The fate of ancient Iranian tablets housed at the Oriental Institute remains unknown after a federal judge declined to rule immediately at a court hearing contesting their ownership.
The Persepolis Fortification tablets, which are on loan to the University from the government of Iran, were to be confiscated and auctioned off to compensate the families of five American victims of a 1997 Hamas bombing at the Ben Yehuda shopping mall in Jerusalem.
The families of the victims won a $251 million ruling against the Iranian government in 2003 after a U.S. federal court found that the country had directly funded Hamas. The Iranian government refused to pay the judgment, prompting the families to sue for ownership of Iranian holdings in the U.S.
The Iranian government appealed the decision, and so far, both the American government and the University have supported continued Iranian ownership.
“The University supports Iran in its claim for ownership, as we know the materials are on loan,” said William Harms, the Oriental Institute’s press contact.
According to Iranian media, however, the government in Tehran has not been pleased with the University’s response to the situation. An article last week in the Tehran Times reported that the government believes the University has “not shown goodwill” in its stewardship of the tablets, which were originally loaned in 1937.
An Oriental Institute expedition originally excavated the clay tablets in 1933 from ancient Persepolis, the 2,500-year-old capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
“When the tablets were handed over to the University, it had agreed to send the artifacts back after several years, but the University has still not fulfilled the agreement after 70 years,” said Ali-Mohammad Tarafdari, the secretary of the government’s People’s Committee for the Return of Cultural and Historical Property, in the Tehran Times article.
Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, estimates that the museum has already returned more than two-thirds of the tablets to Iran. The Institute retains approximately 8,000 tablets and 11,000 poorly preserved fragments that are still awaiting analysis. “I’m not sure why [Iran] took that approach. We have acted in good will throughout,” Harms said of the statement.
A court order has mandated that the tablets cannot be removed from the Institute until their ownership status is resolved. Researchers worried about their potential loss are moving quickly to study them.
“The Fortification archive is at risk, and in this emergency, the Oriental Institute’s highest priority is on recording as much of the archive as possible, in as high of a quality as possible, and as quickly as possible to make our results available as widely as possible,” said Oriental Institute Professor Matt Stolper in a written statement.
The case has caused uproar in museums and academic communities all over the world.
“We do not believe that the law allows for the seizure of cultural heritage as compensation,” Stein wrote in The Oriental Institute News and Notes. “The tablets are not commercial assets like oil wells, tankers, or houses. Instead, these types of culturally unique and important materials fall within a special protected category and are not subject to seizure. If this actually happens, it would be a loss to science of unprecedented scale, and it would rob the Iranian people of one of the most important symbols of their cultural heritage and identity.”
By all accounts, the tablets are an archaeological treasure and an invaluable resource for scholarship. Stolper said the discovery of the tablets provided an unprecedented, firsthand account of everyday life and offered a window into the workings of the Achaemenid imperial organization.
“The Persepolis texts…resonate for Iranians at a very profound level. These are items of cultural heritage as important as the crown jewels of England, or the original document of the Magna Carta, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, or the Parthenon in Athens,” Stein said in a written statement.
The court delay appears to be yet another bump in the road for a case that has already spent three years in court. As of now, both sides appear to be in a stalemate.