First instalment: On University of Chicago's return of ancient
tablets to Iran
By Jahanshah Javid
May 2, 2004
As you may have heard, University of Chicago
is returning to Iran 300 ancient tablets, documents that provide
the daily workings of Achaemenid Persia around 500 B.C. This is
the first return of loaned archaeological items to Iran since the
[See news]. I
emailed Prof. Matthew W. Stolper at the University
of Chicago's Oriental Institute and and asked for an interview.
What is the historic significance of
the tablets? Can you describe a few you consider particularly significant?
The tablets are part of a very large administrative
archive from the
reign of the Achaemenid king Darius I, covering a period of about
around 500 B.C. Before these tablets were found our understanding
Achaemenid empire depended mostly on external sources--either
historical narratives, parts of Hebrew and Aramaic books of the
Testament, or else legal and administrative texts from Babylonia,
Syria, Anatolia, or other western provinces >>> See sample tablets
We had the inscriptions
the Achaemenid kings themselves, of course, written in Old
Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, but except for the great Bisutun
Darius, they told us very little about the history of the empire.
these texts, for the first time, we could see how the Persians
their own heartland.
So, after many decades of study, the main areas
of historical significance
of these texts are these:
First, they show a part of the administrative
structure and social
institutions that the Persians used to control the Persian
Second, they are an unparalleld resource for the
study not only of the Elamite language as it was
used by the Achaemenids, but also for the Old Iranian
languages of their time.
Third, they give us some information
on the political geography of the empire in the time of Darius, by naming the governors of
provinces--some already known from other sources, like Artaphernes, this
satrap at Sardis, but others previously unknown to history. And
they give us an idea of communications among the most distant extremes
of the empire; this is crucial, because under pre-modern conditions, quick
movement of reliable information is a fundamental part of maintaining
and exercising power over long distances.
Fourth, they change the frame of reference for
out understanding of
Achaemenid sources in other languages, from Egypt,
Babylonia, or even
Greece, since those texts sometimes refer indirectly
to the same kinds of
administrative apparatus, and use some of the same
Fifth, they give us some idea of the social differentiation
of the Persian
imperial center--from workers living on rations at
bare subsistence levels
to relatives of the king receiving large payments.
But what is more
striking is that even the most mundane concerns,
like those in these
texts--rations of grain, wine, and beer--are among
the assets that people
of very high status used, and conversely, administrative
drew on the aristocracy of the empire. It's a very
but we begin to see something of the large social
fabric of Achaemenid
society in a way that we never could have done through
the eyes of Greek
historians or Babylonian commercial entrepreneurs.
Oh, yes, on the importance of the tablets, there's
one big area that I forgot to mention:
the tablets have impressions of one or more seals on them--mostly
cylinder seals, but also stamp seals. These now form the largest
precisely dated Achaemenid art anywhere. Seal engraving is mostly
thought of as being among the "minor arts," but one
of the things one can
see here is a working-out, elaboration, and ringing of changes
on many of
the images, motifs and themes that are found in the "major
art," the great
display reliefs of Persepolis and other palaces. The first of
volumes on the seal impressions on the published fortification
published about a year ago by Mark Garrison and Margaret Root:
on the Persepolis Fortification Tablets: Images of the Heroic
Encounter (Oriental Institute Publications,
Vol. 117, 2002).
The return of ancient artifacts is
rare and given the poor state of relations between Iran and the
U.S., it seems more extraordinary. How did it come about. Who
initiated the return of the tablets
U. of Chicago or the authorities in Iran?
Cultural Heritage Organization had
occasionally expressed interest in these tablets, but for years
we were unable to respond.
did not have the means to return them or even to begin effective
communications. But in the last several years the ICHO encoursaged
Oriental Institute and other American and European institutions
reopening research programs. Part of the background of an international
conference held in Tehran, on ancient Iran and its neighbors,
was a period
of discussion between the Oriental Institute, and representativs
Unviersities, about these matters. This group of tablets, which
of as the first instalment, is part of the development of this
Can you tell us about the initial expedition which
brought the tablets to Chicago and the studies done on them
The Oriental Institute began to excavate at Persepolis
in 1933 and continued until 1939. This was the first non-French
project in modern Iran, I believe. The first director was Ernst
Herzfeld. In 1933, as he was building a ramp to bring vehicles up onto the
platform of Persepolis, just at the place where the terrace meets the
slope of the Kuh-e Rahmat, and he found tablets in the remains of a
gatehouse in the fortification wall. That's why the they're called the
Fortification tablets. Within a few months he had removed them--some tens
of thousands of tablets, large fragments, and many, many small
fragments--and identified, in a general way, what they were.
In 1937, they were sent on long-term loan for
study and publication to Chicago. There was originally great
excitement that these
many texts would tell us a whole new history of the Persians. But soon it
was recognized that they were in a difficult form of cuneiform
script; they were in a very poorly-understood language, Elamite; and they
were not about the thoughts and deeds of kings but about payments or
strorage of barley or wine. So the excitement died down and the long task
of finding structure, meaning and implication in this mass of very fine
After the second World War, there was only one
man left who was
devoting most of his attention to this effort, Richard T. Hallock.
took him until 1969 to publish the basic work on these texts:
with transliterations, translations and glossary of about 2100
best-preserved pieces. He continued working on them until he
one of our projects is the eventually publication of his preliminary
editions of another 2,500 texts and fragments, as we also resume
publication of new texts.
Hallock's publication -- Persepolis
Fortification Tablets (Oriental
Institute Publications 92) -- simply revolutionized all study
Achaemenid empire, and almost everything serious on Achaemenid
published since about 1975 includes some use of Hallock's editions.
Is U of Chicago
involved in current archaeological projects in Iran?
Yes, Abbas Allizadeh, Research Associate at the
Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, has spent much
time in Iran in the last few years,
working inthe museum, training students, carrying out surveys, and now, we
hope, beginning an excavation of a prehistoric site.
Institute volumes (in-print) of the Persepolis projects: Seals
on the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Volume I: Images of Heroic
Encounter. (note the links to sample images at the bottom of this
* Aramaic Ritual
Texts from Persepolis
III: The Royal Tombs and Other Monuments
* All in-print
volumes from the OI dealing with Iran
* Erich F. Schmidt, Persepolis I: Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions,
OIP LXVIII (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press,1953); Persepolis II: Contents of the Treasury
and Other Discoveries, OIP LXIX (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)
and George G. Cameron Persepolis Treasury Tablets, OIP LXV (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1948) are out of print.
* Also see the on-line publication: PERSEPOLIS
AND ANCIENT IRAN: CATALOG OF EXPEDITION PHOTOGRAPHS [which was originally
published as a text/microfiche publication.
Matthew W. Stolper, 60, is a professor
in the University
of Chicago's Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern
Languages and Civilizations,
and chairman of the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World >>> Homepage
In 1974, he received a
PhD from the University of Michigan, where he studied with
George G. Cameron, an authority on ancient Iran, and member of
excavations of the 1930s. Archaeological experience at the excvations
of Tepe Hasanlu (Azerbaijan), directed by Robert H. Dyson, Jr.,
1968, 1970, 1972; and Tall-e Malyan (Fars), directed by William
M. Sumner, 1974, 1976.
Most of his published work is on the socio-economic
history of Babylonia under Achaemenid rule (e.g., _Entrepreneurs
and Empire_ ,
a chapter on "Mesopotamia, 486-330 B.C.," in Cambridge
Ancient History, Vol. VI, rev. ed.); on the ancient history of
Iran (e.g., _Elam_, with Elizabeth Carter) or on ancient texts
from Iran (e.g., _Texts from Tall-i Malyan, I_ ).
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