Letter: Pillaged history

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The Independent Culture
Sir: John Windsor reports (19 September) on the increasing popularity of cuneiform clay tablets originating in ancient Mesopotamia as collectors' items. Two wider issues should be considered by potential purchasers:

Many such tablets are illicitly exported from their country of origin and have often been acquired by pillaging archaeological sites. While sanctions remain in place against Iraq, the smuggling of antiquities has become one of the few ways in which ordinary Iraqis can obtain the currency necessary to buy essential food and medicine for their children. There are widespread rumours that organised crime has also become involved in what is an extremely lucrative trade.

These tablets were originally stored in archives, as Windsor reports. The whole archive, whether that of a public institution like a temple or of a private family, gives a picture of the workings of that institution through time, but to take a single tablet from its context is like trying to reconstruct the history of a company from a single page of its accounts. Much valuable information is irretrievably lost about one of the world's most important civilisations.

Tablets may be an interesting investment with a certain cachet, but buyers should be aware that the true cost of purchasing them may be far higher than John Windsor suggests.

Dr HARRIET CRAWFORD

Institute of Archaeology

University College London

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