For Stolper — temporary caretaker of the tablets — these are priceless treasures.
For others, they may one day be payment for a terrible deed.
an extraordinary battle unfolding slowly in federal court here, several
survivors of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997 sued the government
of Iran, accusing it of being complicit in the attack. They won a $412
million default judgment from a judge in Washington, D.C., and when
their lawyer began looking for places to collect, he turned to the past.
decided to try to seize the tablets, along with collections of Persian
antiquities at the Oriental Institute and other prominent museums. The
goal: Sell them, with the proceeds going to the bombing survivors.
plan, though, has angered many scholars who see it as an attempt to
ransom cultural artifacts and fear it could set a dangerous precedent.
if the Russians laid claim to the Declaration of Independence, the
Constitution and the original draft of the Gettysburg Address because
they had a legal case against us," says Gil Stein, director of the
Oriental Institute. "How would we feel?"
fight over the Persepolis tablets spans continents and centuries and
features an eclectic cast of players: Indiana Jones-type,
dirt-on-their-boots archaeologists, and lawyers in pinstripes. One of
the nation's most prestigious universities, and haunted survivors of a
brutal attack. Iran and the United States.
to that President Barack Obama, who was recently asked to weigh in on
the long-running dispute. A European association of scholars — the
Societas Iranologica Europea — has collected hundreds of signatures
asking the president to stop the tablets from being sold or confiscated.
fight, though, is centered in the courts as both sides navigate a
thicket of issues including sovereign immunity, terrorism laws,
cultural exchanges, scholarly studies and the protection of antiquities.
foreign nations have been immune from suits ... but in recent years,
immunity has not just been chipped away at, but a sledgehammer has been
taken to it," says Patty Gerstenblith, a research professor at DePaul
University's College of Law and founding president of the Lawyers'
Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
of the "chipping," she says, has been done by Congress, which passed
the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in 1976. That measure generally
protects foreign countries but also provides situations in which they
can be sued.
decades later, another law was passed to help civilians. It allows
American victims of terrorism to seek restitution in U.S. courts if the
attack occurred in a nation considered a state sponsor of terrorism.
Winning, though, doesn't guarantee payment.
Rusty nails and poison
though, has an unlikely ally in its fight: The Justice Department. In
three statements, the agency has generally agreed the tablets shouldn't
be seized, Corcoran says.
It turns out, though, there may be competition for the tablets.
lawyer is trying to seize the Persepolis collection and other Iranian
assets to compensate more than 150 families of 241 U.S. service members
killed in a suicide bombing of a Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983.
families hope to collect a $2.6 billion default judgment against Iran,
which has been blamed for supporting the militant group, Hezbollah,
believed responsible for the Beirut attack. A special measure passed in
Congress last year made it easier for families to receive compensation.
Iran wants to protect these things ... they're going to have to do
something to pay their judgments," says Thomas Fortune Fay, a lawyer
for the families.
argue this approach is misguided because it could deprive a nation of
its heritage — and have no impact on those responsible for the bombing.
ones feeling the pain are not the ones behind these terrorist attacks,"
says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "
But Strachman says his clients are the ones in pain.
don't want to mention the people who were horribly victimized," he
says. "Their lives were shaken forever. ... All Iran has to do is pay
the judgment. If they came to terms with us, we wouldn't be here."
Matt Stolper picked up his first chunk of the Persepolis tablets as a graduate student in the 1970s.
35 years later, the bearded, silver-haired professor represents the
third generation of academics working on the project. The collection
was discovered by scholars from the Oriental Institute in the early
1930s when they were building a ramp in Persepolis and stumbled upon
two rooms in a fortified wall filled with tens of thousands of tablets
"They knew pretty quickly that they had found something extraordinary," Stolper says.
tablets, inscribed with wedge-shaped cuneiform characters, were loaned
to the university for study. When they arrived, there were great
first thing people said was 'Hot dog! at last, now we can see Persia
from the inside,'" Stolper says. But it turned out the tablets recorded
food rations and the day-to-day business of an empire.
It would take decades to fully grasp their importance.
Studying an ancient society
just one tablet was like trying to understand a society with a single
grocery receipt. Scholars had to figure out how they were connected.
also had to translate them. While some pieces were as large as place
mats, others were nuggets. Many were written in Elamite, a complicated
language dating back to 2300 B.C. or earlier. (Stolper is among a small
group of people in the world who understands it.)
tablets revealed how rank shaped food rations, the movement of animals
and the distant travels of people. It was a top-to-bottom look at a
wasn't just a bunch of guys in bed sheets running around saying thee
and thou," Stolper says. "These guys were highly civilized people who
could operate extremely complicated bureaucracies because, after all,
they had conquered an entire continent and what's more important is ...
they held on to it."
Over the decades, tens of thousands of tablets were returned to Iran after scholars finished studying and cataloguing them.
When the Oriental Institute announced it was delivering more to Iran in 2004, Strachman heard about it.
had been able to collect just a small part of the judgment from Iranian
bank accounts and a house in Texas once owned by the shah of Iran.
This, he realized, could be an opportunity.
Chilling effect on safeguards
The prospect of losing the tablets has prompted Stolper to speed up his work.
by experts from the United States and Europe, Stolper is rushing to put
online this winter the first installments of a digital photo archive of
one knows how much the tablets would fetch on the open market. Some
academics believe it would be a mere fraction of the enormous
judgments; others think no institution would even bid on them
considering the legal tug-of-war.
however, maintains he has been contacted by interested museums who want
to expand their collections and says he has no intention of trying to
sell them commercially.
has sued the Field Museum in Chicago, too, as well as the Harvard
museums and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for other Persian
artifacts. In those cases, lawyers deny the items belong to the
government of Iran.
As this case works its way through the courts, Stein, head of the Oriental Institute, worries about broader implications.
"It would have a deadly, chilling effect on any kinds of cultural exchanges in the future," he says.
"Riches does not mean, having a great amount of property,
but riches is self-contentment." (Sahih Bukhari 8.453)