Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and Laura D'Alessandro, Head of the Conservation Lab at the institute, oversee the packing of 300 ancient Persian tablets for shipment to Iran.
An ancient tablet, 2,500 years old, contains administrative details on the Persian empire.
Oriental Institute conservators help prepare tablets for shipment to Iran. From left: Vanessa Muros Sarah Barack, and Alison Whyte.
The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute is returning a set of 300 ancient Iranian tablets, documents that provide details of the inner workings of the administration of the ancient Persian Empire, to the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, the national antiquities department, in the first return of loaned archaeological items there since the 1979 revolution.
The 300 tablets, made of clay and impressed in cuneiform, record administrative details of the Persian heartland from about 500 B.C. They are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to the University's Oriental Institute in 1937 to be studied. A group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.
The tablets have been difficult to read because information about the Persian Empire had been largely limited to non-Persian sources. That non-Persian information came from Greek writers such as Herodotus and Latin authors, and mostly concerns encounters between the Persian Empire and Greek states, encounters of warfare, and diplomacy. Information from the tablets provided one of the first opportunities to gather data on the empire from Persian sources.
"The Persian Empire was the largest and most durable empire of its time. The empire stretched from Ethiopia, through Egypt, to Greece, to Anatolia (modern Turkey), Central Asia and to India," said Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson Professor at the Oriental Institute, an expert on ancient Iran.
In addition to administrative information on the empire and its governance, the texts also contain seal impressions that indicate the existence of some otherwise-unknown administrative offices. The texts identify for the first time leaders of various portions of the empire and expand on material in other non-Persian texts.
"Archaeologists were excited when they found the tablets because of their potential, but the information they contain has exceeded all our expectations," Stolper said.
University of Chicago archaeologists discovered the tablets in 1933 while excavating in Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire and the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation. The institute has resumed work in collaboration with colleagues in Iran, and the return of the tablets is part of a broadening of contacts between scholars in the two countries, said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute.
"I see returning these tablets as part of a partnership. As we complete our work on other tablets, we intend to return them also," he said.
Books with the translations and seal impressions on the tablets have been published. An edition, including translations of about 2100 of the tablets, was published by the Oriental Institute in 1969; the first of three volumes publishing the seal impressions on those 2100 texts was published in 2002. The 300 tablets being returned now are a representative sample of those 2100 published texts. Later returns will begin with the rest of those 2100 texts. Digital images also have been produced, which will be shared with the Iranians.
A delegation headed by Stein will return the tablets to Iran in early May, where they will be received by officials of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization. Laura D'Alessandro, museum conservator and a member of the delegation, oversaw the careful packing of the tablets.
The tablets being returned record information such as daily rations of barley that were given to workers in nearby regions of the empire. Officials in those locations sent tablets to the capital in order to record how much they were paying workers and also to provide information on delegations passing through the region.
"These tablets function much like credit card receipts," said Charles Jones, Research Associate and Librarian at the Oriental Institute and tablet expert. "They provide an incredibly rich amount of information." The basic daily ration for an adult male worker was about one and a half quarts of barley and a half-quart of beer or wine. Many workers received two to five times as much. People of very high political or social status received many times more than that.
The tablets are representative of 30 categories of documents produced by a single branch of the Persian administration.
"The texts let us know where the workers came from. Many were from distant parts of the empire, from Babylonia, Syria, Egypt, Thrace (north of modern Greece) and from areas that are now part of Turkey as well as Afghanistan, areas that are now part of Pakistan, and Central Asia, " he said. The tablets date from the middle of the reign of Darius I, 509 B.C. to 494 B.C.
Cuneiform writing, the style used on the tablets, was developed to write Sumerian and Akkadian. It also was used to write other languages. One of those other languages was Elamite. People had been writing Elamite language texts in cuneiform since at least 2200 B.C. There are administrative texts in Elamite from about 1000 B.C.
When speakers of Iranian language came to western Iran, they found people who were writing Elamite texts in cuneiform script. In Persia itself, the Persians continued to write Elamite in cuneiform script. These administrative tablets were written in Persia, by Persian-speakers, for Persian speakers, but they were written in Elamite .
Oriental Institute scholar Richard Hallock spent 40 years on the difficult work of studying and translating the tablets. The unfamiliar appearance of the script makes it hard even for seasoned cuneiformists to learn well; the Elamite language is poorly understood in detail. But above all, these texts record matters of detail, and they become clear only when seen in large numbers. Consequently,
Hallock's publication of 2100 tablets revolutionized the study of Achaemenid Persia-including Elamite and Old Iranian languages, history and geography, and art.
That work continues at the Oriental Institute, which is preparing an electronic version of the tablets to be updated regularly as new tablets are studied.
"The electronic version will have facsimiles of the tablets as well as transliterations," Stolper said. "The broader meaning and implication depends on being able to see pattern, structure and variation in large numbers of generally similar texts. The more data that can be added, that is, the more texts presented, the more secure the patterns and their implications for other parts of Persian society."
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