As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Should Iran Treasure Be Held for Ransom?
Posted Aug 18,2008

Stolpertablet_082007lr 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?

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (8)


Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

Sure, the tablets should be held by the courts...and the millions of victims of the US brutality, including the victims of the chemical weapons provided to Saddam Hussein by the US, and the victims of the Iranian civilian airliner shot down by the US navy, and the victims of the CIA-trained Shah's secret police, not to mention all the victims of the US-backed and trained nun-raping death squads in Latin America, should all also be allowed to pursue claims in US courts too. Then we'll see where the chips land.

Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

You know when setting up a blog like this, it is only polite to have a way to acknowledging that comments were received and are being held for moderation, or rejected, or whatever.

Rebecca Reeder-Hunt
Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

Your closing question presents a volatile issue as there would be no end to such claims. Eventually any nation could find itself on the "losing" end of this cultural issue. Let's play the devil's advocate: Timothy McVeigh who was raised as a Christian in New York was responsible for a 1995 act of terrorism in Oklahoma which killed 168 people. So does Oklahoma get to auction off items in New York museums?

arash a
Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

Following on from rebecca, does it mean all soldiers get to sue their killers??! And can the same be done against American soldiers!!? at the end of the day, thats their job, they chose it and they get paid for it!

Atusha Irani
Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

Aramaic is a script not a language.

chris sloan
Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

Interesting comment. Why does Wikipedia describe Aramaic as a language? What am I missing?

From the infallable (sic) Wikipedia:
"Aramaic is a Semitic language with a 5,000-year history. It has been the language of administration of empires and the language of divine worship. It is the original language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, and is the main language of the Talmud and Zohar. Aramaic was the native language of Jesus (see Aramaic of Jesus). Modern Aramaic is spoken today as a first language by numerous, scattered communities, most significantly by the Assyrians. The language is considered to be endangered."

A. J. Cave
Aug 18, 2008 9PM #

Aramaic is one of the ancient Semitic languages, flowering into many variants such as Akkadian, Hebrew, and Arabic and was written in a variety of alphabetic scripts. The closest modern language to Aramaic is Hebrew. Aramaic was used as one of the languages of the Persian Empire and 500+ tablets/fragments were found at Persepolis, part of the Achaemenid Administrative Archives.

Aramaic is also a type of script, a writing system, using Consonantal Alphabets where vowels are not written.

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