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Experts Back in Modern Iran to Again Study Ancient Persia


News Category:


 30 April 2004



After an absence of a quarter-century, Western archaeologists are trickling back into Iran, encouraged by local officials seeking wider scientific contacts with foreigners.

In the last three years, a few American and European archaeologists have quietly resumed excavations primarily at ruins of the ancient Persian empire, which flourished 2,500 years ago. Their numbers are expected to swell in coming months as a result of a new openness toward foreign scholars, proclaimed by Iranian cultural leaders last August at a conference in Tehran. "We were told that Western researchers are welcome to Iran," Dr. Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, said in a telephone interview. "Part of Iran at least is very interested in improving relations with the West, and believes that scholarship and research play an integral role in that."

As a gesture of good faith, the institute announced yesterday that it was returning a set of 300 ancient Persian clay tablets to the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, the national antiquities department. They were described as the first archaeological items to be shipped back since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah. The tablets, inscribed with cuneiform writing from about 500 B. C., were among tens of thousands of such items discovered by Chicago archaeologists that were loaned to the institute in 1937 for translation and study. Thousands of tablet fragments were returned to Iran in 1951.

Reformers in the Iranian government have sought to reassure foreigners that their projects will be given a high priority. In the current issue of Archaeology magazine, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, Dr. Jhalil Golshan of the Iranian cultural organization was quoted as saying, "We are ready to collaborate."

Dr. Stein said in the interview that "the main concern of the Iranians is that the new relationship be a partnership of equals, rather than an asymmetrical kind" as in the past. This meant that Iran wanted its own researchers more involved in both excavations and the analysis of findings. A Chicago team, led by Dr. Abbas Alizadeh, is already surveying ancient irrigation in the Khuzestan region near the Iraq border. Dr. Holly Pittman, an archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University, is investigating Bronze Age remains in central Iran. A team from Dartmouth and the State University of New York at Binghamton is digging at a prehistoric site near Persepolis, the old Persian capital.

Work has also been started or planned by archaeologists from Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. The Germans are excavating ancient copper production sites on the Iranian Plateau. The French are digging at a site associated with the Persian ruler Cyrus I. The hardened clay tablets being repatriated date from the middle of the reign of Darius I, 509 B. C. to 494 B. C. Although the inscribed writing is cuneiform, a script developed more than 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians in what is now Iraq, the words are Elamite, an early language of what is now Iran. Dr. Matthew Stolper, a Chicago professor and specialist on ancient Iran, said that most of the tablets were no larger than a modern credit card, each one recording a single transaction. Dr. Stein and other Chicago officials are to fly to Tehran at the end of the week with their cargo in hand.

Source : New York Times




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