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Paying with the Past

Lawyers for victims of two 20th-century terrorist bombings are trying to force the sale of a cache of 2,500-year-old Persian tablets currently on loan to Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

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Workers at Persepolis excavate the city during an Oriental Institute expedition in the 1930s.


The cryptanalyst, Richard Hallock, an expert in Near Eastern languages, spent decades deciphering the thousands of tablets

The tablets were written during the reign of Darius, the founder of Persepolis and the ruler, from 522 to 485 B.C., of the largest empire the world had known to that time. They range in size from a cocktail olive to a hand towel, and most are written in Elamite, a little-understood ancient language from southwestern Iran. Because translation required specialized knowledge and a research library, neither of which was available in Iran at the time of the discovery, the shah allowed the archive to travel on loan to the Oriental Institute in Chicago. (For the record, my husband, Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson Professor of Oriental Studies at the Oriental Institute, currently has the primary responsibility for the analysis and translation of the tablets.)

At the Oriental Institute, the task of working on what came to be known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive fell to Richard Hallock, a scholar of ancient Near Eastern languages who died in 1980. An experienced cryptanalyst—during World War II, he worked for the secret Army Signal Corps program code-named Venona, and he was the first to break the cipher used on encrypted Soviet diplomatic messages—Hallock found decipherment of the Persepolis tablets painfully slow. Starting from scratch and looking for patterns, he spent more than two decades filling dozens of notebooks with color-coded word lists, maps, and diagrams. “If you’re not confused,” he once wrote, “you do not appreciate the problem.”   

Worse yet, the individual tablets, essentially parts of an administrative ledger, turned out to be mind-numbingly dull records of the amount of food and drink—for example, an average male laborer would get between 30 and 45 liters of barley a month—given to everyone from the lowest worker to members of the king’s household. However, when Hallock finally published a portion of the archive, in 1969, it shed new light on ancient history. Put together, the banal snippets of information recorded on each tablet provided a detailed picture of how an enormous empire was organized and run. Taking their cue from Greek historians, scholars had long seen the Persian Empire as a loose arrangement of territories overseen by unsophisticated strongmen, but the tablets were firsthand evidence of a complex, highly organized state with a rich cultural legacy of its own.

They were also useful for linguists. “They’re written in a late and sometimes sloppy Elamite that’s mixed with Persian,” said Wouter Henkelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam who has made an intensive study of the archive. These characteristics, he said, make the tablets a gold mine for scholars interested in how an older indigenous language adapts to a newer arrival.

Photography: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute



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