As you may have heard, University of Chicago is returning to Iran 300 ancient tablets, documents that provide details of the daily workings of Achaemenid Persia around 500 B.C. This is the first return of loaned archaeological items to Iran since the 1979 revolution [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 20 years around 500 B.C. Before these tablets were found our understanding the the Achaemenid empire depended mostly on external sources–either the Greek historical narratives, parts of Hebrew and Aramaic books of the Old Testament, or else legal and administrative texts from Babylonia, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, or other western provinces >>> See
We had the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings themselves, of course, written in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, but except for the great Bisutun inscription of Darius, they told us very little about the history of the empire. With these texts, for the first time, we could see how the Persians governed 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 heartland itself.
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 old Iranian terminology.
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 structures also drew on the aristocracy of the empire. It's a very incomplete picture, 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:
Most of the tablets have impressions of one or more seals on them–mostly cylinder seals, but also stamp seals. These now form the largest body of 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 three volumes on the seal impressions on the published fortification tablets was published about a year ago by Mark Garrison and Margaret Root: Seals 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 to Iran? U. of Chicago or the authorities in Iran?
The Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization had occasionally expressed interest in these tablets, but for years we were unable to respond. We did not have the means to return them or even to begin effective communications. But in the last several years the ICHO encoursaged the Oriental Institute and other American and European institutions to begin 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 of other Unviersities, about these matters. This group of tablets, which we think of as the first instalment, is part of the development of this research relationship.
Can you tell us about the initial expedition which brought the tablets to Chicago and the studies done on them so far?
The Oriental Institute began to excavate at Persepolis in 1933 and continued until 1939. This was the first non-French archaeological 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 detail began.
After the second World War, there was only one man left who was devoting most of his attention to this effort, Richard T. Hallock. It took him until 1969 to publish the basic work on these texts: an edition with transliterations, translations and glossary of about 2100 of the best-preserved pieces. He continued working on them until he died, and one of our projects is the eventually publication of his preliminary editions of another 2,500 texts and fragments, as we also resume the publication of new texts.
Hallock's publication — Persepolis Fortification Tablets (Oriental Institute Publications 92) — simply revolutionized all study of the Achaemenid empire, and almost everything serious on Achaemenid topics 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.