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.
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
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