First to dig, first to return


Seventy-one years after the Oriental Institute made Chicago the first U.S. university to mount an archaeological dig in Iran—at Persepolis, the ancient Persian Empire’s capital—OI researchers are setting another precedent. Led by OI Director Gil Stein, a delegation will travel to Tehran in early May with 300 cuneiform tablets—the first return of loaned antiquities since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

At a press conference held today in Stein’s office, media types jockeyed for views of tiny clay tablets similar to those stored in the conservator’s office, already carefully packed and sealed for customs. Giving back the tablets, part of a huge, almost uncountable cache estimated at 15,000 to 30,000 pieces, loaned to the OI for study and publication in 1937, also signals the probable renewal of joint Chicago-Iranian projects; at the invitation of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, the OI has drafted a five-year research agreement. This fall the OI became the first U.S. institution allowed back in Iran when senior research associate Abbas Alizadeh’s team began digging in Khuzestan.

And what makes the tablets so special? Oriental Institute Librarian Charles Jones admitted that when they were first discovered, the hope was that they would be “the royal archives of the great kings of Persia.” They turned out to be much more “pedestrian”: record after record documenting rations distributed to workers and travelers. But, as OI professor Matthew Stolper pointed out, when researchers began the arduous task of translating the Elamite texts, they learned much about the administrative systems that allowed the empire to flourish.

The OI returned two groups of tablets and fragments to Iran around 1950, and more shipments will follow. Asked how many pieces await analysis, Stolper hesitated, then hazarded a guess of 10,000 to 15,000.


Photo: OI professor Matthew Stolper (left) and librarian Charles Jones show the Iranian tablets (top). Stolper, Jones, and OI director Gil Stein talk to reporters (bottom).

April 28, 2004