Fight Over Ancient Persian Tablets Goes to U.S. Court

The University of Chicago is fighting an attempt to seize thousands of ancient, clay tablets from their Oriental Institute. The tablets were brought to Chicago for study in 1937. American survivors of a bombing in Jerusalem nearly a decade ago want the tablets auctioned off as compensation for the attack, which they blame on Iran. But both Iran and the U.S. government say current law does not permit the tablets to be sold.

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Iran and the United States haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979. Today, however, they are allies in a Chicago courtroom. The two governments have joined the University of Chicago in a lawsuit over the rights to Persian artifacts. The other side in the legal battle wants to auction off the artifacts to compensate American survivors of a bombing in Jerusalem nearly a decade ago.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

It's like one of those quiet scenes from a blockbuster movie about hidden treasures. Professor Matthew Stolper sits in an office crowded with file cabinets and bookshelves. Wearing a magnifying glass headset, he studies a small object and then moves from his desk and pulls out a file drawer.

Professor MATTHEW STOLPER (Professor of Assyriology, University of Chicago): What you're looking at right now are fragments. Shall I show you some of them?

CORLEY: The fragments are the Persian artifacts at the heart of this dispute. And in some instances, they don't look like much. They are clay tablets in a variety of sizes, some as big as a dishtowel, some small pebbles that could easily be dismissed as lumps of dirt.

A closer look reveals their appeal. Tiny hatch marks, dashes and other symbols inscribed on the clay make up one of the world's oldest alphabets called cuneiform. Professor Stolper is one of the scholars who has mastered translating it.

Prof. STOLPER: This isn't The Da Vinci Code, this is what people used to write things they needed to be able to read, and they used writing for a lot of the same purposes that we do - getting through business, writing letters, writing various kinds of literature. So some of it is harder to read than others, just as it is for us.

CORLEY: So Stolper has worked off and on for 25 years deciphering the small detailed markings on the tablets, often piecing bits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Part of the reason it's taken so long to translate them is because the writing is in a very difficult dialect of Elamite, one of the indigenous, archaic languages of Iran. It turns out that the tablets are like ancient receipts, giving scholars a peek into the workings of the Persian Empire's economy.

Prof. STOLPER: These are records of transactions that are in themselves, you know, unbelievably uninteresting. So-and-so many workers got so-and-so many quarts of barley. But when you start putting them together, you find out that they're part of an information system that represents an administrative system that gave you a slice of the population around the king that reached from the king himself and his cousins down to the lowest worker in the vicinity of the palace.

CORLEY: So they are prized by scholars. The artifacts were discovered by American archeologists in Persepolis, the former capital of the Persian Empire. They were transferred to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum in 1937. Over the years, nearly two-thirds of the collection has been studied and returned to Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization.

Still, several thousand tablets and fragments remain in the Chicago Museum's care. But now, a group of victims is arguing the artifacts must be sold. Their lawyer, David Strachman, says Iran should pay for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem for which the militant group Hamas claimed responsibility.

Mr. DAVID STRACHMAN (Attorney): The issue is really not the antiquities. This is an issue of, you know, five young people who were in a horrible attack at the prime of their life as teenagers basically, and whose lives have been destroyed as a result of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism. The Iranian government trained the individuals who prepared the bombs that injured over a hundred people in September of 1997 in downtown Jerusalem, killing several others. That's really the focus.

CORLEY: Strachman sued the government of Iran, arguing that it was not protected by sovereign immunity because it was a terrorist state. He, along with another attorney, won a $425 million judgment. And his search for Iranian assets in the U.S. brought him to the antiquities housed at the Oriental Institute.

Scholars say the artifacts probably would have limited value in the art world. Strachman says, regardless, a sale should go forward.

Mr. STRACHMAN: Whether they fetch, you know, $100 or $100,000 or $100 million, whatever funds are raised should be sued to compensate the victims. And if the University wants to buy the antiquities, they're free to do so. So would any other institution. And if they want to convince their partners, Iran, to simply pay the judgment, they're free to do that as well.

CORLEY: The head of the Oriental Institute, Gil Stein, says the Persepolis tablets are cultural items which have never been bought or sold. He says the University went to court because it has a moral and professional obligation to preserve them.

Professor GIL STEIN (Professor of Archaeology, Director of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago): Everyone has very deep sympathy for the victims of this attack. It's impossible not to; it was a horrible thing. People died. People were maimed. But we just don't believe that the law allows for compensation to be taken from this kind of cultural heritage treasure that's not a commercial item. It's not like seizing an oil well to get compensation.

CORLEY: The U.S. Justice Department, which told NPR it would not comment, filed court papers in support of the museum. It says the Persian antiquities don't fit any of the legal definitions which allow the property of foreign governments to be seized.

Even so, a federal court judge ruled only Iran, the owner of the Persepolis tablets, could argue against their potential seizure and sale. Iran has reacted strongly, appealing to UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural body, and is calling for the U.S. government to take action.

It also hired American lawyers who are scheduled to appear in court today on Iran's behalf.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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