The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute
is returning a set of 300 ancient Iranian tablets, documents
that provide details of the inner workings of the administration
of the ancient Persian Empire, to the Iranian Cultural Heritage
Organization, the national antiquities department, in the first
return of loaned archaeological items there since the 1979
The 300 tablets, made of clay and impressed in
cuneiform, record administrative details of the Persian
heartland from about 500 B.C. They are among a group of tens of
thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to
the University’s Oriental Institute in 1937 to be studied. A
group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another
group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.
The tablets have been difficult to read
because information about the Persian Empire had been largely
limited to non-Persian sources. That non-Persian information
came from Greek writers such as Herodotus and Latin authors, and
mostly concerns encounters between the Persian Empire and Greek
states, encounters of warfare, and diplomacy. Information from
the tablets provided one of the first opportunities to gather
data on the empire from Persian sources.
“The Persian Empire was the largest and most
durable empire of its time. The empire stretched from Ethiopia,
through Egypt, to Greece, to Anatolia (modern Turkey), Central
Asia and to India,” said Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson
Professor at the Oriental Institute, an expert on ancient Iran.
In addition to administrative information on
the empire and its governance, the texts also contain seal
impressions that indicate the existence of some
otherwise-unknown administrative offices. The texts identify for
the first time leaders of various portions of the empire and
expand on material in other non-Persian texts.
“Archaeologists were excited when they found
the tablets because of their potential, but the information they
contain has exceeded all our expectations,” Stolper said.
University of Chicago archaeologists
discovered the tablets in 1933 while excavating in Persepolis,
the capital of the Persian Empire and the site of a major
Oriental Institute excavation. The institute has resumed work in
collaboration with colleagues in Iran, and the return of the
tablets is part of a broadening of contacts between scholars in
the two countries, said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental
“I see returning these tablets as part of a
partnership. As we complete our work on other tablets, we intend
to return them also,” he said.
Books with the translations and seal
impressions on the tablets have been published. An edition,
including translations of about 2100 of the tablets, was
published by the Oriental Institute in 1969; the first of three
volumes publishing the seal impressions on those 2100 texts was
published in 2002. The 300 tablets being returned now are a
representative sample of those 2100 published texts. Later
returns will begin with the rest of those 2100 texts. Digital
images also have been produced, which will be shared with the
A delegation headed by Stein will return the
tablets to Iran in early May, where they will be received by
officials of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization. Laura
D’Alessandro, museum conservator and a member of the
delegation, oversaw the careful packing of the tablets.
The tablets being returned record information
such as daily rations of barley that were given to workers in
nearby regions of the empire. Officials in those locations sent
tablets to the capital in order to record how much they were
paying workers and also to provide information on delegations
passing through the region.
“These tablets function much like credit
card receipts,” said Charles Jones, Research Associate and
Librarian at the Oriental Institute and tablet expert. “They
provide an incredibly rich amount of information.” The basic
daily ration for an adult male worker was about one and a half
quarts of barley and a half-quart of beer or wine. Many workers
received two to five times as much. People of very high
political or social status received many times more than that.
The tablets are representative of 30
categories of documents produced by a single branch of the
“The texts let us know where the workers
came from. Many were from distant parts of the empire, from
Babylonia, Syria, Egypt, Thrace (north of modern Greece) and
from areas that are now part of Turkey as well as Afghanistan,
areas that are now part of Pakistan, and Central Asia, ” he
said. The tablets date from the middle of the reign of Darius I,
509 B.C. to 494 B.C.
Cuneiform writing, the style used on the
tablets, was developed to write Sumerian and Akkadian. It also
was used to write other languages. One of those other languages
was Elamite. People had been writing Elamite language texts in
cuneiform since at least 2200 B.C. There are administrative
texts in Elamite from about 1000 B.C.
When speakers of Iranian language came to
western Iran, they found people who were writing Elamite texts
in cuneiform script. In Persia itself, the Persians continued to
write Elamite in cuneiform script. These administrative tablets
were written in Persia, by Persian-speakers, for Persian
speakers, but they were written in Elamite .
Oriental Institute scholar Richard Hallock
spent 40 years on the difficult work of studying and translating
the tablets. The unfamiliar appearance of the script makes it
hard even for seasoned cuneiformists to learn well; the Elamite
language is poorly understood in detail. But above all, these
texts record matters of detail, and they become clear only when
seen in large numbers. Consequently,
Hallock’s publication of 2100 tablets
revolutionized the study of Achaemenian Persia—including
Elamite and Old Iranian languages, history and geography, and
That work continues at the Oriental Institute,
which is preparing an electronic version of the tablets to be
updated regularly as new tablets are studied.
“The electronic version will have facsimiles
of the tablets as well as transliterations,” Stolper said.
“The broader meaning and implication depends on being able to
see pattern, structure and variation in large numbers of
generally similar texts. The more data that can be added, that
is, the more texts presented, the more secure the patterns and
their implications for other parts of Persian society.”