Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS OF THE IRANIAN WORLD
Discovery of the First Old-Persian-Inscription among the
19 June 2007
text shows that Old Persian was probably more
used than previously thought
idetified Old Persian
Clay Tablet from Persepolis
courtesy of Persepolis Fortification Archive Project
by Charles Ellwood Jones
Fortification Archive Project
Institute, University of Chicago
For the first time, a text has been found in Old Persian language
that shows the written language in use for practical recording and not only for
royal display. The text is inscribed on a damaged clay tablet from the
Persepolis Fortification Archive, now at the Oriental Institute at The
University of Chicago. The tablet is an administrative record of the payout of
at least 600 quarts of an as-yet unidentified commodity at five villages near
Persepolis in about 500 B.C.
“Now we can see that Persians living in Persia at the high point of the
Persian Empire wrote down ordinary day-to-day matters in Persian language and
Persian script,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “Odd as
it seems, that comes as a surprise—a very big surprise.”
Old Persian writing was the first of the cuneiform scripts to be deciphered,
between about 1800 and 1845. When the script was cracked, scholars saw that the
Old Persian language was an ancestor of modern Persian and a relative of
Sanskrit. Knowing that, they could understand the inscriptions of Darius, Xerxes
and their successors, the kings of the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great
in the mid-sixth century B.C. and destroyed by Alexander the Great and his
successors after 330 BC.
Until now, most scholars of Old Persian thought that Old Persian script and
language were used only for the inscriptions of kings on cliff faces or palaces,
or else to identify vessels of precious metals or other luxury goods that were
connected with the kings and their palaces. To write records of administration
or business, the Persians relied on languages and scripts—Aramaic, Babylonian,
Elamite, and others—already in use at the advent of the Empire.
The Persepolis Fortification Archive, excavated in 1933 at the imperial palace
complex of Persepolis, in southwestern Iran, and under study at the Oriental
Institute since 1937, is a prime example. The Archive includes tens of thousands
of clay tablets and fragments with texts in Elamite, an indigenous language
already written in Iran for almost two thousand years before the Persian Empire
was founded. It also includes hundreds of clay tablets and fragments with texts
in Aramaic, a Semitic language already used for practical recording over much of
the Near East since the days of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires (ninth to
sixth centuries BC). It also includes thousands of tablets with no texts at all,
but with impressions of seals.
But over the years of study, a few extraordinary items have also been discovered
among the Persepolis tablets: a text in Phrygian (a language of western
Anatolia, in modern Turkey), a text in Greek, and now a text in Persian, the
language of the Empire’s rulers.
“Most of the scribes around Persepolis could speak and write more than one
language, and this text might be just a quirky experiment done by one of
them,” said Matthew W. Stolper, head of the Oriental Institute’s Persepolis
Fortification Archive Project. “But it might also be the tip of an iceberg.”
He explained that in 500 B.C., just as now, administrative records did not work
as isolates, only as items in much larger files. Before 1933, there was only one
known example of an Achaemenid administrative tablet written inin Elamite, but
since the discovery of the Persepolis Fortification Archive there are thousands.
Like that first Achaemenid Elamite tablet, this Old Persian tablet “could also
be the first forerunner of something much bigger.”
Because there are no other such documents in Old Persian, interpreting this one
depends on comparisons with the Elamite and Aramaic documents with which it was
found. “The Old Persian tablet departs so much from expectations that its
authenticity would have been questioned if it had not been found in the
Fortification Archive,” Stolper said.
“This shows how important it is to keep the Persepolis Fortification texts
together, to keep the Archive intact,” Stein said. “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
Members of the Oriental Institute’s Persepolis Fortification Archive Project
first announced the discovery of the Old Persian tablet in November, 2006, at a colloquium
at the Collège de France and the University of Chicago’s Paris Center.
They described the document in greater detail at a meeting of the American
Oriental Society in March, 2007.
An article by Stolper and Jan Tavernier, of the University of Leuven (Belgium),
with images and discussion of the tablet and the text is now published in the
on-line journal ARTA:
Matthew W. Stolper & Jan Tavernier, From
the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, 1: An Old Persian Administrative
Tablet from the Persepolis Fortification
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies