Oriental Institute returned a set of 300 ancient Iranian tablets
to the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization last week in the
first return of loaned archaeological items since the 1979
revolution in Iran. The tablets, which provide details of the
inner workings of the administration of the ancient Persian
Empire, are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and
tablet fragments that were loaned to the University’s Oriental
Institute in 1937.
The tablets were warmly received in a ceremony
in Tehran attended by officials from the ICHO, as well as
representatives of a number of ministries and the prime minister
and president’s offices.
At the ceremony, Gil Stein, Director of the
Oriental Institute, said, “It is a great privilege for us to
return the tablets to their home. We plan on continuing returning
more tablets. We are very fortunate to be able to work as partners
with Iranian scholars in creating a framework between the Oriental
Institute and ICHO.”
Mohammad Beheshti, head of the ICHO, said,
“Even though this material is part of the Iranian cultural
heritage, it also is part of the world cultural heritage.” He
welcomed the cooperation between the two institutions.
Laura D’Alessandro, museum conservator and a
member of the delegation, oversaw the careful packing of the
tablets and presented a workshop on conservation to colleagues in
Tehran as part of the visit.
The 300 returned tablets, which are made of clay
and impressed in cuneiform, record administrative details of the
Persian heartland from about 500 B.C. A group of 179 complete
tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than
37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.
As information about the Persian Empire had been
largely limited to non-Persian sources, the tablets have been
difficult to read. That non-Persian information came from Greek
writers such as Herodotus and Latin authors, and mostly concerns
encounters of warfare and diplomacy between the Persian Empire and
Greek states. Information from the tablets provided one of the
first opportunities to gather data on the empire from Persian
“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 in the Oriental Institute and 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 ranks in the empire and expand on material in
other non-Persian texts.
University 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 tablets document such information as the
daily rations of barley given to workers in nearby regions of the
empire. “These tablets function much like credit card
receipts,” said Charles Jones, Research Associate and Librarian
at the Oriental Institute and a 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.
Books with the translations and seal impressions
on the tablets have been published. The remainder of those texts
will be returned at later dates. Digital images also have been
produced, which will be shared with the Iranians.