Cuneiform Tablets Conference: Summary

On September 5-6, 2019, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute hosted a two-day conference entitled Cuneiform Tablets: Origins, trafficking, and best practices for the future, addressing the growth of the illicit trade of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. The conference, hosted by MCI cultural heritage preservation scholar Dr. Katharyn Hanson, convened 55 experts, scholars, diplomats, and members of law enforcement. Coming in the wake of recent high-profile cases where cuneiform tablets and clay bullae were forfeited and returned to their country of origin, the event aimed to harness the thinking power of participants across disciplines to discuss how to best apply lessons learned to improve coordination and effectiveness of future efforts in similar cases.   

The event kicked off with a keynote speech by DePaul University’s Dr. Morag Kersel: Buying and Selling Mesopotamia: The possible journey of approximately 450 ancient cuneiform tablets. Dr. Kersel emphasized recent shifts in the market of looted artifacts, the hands artifacts pass through in arriving to collectors and museums, and the mechanisms in place that both facilitate and hinder their movement in the supply chain. The Keynote was followed by presentations from 12 other scholars, each sharing their expertise and research on topics such as the use of XRF to trace artifacts’ provenance, updates in imaging techniques to improve artifact cataloguing and digital databases, and potential tools to improve coordination.

Following these presentations, participants discussed the ways in which they can apply and build off the information shared to improve the effectiveness of current efforts combatting the trade of stolen tablets. The event concluded with a mini workshop led by MCI conservators Ms. Jessie Johnson and Ms. Rebecca Kaczkowski on best practices for tablet handling, as well as determining the most effective packaging methods for conservation and repatriation.

This project was generously supported by a Smithsonian’s Scholarly Studies Grant.

Participants and presenters at the conference: Cuneiform Tablets: Origins, trafficking, and best practices for the future. Photograph by Dr. Keats Webb, Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution

Participants and presenters at the conference: Cuneiform Tablets: Origins, trafficking, and best practices for the future. Photograph by Dr. Keats Webb, Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution.