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Insider: Embattled Tablets Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006

[image] Iranian cuneiform tablets stored at the Oriental Institute may be subject to seizure. (Courtesy Oriental Institute) [LARGER IMAGE]

A collection of cuneiform tablets from the Iranian site of Persepolis are at the center of a legal battle in Chicago that has worried museum curators across the country. This July, a federal judge upheld a decision that could open the way to the seizure and auctioning off of the collection, which is on loan from Iran to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. The proceeds would compensate victims of a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

Responsibility for the attack, which killed five people and injured 160, was claimed by Hamas. Since the group has links to the Republic of Iran, survivors of the bombing filed suit against Iran in federal court. In a 2003 ruling a judge awarded more than $400 million to the victims. To satisfy the award, the plaintiffs moved to seize Iranian assets in the United States. The collection, which has been at the Oriental Institute since the tablets' excavation in 1930s, is one of the few such assets left in the country.

"I don't believe there has ever been another case in which cultural artifacts were sought to satisfy the debts or a judgment against a foreign nation," says Patty Gerstenblith, a specialist in cultural property law at DePaul University. "On most issues nations are immune from being sued for liability. But Iran didn't appear on its own behalf, and never made this argument." Iran has now retained an American law firm, and at press time was appealing the decision.

Chicago's Field Museum, Harvard University, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and a number of other institutions are facing similar litigation. "I think the Chicago case will be the one to resolve all the others," says Gerstenblith.

Two-thirds of the collection has already been translated and turned over to Iran. The most recent return was of 300 tablets in 2004 ("Iran Beckons," May/June 2004). According to the plaintiffs' representative David Strachman, this triggered the focus on the Oriental Institute. "In 2004, the University publicized its cooperation with Iran and that made [the collection] available for damages," he says.

Known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive, the tablets date to the Achaemenid period (648-330 B.C.), and were written over a 20-year period during the reign of Darius I. "The vast majority are clay tablets smaller than a deck of playing cards," says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. "They are written in a dialect of Elamite that really only a dozen people in the world can read."

One of those people is Oriental Institute Assyriologist Matthew Stolper. "They are mostly about the allocations of foods and supplies to people under the control of the palace," says Stolper. "It's a large collection of individually banal pieces that together are an extraordinary snapshot of an administrative system. Its value is as a whole collection, and that would be lost if it was sold off.

"It is critical to Iranian heritage. If someone seized the Constitution and auctioned it off tomorrow, we would still know what it says. That's not the case for many of these tablets."

The plaintiffs seem unmoved by the argument. "If you didn't pay your credit card bill, the credit card company would go after the assets you have in the bank," says Strachman.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America