03 May 2004

University of Chicago Returns Persian Artifacts to Iran

Clay tablets recount daily life in ancient Persia

By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute returned 300 ancient clay tablets to Iran May 1 in the first U.S. return of Iranian artifacts since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The 2,500-year-old tablets date from the rule of Darius I of the Achaemenid dynasty. They are among several thousand tablets discovered by archaeologists excavating the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis in 1933 and brought to the United States for translation and study.

"I see returning these tablets as part of a partnership. As we complete our work on other tablets, we intend to return them also," said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute.

A group of 179 tablets was returned to Iran in 1948, and more than 37,000 tablet fragments were returned in 1951.

The work of translating the texts on the tablets is very slow because the Elamite language, in which they are written, is poorly understood. Nevertheless, some 2,100 tablets have been translated and published. The institute intends to return more of these 2,100 artifacts after it finishes cataloging the seal impressions from the tablets.

The Elamite language is written in cuneiform characters, an ancient writing system that uses wedge shapes imprinted into the clay tablets.

The texts have provided an informative glimpse into the workings of the Persian Empire from the Persian perspective. The Persian Empire was the largest and strongest empire of its day, stretching from Greece and Egypt across Central Asia to India, but most accounts of it are based upon external sources, primarily Greek and later Latin authors.

The texts offer information about the origins of workers in the Persian Empire and the wages that they were paid. They also provide details about the conditions under which foreign delegations were allowed to pass through the empire.

The University of Chicago hopes to forge closer ties with researchers and archaeologists in Iran in order to develop a greater understanding of the ancient Persian culture.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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