.

Why the intervention? Because like a baby in a basket found on the banks of the Nile, the tablet is of uncertain origins.

As Tim Stelloh writes for NBCNews:

Court documents filed Monday assert that the cuneiform tablet — one of 12 inscribed with the Gilgamesh tale — was discovered in 1853 in Assyrian ruins in northern Iraq.

The documents say Hobby Lobby bought it from an unidentified auction house, which told the company the piece was acquired in San Francisco “well before” 1981. However, the tablet was, in fact, purchased by an unidentified antiquities dealer in 2003 from the family of the former head of the Jordanian Antiquities Association, The New York Times reported.

The piece—along with many other items in the Museum’s collection—either ended up in the United States illegally, or is of insufficient provenance to stay here. Thus it has become part of a Department of Homeland Security effort to return wayward artifacts to Egypt and Iraq.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.