Oriental Institute will return 300 artifacts to Iran

By Daniel Gilbert

The Oriental Institute announced at a press conference on Wednesday that it would return 300 ancient Persian tablets on loan from Iran since 1937.

This will mark the first return of archeological objects on loan from Iran since the 1979 revolution. U.S. legislation regarding the return of antiquities, and decades of strained diplomatic relations with Iran—which have become more cordial only in the last several years—prevented such action from taking place in the past.

Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, emphasized the long history of partnership between the University and the state of Iran in exploring the country’s past. The University was the first American academic institution to conduct an excavation in Iran, which began in 1933 in Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. After an abrupt halt to fieldwork in Iran after the 1979 coup, University archeologists are now continuing their research on the Persian Empire. Their renewed ties with the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO) were made possible by informal contacts with Iranian scholars maintained by researches at the Oriental Institute.

Stein, noting that the Iranians have expressed an interest in more intensive cooperation with Western academia, called the return of the 300 tablets a “gesture of good faith.” The return of the tablets is also a matter of professional ethics, explained Stein, and key to laying the groundwork for joint research projects with Iranian scholars.

The 300 tablets, which date back to 500 B.C., are a small part of the collection on loan to the Oriental Institute, which contains tens of thousands of tablets and fragments from the 1933 excavation of Persepolis. The tablets are written in cuneiform, the notoriously obscure language of the Elamites. As Greek and Latin authors wrote most of the ancient texts on Persia, there are few insights to understanding the Elamite language. The nature of the tablets makes them even more difficult to decipher, as they record mostly administrative details, and their meaning only becomes clear when their context is known.

Charles Jones, research associate and tablet expert, likened the information encoded in the tablets to credit card receipts. The texts constitute words, names, phrases, and administrative terminology. The amount of information they contain alone has opened a previously nonexistent window on Iranian studies, according to Jones.

Matthew Stolper, a professor at the Oriental Institute and an Assyriologist, noted that the tablets have yielded even more valuable information than scholars had originally thought. Stolper likened the fieldwork done by archeologists to the work of investigative snoops. “We found someone’s office and we found a very big file,” he said.

While the texts mostly record the distribution of foodstuff rations to workers, a vast amount of information about the administrative structure of the Persian Empire can be deduced from such details. One of the burning issues at stake, according to Stolper, is finding out why the Persians were so successful at maintaining their empire.

Oriental Institute scholar Richard Hallock spent 40 years studying the Persian tablets, eventually publishing translations and analyses of 2,100 of the tablets in 1969. These tablets will gradually be returned to the ICHO. Stolper estimated that 15 percent of the collection of tablets and fragments has been read and analyzed, while an additional 15 percent of the tablets may prove to be of use. He noted that the study of the tablets has a reciprocal function: As more tablets are studied, scholars’ understanding of small, cryptic fragments becomes deeper.

A delegation led by Stein will transport the tablets to Iran in early May, where they will be placed in the keeping of the ICHO.