Achaemenid Tablets of Persepolis amidst the Political Tensions
On Friday February 3, 2012, a U.S. Senate committee voted to make it easier for individuals to seize and auction off priceless ancient Iranian artifacts held by American museums and universities in order to reach legal verdicts against the Iranian government. This proposal by Senator Menendez (D-NJ) will soon be considered by the full Senate as part of its latest Iran sanctions bill, which builds on the broad sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran led by Senator Menendez last December. If this proposal becomes law, it will make it easy to loot Iran’s cultural heritage and auction it off like cheap items on eBay. This is perhaps one of the bluntest examples yet of how broad sanctions punish ordinary Iranian people, not the Iranian government.
The main target of this proposal would be (but not limited to) the confiscation of the 2500-year-old tablets discovered at Persepolis, the ancient Achaemenid capital of Iran. These tablets are currently housed at the University of Chicago and are seriously endangered because of an ongoing lawsuit, first filed in 2000, that seeks to collect on a judgment against the Iranian government for its alleged role in supporting a Hamas bombing in Jerusalem in the 1980s. While the plaintiffs won the original suit, they have not been able to collect the entirety of a $400 million judgment awarded in damages. Having found a loophole in a law passed by Congress, lawyers for the petitioners are seeking to confiscate and sell the artifacts that make up the Persepolis tablet collection.
The U.S government has frozen more than $2 billion of Iran’s assets. Lawyers seeking to collect damages from the Iranian government could rather go after this money, not the Iranian culture and history, which belongs to no government.
With the ever-growing upsurge of global violence, the intensely political nature of “cultural property” is revealed more clearly than ever. The dualistic behavior toward the hegemonic concept of “world heritage” is an obvious example of this. Powerful individuals and organizations render particular cultural properties important, valuable, beautiful and meaningful to humanity as a whole. For example, this was shown by the massive media coverage of the so-called looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and the concomitant demonizing of the Iraqi people as destroyers of world prehistory and civilization. In contrast, in the case of the Iranian antiquities appropriated by American museums and universities, this view is not held. Instead these objects are being interpreted as belonging solely to the government of Iran, therefore justifying their appropriation as a way of taking revenge on the Islamic Republic.
Specifically, although unique in terms of the first-hand historical information they render about one of the oldest empire in the world, these tablets are not considered to belong to the humanity as a whole, and the political structure of Iran is deemed to be their only patron. Here we are faced with two different views on cultural property of the same nature. This is how the standpoint vis-à –vis practices of heritage and its ownership turns out to be significant.
The amazing discovery of tens of thousands of clay tablets, all records from the era of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the reign of Darius the Great (550 – 486) BCE, happened in the winter of 1933, when a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute were clearing the ruined palaces of Kings Darius, Xerxes, and other Achaemenid rulers in Persepolis, Iran. These tablets give accounts about the daily lives of women and men who incised the words and rolled their seals on these tablets, people who had a role in building the biggest empire of the world at the time.
In an extraordinary act of trust by the Iranian government, the entire collection was sent to Chicago in 1936 on indefinite loan for conservation, analysis, and publication. After 79 years this project is still ongoing. Apart from the lawyers and the U.S. senate, the archaeologists who have authority over these tablets have treated them as their personal or institutional property. According to the stewardship principle of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) by which all archaeologists are urged to abide: “The archaeological record… is irreplaceable. It is the responsibility of all archaeologists to work for the long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record by practicing and promoting stewardship of the archaeological record. Stewards are both caretakers and advocates for the archaeological record … they should use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation.” There is no doubt that in this situation with a serious threat looming, the most ethical decision would be to return these tablets to Iran, and although it would be much against their political economy of the knowledge production to continue the Persepolis Fortification Archive project collaboratively with Iranian experts and use them as means of training Iranian students as well.
All in all, this is not first time that the pressing question of “who owns the past?” faces us. And this is not the first time that a land, a past, a material culture are being appropriated by those who dominate the network society. Auctioning these tablets would be an irreplaceable loss for all.
*I would like to thank Prof. Susan Pollack, who has generously allocated her time for editing of the original draft of this paper.