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New Policy on Cuneiform Texts from Iraq

American Schools of Oriental Research
30 November 2004

At its most recent Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in November 2004, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) adopted an exception to its current policies to permit the publication in ASOR journals and books and the presentation at its meetings of undocumented cuneiform texts from Iraq (numbering likely in the hundreds of thousands) under limited circumstances. These circumstances include obtaining consent of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and depositing the texts in certain United States museums and research institutions for the purpose of restitution to Iraq once conditions in Iraq make such return feasible. This exception to ASORís stringent policy regarding unprovenanced artifacts, which parallels the policies of other archaeological organizations and UNESCO guidelines, is designed to preserve the historical information contained in these texts, while acknowledging the intellectual and ownership interests of Iraq in its cultural heritage.

Eric Meyers, Duke Professor and former ASOR president, and Patty Gerstenblith, Professor of Law at DePaul University in Chicago, co-chaired an ASOR committee of specialists in archaeology and ancient texts that passed the resolution. According to Meyers, "the two wars in Iraq, the 1991 Gulf War and the current Iraq War, have created an emergency situation that is unprecedented." He reported "that approximately 150,000 or more cuneiform tablets are currently being looted and illegally smuggled out of Iraq per year and tens of thousands more of partially preserved ones are being thrown away because they fetch a lower price on the open market. This has resulted in the pillage of an unprecedented number of archaeological sites and the incalculable loss of historical information."

In view of this desperate situation, the American Schools of Oriental Research has adopted this limited exception to its policy with regard to publishing unprovenanced artifacts. During a very spirited meeting in San Antonio, ASOR decided that it was important to save whatever survives of ancient Mesopotamian history, while continuing the fight against looting and the trade in illegal antiquities.

The text of the new policy reads as follows:

Policy with Respect to the Publication of Undocumented Textual Material from Iraq (passed unanimously by several ASOR committees as well as the Board of Trustees, 18-20 November 2004):

Publication and presentation at ASOR meetings would be allowed if the following two criteria are both met before the study and publication occur:

1. The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq [SBAH] gives its consent.

2. Materials to be published are returned to Iraq and are in the ownership and custody of the SBAH.

Note: Because of current conditions in Iraq, "return to Iraq" would include temporary placement of the material on loan with an academic research institution in the United States which is approved by the SBAH, does not acquire undocumented antiquities, and commits in writing to transfer such material to Iraq at any time upon request from the SBAH. Such material will be numbered and photographed and this information shall be transmitted to the SBAH before publication or presentation. Under no circumstances could such material be sold or title transferred to any institution outside of Iraq. The ASOR Baghdad Committee can make a determination as to when conditions in Iraq permit the immediate return of materials to Iraq and this provision for temporary placement in a US institution would then no longer be applicable.

3. In addition, the ASOR-sponsored publication and any future ASOR-sponsored publication of this material must include a reference to the fact that the published texts are unprovenanced. Additional facts that are known concerning the acquisition or appearance of the texts in the United States should also be included.

The American Schools of Oriental Research, founded in 1900, is a nonprofit organization located at Boston University. ASORís stated objectives are to initiate, encourage and support research into the cultures of the Near East from the earliest times, and to help the public understand these findings. ASOR fosters such original research as archaeological excavations and explorations, and encourages scholarship in the basic languages, cultural histories and traditions of the ancient Near East. ASOR also publishes one of the most prestigious journals on cuneiform texts, the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, founded more than fifty years ago. For more information, please visit, email or call 617 353-6570.