For nearly 10 years, a lawsuit against the state of Iran has turned the Oriental Institute into a battleground over 2,500-year-old Persian artifacts.
This past Saturday, Professor Matthew Stolper, head of the Institute’s Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, gave an update on what he called a “salvage excavation” and revealed the innovative technology that might decide the artifacts’ future.
More than just “pieces of dirt that someone poked with sticks a very long time ago,” the archive is “the largest, the most complex, the best dated source of information from within the Persian Empire at its zenith,” Stolper said.
The tens of thousands of fragments, pieces of old administrative records excavated from Persepolis ruins in the 1930s, have been a treasure chest for understanding Persian language, religion, daily life and politics. “This loan was an extraordinary thing—an extraordinary act of trust,” Stolper said, since the Institute has been allowed to keep the artifacts on loan from Iran during the pending law suit.
“A completely unique discovery is sent off to an American research institute and it is sent intact—it is sent as if they knew it was all one thing. This is almost without precedent in the annals of cultural study,” Stolper said.
If the plaintiffs, Americans who lost relatives in 1997 terrorist attacks in Israel, win, the tablets may be sold and dispersed. If they lose, then Iran may demand the artifacts’ immediate return, according to Stolper. The plaintiffs were already awarded redress money that Iran refused to pay, so the plaintiffs are seeking this Iranian property in the U.S. as an alternative form of payment.
Stolper took a moment to remind the audience that the plaintiffs had lost their loved ones in a terrorist attack and reacted within the legal channels granted by the judicial system. “There’s a tendency to say [about the lawsuit], ‘What a terrible barbaric thing,”” Stolper said. “The plaintiffs are not greedy barbarians. They are seeking redress.”
The Institute has responded with innovative steps to preserve the artifacts, digitally and on the Internet. By publicly sharing infrared and photo-edited images of the tablets, alongside intensive linguistic analysis, the Institute is pushing archaeological record-keeping into the 21st century. “Sometimes the images are more useful than the original objects,” Stolper said.
Stolper left his audience and future generations, he hopes, with a challenge. “If I can’t convince you it’s something you should be excited about, at least I can convince you it’s something one can be excited about,” he said.