Persian Antiquities in Crisis: The Persepolis Tablets at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

  • 27 Apr 2010
  • 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
  • Philadelphia, PA

In 1933, archaeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago discovered tens of thousands of clay tablets and fragments at Persepolis, the administrative capital of ancient Persia. This archive of documents, compiled around 500 B.C., went on loan to the Oriental Institute, and scholars have been poring over it ever since.

After almost forty years of painstaking work, the Institute published a translation of 2,000 tablets. It proved to be an rich source of unique information on the inner workings of what was at the time the world's largest and most long-lasting empire. Now, after another forty years, the Persepolis Fortification Archive, as the group of tablets is now called, continues to flood researchers with new data about the languages, administration, society, institutions, religion, and art of a realm that stretched from India to Egypt. Nothing like it has been found, before or since.  

But since 2004 the Persepolis Fortification Archive has been a hotly contested prize in a legal dispute now unfolding in a federal courtroom in Chicago. Victims of terrorist attacks linked to Iran want to force the sale of the tablets in order to collect on more than $3 billion in judgments they hold against Iran. If the archive goes on the auction block, it will be the first time most of these plaintiffs have received compensation for the atrocities they have endured. However, such a sale would mean breaking up the archive, perhaps even seeing the tablets disappear from further access, and it would come at a high price: the destruction of an irreplaceable ancient artifact that is invaluable not only to scholars of the past but also to the people of Iran, and to Americans of Iranian heritage, for whom it is a vital part of their present culture and identity.

Matthew W. Stolper, a professor of Assyriology at the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, is the director of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, an emergency task force now working urgently to record as much information as possible about these documents while they remain available. He will describe the Persepolis Fortification Archive and discuss its value, the lawsuit that could lead to its sale, and what the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project is doing to meet this crisis.

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