05 May 2020
The Border Force officers had struck gold, it seemed. Or at least extremely valuable clay.
Two metal trunks stuffed with cuneiform tablets apparently shedding light on the ancient world had been seized at Heathrow, interrupting a smuggling chain that linked the looted treasures of Mesopotamia with Britain’s collectors.
When the treasures — 190 tablets and assorted figurines and pots in animal shapes — were brought to the British Museum for authentication, however, the curators were puzzled.
Why was the cuneiform script complete gobbledygook?
The Border Force had indeed stumbled upon a smuggling operation but one involving worthless pieces of clay manufactured in a Middle Eastern factory for sale to British collectors with little understanding of history, never mind cuneiform.
“Some of the inscriptions are just jumbles of signs at random,” St John Simpson, a senior curator, said. “Some of the marks are completely new shapes which are unknown and more like Toblerone bars than anything else.”
The smugglers had made other elementary mistakes. They had used the wrong clay and made the tablets the wrong size. The set appeared to be a suspiciously complete run-through of Mesopotamian writing. They had also been fired in a kiln whereas everyday tablets thousands of years ago dried in the sun.
Mr Simpson said it was unlikely the would-be recipients, or indeed smugglers, had a knowledge of cuneiform, the world’s most difficult writing, which was extinct by the time of the Romans.
The museum’s own collection includes the royal library at Nineveh, built by Ashurbanipal, who reigned in 669-631BC and is recognised as the last great Assyrian king before the ancient Mesopotamian world disappeared.
“Anyone who has handled cuneiform tablets would have their suspicion aroused fairly quickly,” Mr Simpson said. “It’s difficult to understand why people want to collect antiquities. Sometimes to have a sense of history or just to have a touch? It says something about the gullibility of collectors.”
The fakes arrived at Heathrow from Bahrain on July 1. The faking of antiquities appears to be gathering steam after a crackdown on the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq and Iran from the 1990s through to the 2010s. The death penalty can be imposed for breaches of Iraq’s national antiquity laws.
By David Sanderson, The Times, 5 May 2020
Read more at The Times
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