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Archive.ology: start with (clay) dinosaur bones, spice with love


By A.J. Cave

Dr. Matthew Stolper

Once upon a time people used something called paper for writing all sorts of things, from love letters to secret sauce formulas to stockholder reports. It was when writing was just word-winding.

They say some hyper competitive Silicon Valley companies (there was no other known kind) even went as far as hiring detectives to sort through paper trash of their competitors to patch together highly guarded business secrets.

This paper was made of trees that grew wild in the nature-in places people of old used to call forests. There were all sorts of round trees and all kinds of flat paper.

Something called deforestation saw to the end of these green forests and paper became rare and eventually extinct.

People didn’t stop writing, they wrote even more. But instead of real paper, they started to use old software programs that nostalgically looked like pages of white paper on computer screens, but they were really nothing more than zeroes and ones, stored on primitive hard drives.

As everyone knows those clunky computers eventually became obsolete too when we started to use glasses and tablets and watches and other things to record our blinkings and doings and thinkings.

Now and then one of those ancient paper archives called Libraries that have miraculously survived shredders and recyclers are discovered here and there. Page-turning paper-lovers from all over the world immediately converge on the discovery pits to make sure these antiquated archives don’t turn into dust during excavations.

Since we can no longer read what is written on primitive paper, after these fragile archives are cleaned and sealed, keepers of old languages are given access to them to read and decipher what is recorded on the remains of dead trees. The better preserved pages are put on display in museums. Just think paper and the latest exhibit would pop into your contact lenses.

Cloud-keepers say these paper-pages were once divided into bundles called books, bonded with some sort of glue (or sewn) and edged with colorful boards called covers, but no one has ever seen one. So it is just a theory, until one of these so-called books turns up in underground paper pits.

The only evidence of books so far is couple of lines on an ancient page of crumbling paper that has been translated to read:

...books can survive all kinds of disaster. They will be discovered in abandoned rooms and removed from the great ruined city libraries; they will be lent out and given as presents at Christmas; and they will keep us company in the long winter nights and in the summer...

(Umberto Eco, Turning Back the Clock, 2006)

They say the only thing 3-dimensional about “writing” back then could have been this box-like book-but nothing like the common holograms we use today to write.

Sounds like silly science fiction?

It is more or less what happened to clay and the languages that were written on clay.

Long before paper, people wrote on common clay. No one knows what people used before clay. Maybe they experimented with something else before settling on sturdy clay that was free for taking from the banks of the rivers crossing through the Cradle of Civilization.

Writing on clay appeared between 3500 to 3000 BCE during the historical era called: the Early Dynastic Period and lasted over 3,000 years-a lot longer than we have been writing on paper. The earliest written clay tablets found at E-anna, the temple of the Sumerian great goddess Inanna at Uruk (the city of the legendary Sumerian king-hero Gilgamesh, considered the first true city in the world, now in southern Iraq), dated to around 3100 BE, were a list of livestock and farming equipment. The last dated clay tablet written in Akkadian language dates to 75 CE.

Cuneiform script was designed for writing on damp clay with a pointy reed marker. Aramaic, which displaced Akkadian, was suited for writing on parchment and papyrus.

While the great cities of ancient Near Eastern kingdoms slipped under a cover of dust, dirt, debris, and obscurity, the stone column remains of the royal palaces at Persepolis (Persian: Parsa), bearing the royal inscriptions of the Persian Achaemenid Great Kings, remained visible throughout ages.

The English Orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), who coined the term cuneiform in early 18th century CE, believed that those wedge-like signs seen at Persepolis were decorative zigzag or experiments by the Persian builders to see how many variations they could come up with using a single wedge. Others thought these markings were just tracks of birds.

Cracking the code of cuneiform script by a wayward bunch of clever Bible-readers, earth-diggers, fame-chasers, history-lovers, rock-climbers, paper-pushers, tablet-hunters, time-travelers and word-winders was a game-changer-19th century version of modern hackers inventing the next old thing in a garage somewhere-boldly going where no man (or woman) had gone for thousands of years-searching for intelligent life-forms beyond the biblical past.

By the end of the 19th century, archaeologists were finding all sorts of clay cuneiform tablets and fragments that had survived all kinds of disaster. They were discovered in abandoned rooms and removed from the great ruined palace and temple libraries. And the newly-minted Assyriologists couldn’t be happier reading and deciphering them as fast as they could.

In 1933 the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) who was excavating at Persepolis (the famed Achaemenid palace complex in southwest of Iran) under the sponsorship of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, found 2 small rooms filled with cuneiform tablets and fragments.

In those days, tweets were called telegrams. So, Herzfeld sent a telegram from Shiraz (the closest city to Persepolis) to James Henry breasted, the legendary American director of the Oriental Institute, who was in Cairo, Egypt, at the time: “Hundreds Probably thousands business Tablets Elamite Discovered on Terrace. Herzfeld” 84 characters (with spaces). Perfect.

2013, the year of the historic Cyrus Cylinder tour in U.S. was also the 80th anniversary of the discovery and recovery of the Achaemenid administrative archives at Persepolis-the Persepolis Fortification Archive and the Persepolis Treasury Archive.

The tablets were lent out to the Oriental Institute by the Persian royal authorities, and 2,353 small boxes were shipped to Chicago for further research.

And so the ancient archive travelled from the Highlands of Persia to Chicago-the windy city.

The tablets at the Oriental Institute, collectively known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive, have kept the company of a handful of Elamitologists in the long winter nights and in the summers since 1936-except for a break during the Second World War (1939-1945).

A small group of pioneering American scholars, including George Cameron (1905-1979) and Richard Hallock (1906-1980), worked patiently over decades editing these obscure Elamite texts, establishing their underlying scribal practices, methodically interpreting them and in the process partially reconstructing difficult (and still obscure) Elamite language, while others worked on the few hundred tablets with Aramaic texts found with them.

There were also thousands of seal impressions-sort of ancient signatures-on these tablets, which according to some scholars, were “the making of a new museum of Achaemenid Art.” Start of a beautiful thing.

Contrary to the popular myth that these clay tablets were fire-baked when Persepolis was torched in 331 BCE by the Macedonian King Alexander III (336-323 BCE) as the symbol of the Persian power, they survived mostly un-baked like many other clay tablets. The fire, however, caused parts of the fortification wall to collapse on top of the tablets, letting them live to tell about a small part of the vast Persian way of life in and around the Persian heartland.

They turned out to be humdrum administrative accounting records-the details of the storage and distribution of foodstuffs and livestock from the lands around Persepolis.

Ancient bureaucratic paperwork in duplicates and triplicates!

When Richard Hallock, another master of understatement, finally published his Persepolis Fortification Tablets (Chicago, 1969) leading to a renaissance in Achaemenid studies down the road, he modestly described the foundation of his pioneering work as “The Achaemenid Elamite texts found at Persepolis add a little flesh to the picked-over bones of early Achaemenid history.” 121 tweetable characters (with spaces).

When Hallock died in 1980, the Persepolis Archive was archived and every once in a while a few pieces were taken out and dusted and read and archived again. Iranians were too busy having a bloody revolution at the time half way across the world and couldn’t be bothered with dusty knickknacks from pagan Persians.

In 2004, the Oriental Institute returned 300 of the pieces Hallock had published in 1969 to Iran-now the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI)-and the public gesture of good faith and cultural diplomacy caught the attention of the American lawyers who were suing IRI for sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East. Iranians ignored the lawsuit, American judges got mad, and the curse of the 300 (Spartans) fell on the rest of the ancient Achaemenid archive at the Oriental Institute-$300 million dollars in punitive damages on top of $71.5 million in compensatory damages was added to IRI’s legal bill.

But instead of caving in and handing the ancient Achaemenid archive over to the U.S. Federal courts, Dr. Richard Saller, then the Provost of the University of Chicago (2002-2006) and now the Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, sent in the cavalry to save the day-he gave the university’s general counsel a blank check to fight the federal lawsuit. The pivotal legal response effectively saved the one-of-a-kind archive, the vital (actually the one and only) source of local data from the heartland of the Persian Empire, from imminent legal confiscation and subsequent sale and fragmentation.

Instead of doing what was easy (and free), the University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute did what was right (and costly).

And the ancient curse became a modern blessing.

In 2006 Dr. Matthew Stolper, one of handful of specialists on Elamite language in the world, cleared his plate, assembled a stellar team of scholars from a number of American and European universities, embarked on the never-ending quest for (much) needed grants, and took on the emergency task of digitization of the Achaemenid archive-known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project (PFAP).

And here we are.

Under Matt Stolper’s steadfast watch and with the moral support of his faithful friend, Baxter the Beast, the initial phase of cleaning, conserving and digitizing the archive is finally reaching critical mass and the next phase of making sense of the mass of generated data is kicking in-the old sprinkling of the water of life on dead bones.

In the process, surprising new discoveries have come to light, among them finding the footprint of Udusana (Greek: Atossa), the quintessential Achaemenid royal woman (queen), who, according to the classical writers, was the eldest daughter of Cyrus the Great, the chief wife of Darius the Great, and the powerful mother of Xerxes (Persian: Xsayarsa, or Khshayarsha). Triple Crown of Persian royalty.

These Persian administrative records, roughly 30,000 or so pieces from a single archive, dating from 509 to 493 BCE (from 13th to 28th regnal years of Darius the Great, about 16 years, with some references to the 7th regnal year)-conceptually likened to the bones of a dinosaur-have led to not just an understanding of the routine imperial administrative infrastructure, but all sorts of interesting things like art, language, religion, and society of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, that was unknowable merely from the traditional biblical and classical sources.

The sort of raw data that the large cuneiform archives like the Persepolis Fortification Archive have been yielding is “Big Data”-datasets that are getting too big to process using classical computing techniques. Big Data is now being used in computer technology circles to refer to the latest advances in aggregating massive amounts of data from various sources and enabling researchers to mine and map data in amazing new ways-see what no one has seen before, ask questions no one has answered yet.

On the academic side of the coin, Big Data research will eventually exponentially expand the newly-minted field of Digital Humanities.

While virtualization and visualization of archival data from the Achaemenid royal chancelleries will not give us historical answers-at least not to what we think-it will, however, provide a richer context for understanding and interpreting the Big Data we have accidentally inherited and luckily recovered.

This Big Data is also the playground of writers like me who troll the archival treasure troves for historical backstory to turn boring administrative records into sizzling stories about the adventurous lives and scandalous love affairs of the Persian royal sons and daughters-kings and their queens who once ruled the world-the real royal games of the only throne that really mattered. Masters of Asia.

Achaemenid scholars have been spending years carefully reconstructing a clay dinosaur to restore Persians to the history of the world, and the Persian storytellers thankfully ride this paper-beast to restore the Persians to the story of the world.

Dr. Stolper, now retired as of the end of 2013, is continuing as the head of the PFA Project, crisscrossing the globe on a mission to evangelize the immense impact of the ancient archive on Persian Achaemenid history and heritage.

In recognition of his lifelong achievements and his tireless efforts in preserving and promoting the integration of knowledge from the Achaemenid Administrative Archives into mainstream classical and ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies, there would be a celebration at the Oriental Institute tentatively scheduled for 28 April 2014.

These types of events are normally planned for the local colleagues, students and patrons of the institute. This one, however, might just turn out to be a greater gathering of the friends of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, die-hard supporters of Persian history and heritage, and the who-is-who of the Persian Achaemenid studies.

Tell Parnakka (probably the paternal uncle of Darius the Great and the first chief of the imperial administrative archives at Parsa) to order more Shiraz wine for the feast. Persians are coming.

About the author: A. J. Cave is an Iranian-American writer. Her Book an idol-worshiper’s Guide to god-stan: a trilogy in 7 parts (2012) is the story of cracking the code of cuneiform script in the 19th century and its political and theological aftermath.


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