The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
(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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
H E W O R K
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
H E I
N S I G H T
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
contexts of image making and usage.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
H E C R I S I S
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.
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
immunity of the collection.
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.
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.
H E F U T U R E
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
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.
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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