By SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer
12:55 PM CST, February 21, 2009
The professor opens a cardboard box and gingerly picks up a few hunks of dried clay — dust-baked relics that offer a glimpse into the long-lost world of the Persian empire that spanned a continent 2,500 years ago.
Matt Stolper has spent decades studying these palm-sized bits of ancient history. Tens of thousands of them. They’re like a jigsaw puzzle. A single piece offers a tantalizing clue. Together, the big picture is scholarly bliss: a window into Persepolis, the capital of the Persian empire looted and burned by Alexander the Great.
The collection — on loan for decades to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute — is known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive. These are, to put it simply, bureaucratic records. But in their own way, they tell a story of rank and privilege, of deserters and generals, of life in what was once the largest empire on earth.
For Stolper — temporary caretaker of the tablets — these are priceless treasures.
For others, they may one day be payment for a terrible deed.
In an extraordinary battle unfolding slowly in federal court here, several survivors of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997 sued the government of Iran, accusing it of being complicit in the attack. They won a $412 million default judgment from a judge in Washington, D.C., and when their lawyer began looking for places to collect, he turned to the past.
He decided to try to seize the tablets, along with collections of Persian antiquities at the Oriental Institute and other prominent museums. The goal: Sell them, with the proceeds going to the survivors of the bombing.
His plan, though, has angered many scholars who see it as an attempt to ransom cultural heritage — the tablets are considered as important a find as the Dead Sea Scrolls — and fear it could set a dangerous precedent.
“Imagine if the Russians laid claim to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the original draft of the Gettysburg Address because they had a legal case against us,” says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. “How would we feel?”
The fight over the Persepolis tablets spans continents and centuries and features an eclectic cast of players: Indiana Jones-type, dirt-on-their-boots archaeologists, and lawyers in pinstripes. One of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and haunted survivors of a brutal attack. Iran and the United States.
Add to that President Barack Obama, who was asked this month to weigh in on the long-running dispute. A European association of scholars specializing in Iranian studies — the group is called the Societas Iranologica Europea — has collected hundreds of signatures worldwide on a petition asking the president to stop the tablets from being sold or confiscated.
“The antiquities belong to the cultural heritage of Iran … and should therefore remain in public hands,” the letter read.
The fight, though, is centered in the courts as both sides navigate a thicket of issues including sovereign immunity, terrorism laws, cultural exchanges, scholarly studies and the protection of antiquities.
“The bottom line is to what extent does a foreign sovereign have immunity for its property,” says Patty Gerstenblith, a research professor at DePaul University’s College of Law and founding president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. “Historically, foreign nations have been immune from suits … but in recent years, immunity has not just been chipped away at, but a sledgehammer has been taken to it.”
Much of the “chipping,” she says, has been done by Congress, which passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in 1976. That measure generally protects foreign countries but also provides situations in which they can be sued.
Two decades later, another law was passed to help civilians. It allows American victims of terrorism to seek restitution in U.S. courts if the attack occurred in a nation considered a state sponsor of terrorism.
But winning in court doesn’t guarantee payment. Far from it.
And no one understands that better than David Strachman, the Rhode Island lawyer representing the bombing victims. He won a $116 million judgment a decade ago against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the deaths of a married couple shot by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank in Israel.
So far, he has collected only a fraction of that amount.
This case stems from a horrific September afternoon in 1997 in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers, in a synchronized attack, blew themselves up on the city’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, a crowded, open-air gathering spot.
The bombs, packed with rusty nails, screws, glass and poisons, killed five and wounded nearly 200, splattering blood on buildings and leaving the wounded and dying sprawled on the cobblestone streets.
The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, took responsibility. Two Hamas operatives were convicted in Israeli court.
Two groups of Americans — many were students — sued. Several were critically injured: One teen, burned over 40 percent of his body, had more than 100 shrapnel wounds; a nail still pierced his skull years later. Another, just 18 at the time, was severely burned, suffered permanent hearing loss and breathing and walking problems. A third man had a burned cornea, a partially severed ear, leg wounds and chronic headaches.
Others sustained nerve damage, partial loss of vision, constant pain and severe psychological trauma — one of the wounded later tried to kill himself.
“These were absolutely life-changing injuries,” Strachman says. “The problem with terrorism is (after the attack is over), it looks like you’re sort of done with it. But these people have problems that are going to be with them for years and years.”
In taking on Iran and some of its high-ranking officials, Strachman — whose suit was consolidated with another filed by other victims — offered testimony that Iran had provided financial aid and terrorist training to Hamas.
The presiding judge found “clear and convincing evidence” Iran was liable for the injuries.
But he didn’t say whether Iran’s assets can be seized. That decision revolves around the commercial use of the tablets — an arcane question that’s key to resolving this case, according to Thomas Corcoran, a Washington attorney representing the Iranian government.
Iran, though, has an unlikely ally in its fight: The Justice Department. In three statements, the agency has generally agreed the tablets shouldn’t be seized, Corcoran says.
It turns out, though, there may be competition for the tablets.
Another lawyer is trying to seize the Persepolis collection and other Iranian assets to compensate more than 150 families of 241 U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing of a Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983.
The families hope to collect a $2.6 billion default judgment against Iran, which has been blamed for supporting the militant group, Hezbollah, believed responsible for the Beirut attack. A special measure passed in Congress last year made it easier for families to receive compensation.
“If Iran wants to protect these things … they’re going to have to do something to pay their judgments,” says Thomas Fortune Fay, the lawyer. “Maybe they’ll all end up on coffee tables around the country.”
But not all the families of those Marines are in total agreement.
Annette Livingston, whose Marine corporal husband, Joel, was just 20 when he was killed in the Beirut bombing, believes the tablets should be seized but not sold to collectors.
“Hold them hostage,” she says, until Iran hands over what it owes. “I think the only way to stop terrorism is if you take their money,” she says.
James Thorstad, who lost his 27-year-old son, Thomas, a Marine staff sergeant, also wants Iran to pay, but not this way.
“They got away with murder,” he says. “I want to punish them for what they did but I don’t want to hurt the (Iranian) people. I think they should have their antiquities.”
So do some Iranian-Americans.
“This is essentially targeting everyone who has tremendous pride and joy in having this heritage,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “The ones feeling the pain are not the ones behind these terrorist attacks.”
But Strachman says the tablets would be sold to a museum where everyone could see them. And he says his clients — the bombing survivors — are the ones in pain.
“They don’t want to mention the people who were horribly victimized,” he says. “Their lives were shaken forever. Would anybody do that with a rape victim? … All Iran has to do is pay the judgment. If they came to terms with us, we wouldn’t be here.”
Matt Stolper picked up his first chunk of the Persepolis tablets as a graduate student in the 1970s.
About 35 years later, the bearded, silver-haired professor is edging toward retirement — but still immersed in the monumental research project.
At 64, Stolper represents the third generation of academics who’ve analyzed the collection. It was discovered by scholars from the Oriental Institute in the early 1930s when they were building a ramp in Persepolis and stumbled upon two rooms in a fortified wall that held tens of thousands of tablets and fragments.
“They knew pretty quickly that they had found something extraordinary,” Stolper says. “When it was discovered, there was only one other known text of this kind. The next day there were tens of thousands. Since then, no one has found a group like this.”
The tablets, inscribed with wedge-shaped cuneiform characters, were loaned to the university for study. When they arrived in more than 2,350 boxes, there were great expectations.
“The first thing people said was ‘Hot dog! at last, now we can see Persia from the inside,”‘ he says. But it turned out these records didn’t track gold or silver or armies on the move; instead, they focused on humdrum food rations and the day-to-day business of an empire.
It would take decades to fully grasp their importance.
Studying just one tablet was like trying to understand a society with a single grocery receipt. Scholars had to figure out how they were connected.
They also had to translate them. While some of the pieces were as large as place mats, others were tiny nuggets. Some had just seals and no script; many others were written in Elamite, a hard-to-comprehend language dating back to 2300 B.C. or earlier. (Stolper is among a small group of people in the world who understand it.)
When they did piece everything together, scholars had something rare because Persian history had typically come from Greek, Egyptian or biblical accounts.
“It’s the first and really the only chance we have to understand the Persian Empire in the words of the people themselves,” Stein says. “It gives you a wonderful window into the Persian empire — of how it worked.”
The records revealed how rank shaped the rations of beer, barley and wine, the movement of cattle and sheep and the distant travels of people who came from modern India, Egypt and Turkey. They offer a top-to-bottom look at a society.
They show, for example, that mothers of newborn sons received double the food rations of those who gave birth to daughters. They list the names of Greeks who deserted to the Persian court. They may reveal the name of a general, cited by the historian Herodotus, who suppressed a revolt in 490 B.C.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of guys in bed sheets running around saying `thee’ and `thou,”‘ Stolper says. “These were real men and women with needs for food and shelter and real fears and anxieties. … These guys were highly civilized people who could operate extremely complicated bureaucracies because, after all, they had conquered an entire continent and what’s more important is … they held on to it.”
Over the decades, tens of thousands of tablets were returned to Iran after scholars finished studying and cataloguing them.
When the Oriental Institute announced it was delivering more to Iran in 2004, Strachman heard about it.
He had been able to collect just a small part of the judgment from Iranian bank accounts and a house in Texas once owned by the shah of Iran.
This, he realized, could be a new opportunity.
The prospect of losing the tablets has prompted Stolper to speed up his work.
Aided by experts from the United States and Europe, Stolper is rushing to put online the first installments of a digital photo archive of the Persepolis collection that can be seen around the world.
“Here I am in this odd position of responsibility for something that could be destroyed on my watch,” he says. “If it’s taken away or broken up, it’s completely irreplaceable.”
No one knows how much the tablets (there are 10,000 to 12,000 useful pieces) would fetch on the open market. Some academics believe it would be a mere fraction of the enormous judgments; others think no institution would even bid on them considering the legal tug-of-war.
Strachman, however, maintains he has been contacted by interested museums who want to expand their collections. He says he has no intention of trying to sell them commercially — something he says would be “absolutely inappropriate.”
He has sued the Field Museum in Chicago, too, as well as the Harvard museums and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for other Persian artifacts. In those cases, lawyers deny the items belong to the government of Iran.
Strachman also is seeking a list of all Iranian assets in the United States.
As this case works its way through the courts, Stein, head of the Oriental Institute, worries about broader implications.
“If we open up the Pandora’s box … and sell other countries’ cultural property, how long before they do the same to us?” he asks. “It would have a deadly, chilling effect on any kinds of cultural exchanges in the future.”
Gerstenblith, the DePaul professor, agrees. The bombing survivors clearly deserve compensation, she says, adding that she wouldn’t object if land or bank assets were at stake. “Money is money,” she says. “But cultural objects are completely different.”
Seven decades after these ancient records arrived by ship, a very modern-day debate over terrorism now leaves them in a legal limbo. It may take years more before their fate — and their home — is finally determined.
“I think and have to hope that common sense is going to prevail,” Stein says. “They ultimately are the property of the people of Iran and they belong back there.”