Politics unfortunately overshadow the important information inscribed in one of cilvilization's most important historical archives. The inscription in Old Persian comes as a complete surprise to scholars who have studied thousands of similar tablets in an archive excavated from the ruins of Persepolis. Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
While I was in Tehran, meeting with officials and getting ready for my road trip, I was struck by how much a certain project I was aware of epitomizes the current state of relations between Iran and the United States. It is the Oriental Institute’s Persepolis Fortification Archive project. It involves old relations between countries, extremist politics, the horror of terrorism, and brinksmanship. All this swirling around what should be simply “archaeology.” Here’s the back story.
Until now, scholars thought that Old Persian, the spoken language of the Achaemenid Persian kings, such as Darius and Xerxes, was written down only to commemorate the kings in royal statements on monuments. Last year grantee Matthew Stolper of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and colleagues discovered a clay tablet that tells a different story. The tablet is one of 25,000 clay records in a collection known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive.
The tablets were retrieved from excavations in the 1930s at ancient Persepolis, or Takht-e-Jamshid, in Iran and then loaned by Iran to the Oriental Institute for long-term study. The archive is an invaluable record of administrative activities, such as storage and payouts of food, in the heart of the Persian Empire around 2500 years ago. Yet the records weren’t actually kept in the Persian language. Most of them were written in Elamite or Aramaic, languages that had already been used for this kind of administrative recording for hundreds of years.
This is the first of the tablets from the archive that is inscribed with Old Persian. In fact, it is the first tablet of this kind ever found anywhere. According to Stolper, this may be an indication that Old Persian was used as a practical written language in Darius’s time after all.
In February of 2007, National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, with strong support from committee member and prominent Near Eastern archaeologist Melinda Zeder, supported a request from Stolper to contribute toward an emergency effort to document the remaining one-third of the archive of clay tablets and fragments in preparation for their return to Iran.
This urgency exists because the portion of the archive remaining in the custody of the Oriental Institute has become a target in an unfortunate legal battle involving American victims of a 1997 Hamas bombing attack in Israel. A U.S. court ruled that the Islamic Republic of Iran is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The plaintiffs in the case are attempting to seize the Persepolis tablets and essentially hold them for ransom in the hope that Iran will pay the damages.
The families of U.S. marines killed or wounded in a 1983 bombing in Beirut have joined the suit and want to apply any receipts garnered from the valuable tablets against a $2.7 billion judgement against Iran which they received last year. In supporting the Oriental Institute’s project, the National Geographic Society is making a strong statement in support of the principal that issues of cultural heritage should rise above politics.
The tension surrounding these tablets reminds me of the current tension between the nations of Iran and the U.S.. There is a lot of old baggage, politics, pain and loss, and blustering. Cultural heritage should not be used as a weapon against nations. It is world heritage we're talking about.
Should Iran’s tablets be sold or held for ransom to pay damages to terror victim’s families?