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Iraq Antiquities Find Sparks Controversy

10 April 2006 (All day)
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TRIESTE, ITALY--Italian researchers in Iraq claim to have stumbled upon an important cache of ancient clay tablets in one of the world's oldest cities. But others dispute the claim, and Iraqi authorities say the scientists have been acting illegally.

No archaeologist has been given permission to do excavations since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein. But last month, Italy's National Research Council announced that it had discovered some 500 rare tablets on the surface of Eridu, a desert site in southern Iraq. The team was reconnoitering artifacts and architecture for an online virtual museum project and said the tablets were exposed by an explosion.

According to team member Giovanni Pettinato, an assyriologist at Rome's La Sapienza University, the tablets date from 2600 to 2100 B.C.E. and hold inscriptions featuring an unusually wide variety of literary, lexical, and historical content. He thinks they may have been part of a library.

But the find, which was widely publicized in recent weeks, has puzzled and outraged archaeologists in Iraq and abroad. Eridu was largely abandoned during the period in question, and Elizabeth Stone, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says most real libraries were created much later than the dates the Italian team suggests. Given the remoteness of the site from urban areas and battle zones, the reasons for an explosion are unclear. "And I cannot believe that if a tablet were involved in an explosion, it would survive," notes Stone, who was part of a U.S. team that inspected the site a month after the war began. The group did spot ancient bricks stamped with kings' names, she says, but such bricks are common and offer little historical information.

Donny George, chair of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, sent an irate e-mail to the Pettinato team on 6 April in search of an explanation. An Iraqi group sent recently to Eridu to investigate found no evidence of tablets, he wrote: "Why all this media propaganda ... for something that is not real?" George also scolded the Italians for unauthorized work at nearby Ur, another ancient Sumerian city, where he says they have dug out "foundation stones and door sockets" and taken them to a nearby museum. As at Eridu, he wrote, they only had permission to take photos, so their actions are "a clear violation of the Iraqi antiquities law. ... This means that you may be taken to an Iraqi court."

In a statement to Science today, Pettinato confirmed that an inscribed foundation stone was taken to Nassiriya's museum following a judge's authorization. As for the Eridu find, he said the bricks and tablets have not been removed by the researchers.

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