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Of Ancient Empires, and Modern Litigation

 A Lawsuit Jeopardise the Persepolis Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute


24 December 2007




Interpreting and recording the Persepolis Fortification Archive tablets is one of many projects that University of Chicago Professor Matthew W. Stolper has been pursuing over the past twenty-odd years that he has served as their steward, and he had been proceeding at an intermittent pace. Today, patience is not an option. Stolper may be the last at the University of Chicago to steward and clear these opaque windows into the Empire of Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Xerxes. The remainder of his yield is imperiled by a lawsuit that could result either in their transfer into the hands of private buyers and sellers or their return to Iran.




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The Oriental Institute began excavations at the site in 1933.


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About 30,000 tablets were unearthed at Persepolis. Most of them deal with day-to-day distribution of food and supplies, and contain invaluable information for the study of Achaemenid Persians.

  (Click to enlarge)


LONDON, (CAIS) -- “Persians wrote Persian in Persia—would you believe that this couldn’t be said with any certainty until the tablets had revealed it?” This is one of the latest revelations of the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA) Project, which is headed by Matthew W. Stolper, John A. Wilson professor of Assyriology at the Oriental Institute (OI) and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.


Stolper explained that it was confirmed by the discovery that one of the estimated 30,000 clay tablets of the Archive is written in Old Persian, proof that the written language was used for practical recording and not only for royal display.


Insights such as this have been transforming our understanding of the Achaemenid Persians since the tablets were discovered in southwestern Iran at Persepolis, the chief imperial residence of the Achaemenid Persian kings, in 1933 by a team of archeologists from the Oriental Institute.


The tablets, which the OI has had on loan ever since they were discovered, are administrative documents dating from c. 500 BC and bearing texts primarily in the ancient languages of Elamite and Aramaic, as well as impressions of seals. Nothing like them had ever been found before at an Achaemenid site, and nothing comparable in size and scope has been found since.


Interpreting and recording the tablets is one of many projects that Stolper has been pursuing over the past twenty-odd years that he has served as their steward, and he had been proceeding at an intermittent pace. Today, patience is not an option. Stolper may be the last at the University of Chicago to steward and clear these opaque windows into the Empire of Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Xerxes. The remainder of his yield is imperiled by a lawsuit that could result either in their transfer into the hands of private buyers and sellers or their return to Iran. Each outcome likely would render them off-limits to Western scholarship for the foreseeable future.


In response to the crisis, Stolper is leading an expedited effort to record as much information as the tablets can possibly share. His efforts, which may be the last at the OI, are preceded by those of many determined scholars who have dedicated their scholarly lives to revealing the view of the Empire that was captured and preserved inadvertently by the tablets, which had once been dismissed as banal administrative documents but have since proved to be nothing less than revolutionary.


At its height, the Achaemenid Persian Empire ruled a continent, from India and Central Asia to Egypt and Macedonia. Darius I and his successors built Persepolis from about 520 BC onward to be the chief imperial residence of the royal family. It was destroyed after 320 BC as a result of its conquest by Alexander the Great and the wars among his successors. Ever since European travelers began in the 1600s to visit Persepolis, the massive standing ruins on the great stone terrace at the site have been renowned in the West as the most spectacular remains of the Persian Empire.


Yet Persepolis itself remained unexcavated until archaeologists from the OI began work there in 1931. In 1933, preparing to build a ramp for truck access to the terrace, the OI team cleared the remains of a bastion in the mud-brick fortification wall. In the process they discovered clay tablets in two chambers of the fortifications (hence the name of the Archive). Within a few months the excavator, Ernst Herzfeld, could report on the stunning size and complexity of the find, which was without parallel in the exploration of the Achaemenid past; they had unearthed as many as 30,000 tablets and fragments, most with cuneiform texts in Elamite language, some with Aramaic texts, at least one and perhaps more with texts of other kinds, and impressions of thousands of seals.


In more than fifty years of earlier exploration, only one tablet of this kind had been found, and almost nothing about it could be understood. Making sense of the find would require painstaking work, so in 1936 the tablets were sent to Chicago on loan for study and publication.



T H E  W O R K

The discovery of the Fortification tablets was widely publicized. Here at last was a view of the Persian Empire derived not from the records of its subjects, such as the Babylonians or Egyptians, or its adversaries, such as Herodotus, Xenophon, and other Greek authors, but from the vantage of its rulers in their homeland. The Empire whose intricate connections and conflicts with Greece gave rise to the very concepts of the East and the West would now tell its side of the story.


These lofty hopes were soon dampened, as the tablets were found to be mundane administrative records. They deal not with the words and deeds of kings and commanders but with outlays of grain and flour, wine and beer, livestock and fruit. And most of the texts are in Elamite, an indigenous language written in Iran for almost 2,000 years before the Achaemenid Empire was founded. It was poorly understood and studied by only a few scholars who often disagreed bitterly.


Moreover, there were no comparable Elamite texts. It was to take years of fundamental work to make these sources tractable. To complicate matters further, the team of young scholars that set to work on the Fortification tablets shrank considerably owing to World War II. The vicissitudes of postwar academic life would leave only a few individuals working on them in isolation thereafter.


Foremost among them was Richard T. Hallock (1906 –1980), who returned to the OI from wartime naval service and spent the rest of his life working on the Elamite Fortification texts. “His work was meticulous and economical,” says Stolper. “He wrote on the backs of old manuscripts and department meeting announcements. He didn’t publish much, and what he did publish were terse statements that concealed the years of effort behind his hard-won conclusions. His colleagues at Chicago didn’t see or hear much from him. They thought he was a plodder, the kind of thinker who preferred to look at how ants moved in the dirt rather than how the stars moved across the sky.”


In 1969, Hallock published a magisterial edition of over 2,000 Elamite Fortification texts with a detailed introduction, a list of identifiable seals, a sketch of Achaemenid Elamite grammar, and a complete glossary of all known Achaemenid Elamite texts. This work launched the renaissance and transformation of Achaemenid studies in the 1970s.


The seal impressions on the Elamite tablets published by Hallock are the objects of a close study initiated by Margaret Root in 1978 and coming to fruition with Garrison & Root 2001, the first volume of a three-part, definitive publication of the impressions of more than 1,100 seals.


The laborious work of Hallock and Root, as well as other scholars who have published on the tablets, has transformed the study of the Achaemenid Persians.


The tablets have proved to be an unexpectedly rich source of information on languages, art, society, institutions, interconnections, history, and culture, with far-reaching implications in many fields.




“They are like the bones of a prehistoric creature. The tens of thousands of pieces of the Archive were once articulated elements of a single organism ...”



T H E  I N S I G H T

The PFA was an administrative repository in which the royal clerks and supervisors recorded the storage and outlay of stocks of food. Most of the Elamite documents that record single transactions were written in about 150 villages and about a dozen district centers in the region around Persepolis and then brought into Persepolis itself. Once there, these records were compiled in larger secondary records. After that, the primary records were to be discarded, and the secondary records were held for fifteen or more years. Therefore, most of the dated primary records come from the later years of the PFA, and most of the dated secondary records are from the earlier years. This is not only a structured set of data from a structured organization—it is a flow of data with a timeline.


As Stolper describes the collection, “They are like the bones of a prehistoric creature. The tens of thousands of pieces of the Archive were once articulated elements of a single organism, an information system that served a single administrative institution. We have a snapshot of a life span interrupted, a rare and invaluable archaeological discovery.”


The tablets are made of clay and were formed by hand. Cuneiform texts and seals were impressed when the tablet surfaces were leather-hard, and the texts and impressions became permanent when the clay dried. Aramaic texts were sometimes incised in the leather-hard surfaces, but more often they were penned or brushed in ink on dry tablets.


Tablets with primary records are mostly small enough to fit easily into the palm of a hand and usually were formed around knotted strings that are still preserved inside the tablets. Often they were made hastily from poorly cleaned clay. The secondary tablets were made more carefully, and they are mostly larger than the primary records.


Many of the smaller primary tablets, and a few of the larger secondary tablets, were found intact or nearly so. Far more of them were broken—first when the building where they were stored collapsed and then during 2,500 years buried in the ruins.


Hallock’s edition of texts drawn from the tablets expanded the quantity of known Elamite by at least tenfold. The Elamite and Aramaic texts are also a treasury of Iranian names, titles, and administrative terminology. The Old Persian language of the Achaemenid royal inscriptions attests only about 400–500 words; the edited Elamite texts already available attest at least twice that amount, making the Fortification texts the largest known source for Old Iranian lexicon preserved in indirect transmission.


The fact that some of the Iranian terms are transcribed in differing forms allows recognition of dialect variation. Their dense archival context makes it possible to reinterpret cognate information transcribed in other languages—Babylonian, Egyptian, Aramaic, and Greek. Some of the Iranian terms found in the royal inscriptions with high-register, ideologically charged meaning recur in the administrative texts with low-register, quotidian senses, giving depth to the lexicon and vitality to the remains of these dead idioms. This is a characteristic shared by the PFA as a whole—it reveals the commonplace but complicated realities that lay behind the colorful Greek tales of high life at the Achaemenid courts.


In a similar way, the seal impressions on the tablets provide a new perspective. As the most commonly occurring artifact that carries figural imagery, seals traditionally have been a backbone of the study of the art of the ancient Near East. The glyptic corpus preserved in the PFA is remarkable for the great diversity of motifs, iconography, and carving styles that it preserves. What is more, these images document a critical time in the development of Achaemenid art, when a canon of official court art was created in the reign of Darius I.


Unlike the monumental relief and statuary of the time of Darius, the seal imagery preserves stages of experimentation of this official court art. It also opens an extraordinary portal into the influence of Elamite, Babylonian, and Assyrian arts on the formation of the official Achaemenid court art. The PFA seal corpus teems with implications and data on the social and

political contexts of image making and usage.


The Elamite documents deal with the storage, transfer, and payment of food meant for people on the government payroll, and they were distributed and accounted for by administrators organized in five main branches: cereals, beer and wine, fruit, livestock and poultry, and workers. Among people who received supplies were ordinary workers, some getting less than subsistence rations; skilled craftsmen, many labeled as foreigners from remote provinces; the administrators, clerks, auditors, and supervisors who operated the system; travelers on official business and hailing from places as remote as India in the East and Anatolia in the West; members of the royal family and inner court circles; and even gods and their religious officiants. This may not be the whole spectrum of Achaemenid imperial society, but it is a far broader spectrum than can be identified in any other data set. The texts provide deep insights into the Empire, mentioning authorizations from the satraps of distant provinces, some of them known from Herodotus and others wholly new to Achaemenid political history.


The Persepolis documents have made it impossible to go on thinking of the Achaemenid Persians as rude, barbarian rulers of civilized, literate subjects. The Achaemenids were conscious successors to millennia of statecraft and administrative technique. They were supported by meticulously controlled regional institutions, and they kept close communication with regional systems embedded in other societies of the Empire. In this sense, the high expectations of 1933 were finally fulfilled after 1969, when the publication of the first Elamite Fortification texts and a consequent appreciation led to a redirection of Achaemenid studies.


Of course, no single text describes the system with an organizational chart or an information flow chart. Comprehension of the information system and the institution comes from a network of connections among texts, seal impressions, place names, personnel, commodities, work gangs, etc., forming a sort of tension structure that becomes more stable as more points are tied together. This is a large part of what can be expected from the balance of the PFA that remains to be recorded: more data points to bolster existing connections and fill in gaps. Should the integrity of the Archive be compromised by the current crisis, the ability to study these myriad data points as a single thing would be lost.


Consider the Old Persian text that was discovered recently. Because there are no other such documents in Old Persian, interpreting this one depends wholly on comparisons with the Elamite and Aramaic documents with which it was found. “This shows how important it is to keep the Persepolis Fortification texts together, to keep the Archive intact,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. “Unexpected discoveries are still being made, and the meaning and reliability of every piece depend on its connections with the whole information system of the entire Fortification Archive.”


In size and durability, the Achaemenid Persian Empire had no equal before the creation of the Roman Empire and, like the Roman Empire, it created an arena of political, economic, and cultural connections of an unprecedented scale. As the last thirty years of Achaemenid research have shown, it laid the foundations on which the Hellenistic world spread and rose. This very immensity and diversity have made it difficult for modern scholarly disciplines, focused on its parts, to comprehend the Achaemenid whole. Among Egyptologists or Assyriologists, the Persian Empire has been seen as an episode of conquest and occupation in the late history of the Nile valley and Mesopotamia; among classicists, it has been seen as a barbarian threat to the glory that was Greece; among Biblical historians, it has been seen as an episode of benign restoration between episodes of oppressive conquest.


Among all of these, it has been seen as an external force rather than as an inclusive polity. This outcome is ameliorated by collaboration among specialists from different disciplines, but it is exacerbated by the scarcity of records from the Achaemenid centers themselves. The single most significant remedy to this is the Persepolis Fortification Archive, so disappointing to the first glances of its discoverers, so rich in its implications, and so heavily drawn upon today by modern scholars of the Middle East and beyond.


T H E  C R I S I S

In 2001, Stolper began to take digital photographs of the Elamite Fortification tablets that had been edited by Hallock to prepare for the online presentation of linked texts and images. In 2004, the OI returned 300 of the tablets that had been photographed and published to the Iranian National Museum in Tehran. The return, partially discharging the responsibilities of the loan of the tablets, received publicity that has precipitated the current crisis.


Victims of a 1997 bombing in Jerusalem brought a suit in federal court against Hamas and the Republic of Iran under federal anti-terrorism statutes. The victims sued the Republic of Iran as the state sponsor of the terrorist act. Hamas and Iran did not appear in court to defend themselves, and so the plaintiffs won a default judgment against them in 2003 for more than $250 million. Shortly after media coverage associated with the OI’s return of the 300 tablets to the Iranian National Museum, the plaintiffs sued the University in an action designed to seize the tablets as assets of the Iranian government and have them sold to satisfy the judgment. The University of Chicago has contested this claim, asserting that the tablets are immune from such seizure, a position supported by submissions to the court by the U.S. Department of State. As the issue has far-reaching implications for university research and museum work, the University expects to defend and appeal the case to any extent necessary. In the summer of 2006, the government of Iran also entered the litigation to assert its ownership of the tablets and

the immunity of the collection.


If the plaintiffs succeed, the tablets will be seized and then likely be sold and dispersed, the essential integrity of the PFA irreparably destroyed, and its components mostly lost to further research. If the defendants succeed, the Iranian government may well demand the immediate return of the tablets, possibly making them inaccessible for research for the immediate future.


In connection with the current litigation, the OI is required to retain the tablets in place, so Stolper’s office in the OI and other space dedicated to the PFA Project will remain the tablets’ home until the litigation comes to an end.




The tablets remain the subject of research while the legal process continues, and the output of this research may affect the eventual disposition of the tablets. Before the emergency, study of the tablets was carried on by isolated individuals or teams of two or three working separately on different kinds of data. In response to the emergency, the OI has accelerated and enlarged the Project.


The PFA Project team, which includes collaborating editors from several institutions as well as other OI and Chicago personnel, students, and volunteers, is responding to this emergency on two tracks: first, it is recording as many tablets as it can, as quickly as possible and at the highest quality through a combination of electronic and conventional paper media to avoid the delays that ordinarily characterize academic publication; second, it is making the recorded information available to others as quickly and widely as possible. Stolper has received several grants that have enabled his team to accelerate the work in the face of the crisis, and several more grant proposals are pending.


If anything can be said to be reassuring about this ordeal, it is that the tablets are in the best hands in which they could possibly be at this crucial moment.


As Humanities Dean and fellow professor of Assyriology Martha T. Roth points out, “Matt Stolper is one of the world’s foremost experts in this period; he is the right person in the right place to lead the effort to record and preserve this extraordinary legacy.




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Extracted From/Source*: Tableau Journal, Winter 2008 Issue


*Please note the above-news is NOT a "copy & paste" version from the mentioned-source. The news/article above has been modified with the following interventions by CAIS: Spelling corrections; -Rectification and correction of the historical facts and data; - Providing additional historical information within the text; -Removing any unnecessary, irrelevant & repetitive information.


All these measures have been taken in order to ensure that the published news provided by CAIS is coherent, transparent, accurate and suitable for academics and cultural enthusiasts who visit the CAIS website.


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