U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will return several thousand ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, to the Republic of Iraq. The artifacts were smuggled into the United States in violation of federal law and shipped to Hobby Lobby stores, a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer. The shipping labels on these packages falsely described the cuneiform tablets as tile samples. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

The priceless artifacts entered the United States seven years ago in packages labeled “tile samples,” addressed to the locations of several Hobby Lobby crafts stores.

On Wednesday, those artifacts — nearly 4,000 in all — were returned to the Republic of Iraq at a celebration at the residence of Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen.

Calling the repatriation an act of “historic justice,” Yasseen thanked the federal agents responsible for recovering the smuggled antiquities, items he described as “part of our soul.”

“Iraqis have long memories. We have a kinship with these artifacts,” Yasseen said.

The event marked the end of the international investigation of black-market antiquities and the Green family, the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby crafts stores and collectors of biblical artifacts who were a driving force behind the opening of Washington’s Museum of the Bible last November. The museum was not involved in the settlement, and the returned objects were not part of its collection.

The 3,800 artifacts — including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals and inscribed clay bullae once used in commercial transactions, dating back to the third millennium B.C. — will be turned over to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture and to museums and universities for study and exhibition, the ambassador said.

In 2010, Hobby Lobby was offered a trove of items from ancient Mesopotamia in a deal that “was fraught with red flags,” said Richard Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “Hobby Lobby’s expert advised them to be careful about acquiring Iraqi cultural property because hundreds of thousands of objects had been looted from Iraqi archaeological sites.”

Company officials ignored the warnings. “The story should have ended there. Instead Hobby Lobby went ahead and bought the artifacts for $1.6 million,” Donoghue said. The Greens began collecting biblical material in 2009, and have amassed about 40,000 items, the family says. A few hundred are on display in the Washington museum.

Donoghue’s office reached a settlement with Hobby Lobby last July that required the company to forfeit the artifacts, pay a $3 million fine and submit to federal oversight for 18 months, Donoghue said, adding that the agreement “served as a deterrent” to others considering making deals on the black market.

Hobby Lobby officials did not respond to messages on Wednesday. When the settlement agreement was announced in July 2017, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said the company “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

The items recovered and repatriated tell the history of life from more than 4,000 years ago, explained Yale University professor Eckart Frahm, one of two experts authorities asked to review the artifacts. Most of the cuneiform tablets Frahm looked at in late 2016 were administrative and legal documents, and most date to 2300-1600 B.C. Frahm was able to trace some to Irisagrig, an ancient city on the Tigris River.

“The new texts from Irisagrig cast some fascinating light on what is, indeed, quite literally a ‘lost city,’ and help us reconstruct the social and economic life in a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian settlement,” Frahm said.

Many are in poor condition and almost certainly came from illicit excavations in Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion by U.S.-led forces, he said.

Frahm said the early tablets document everything from the food fed to the palace dogs to a royal visit.

“You can reconstruct history on a very detailed level. You can see who was sent where on a certain day to supervise work on a canal, repair a royal road, or visit a palace. You can establish how much soup the female palace weavers received in a given month,” Frahm said.

Yasseen emphasized Iraq’s strict laws protecting its cultural heritage, and he expressed gratitude to the American officials for their efforts. “They serve a sense of historic justice because they are returning items to their natural homes, and to a nation that is very attached to its cultural heritage,” he said.