Researching Artifacts with an Uncertain Future

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Researching Artifacts with an Uncertain Future

Mark Garrison, the Alice Pratt Brown Distinguished Professor of Art History, has spent his academic career studying ancient clay tablets that are now the subject of a terrorist court case.

By Russell Guerrero '83


Mark GarrisonDecember 2011 - Once a month, Mark Garrison, the Alice Pratt Brown Distinguished Professor of Art History at Trinity University, travels to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, enters an archive room and opens boxes filled with 2,500-year-old clay tablets found in the ruins of Persepolis, one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, located in southwest Iran. Most of the tablets have text written in Elamite and/or Aramaic and carry the impressions of ancient seals. Garrison determines which tablets merit further study; it is painstaking work - there are about 30,000 tablets - and Garrison believes he has been through about two-thirds of the artifacts. But there is a sense of urgency to his research.

The tablets, many of which are small enough to fit into the palm of a hand while others are as large as a typical paperback book, are part of a modern-day legal battle that began with a terrorist attack in Israel in 1997.

The tablets are an archive of administrative documents, known today as the Persepolis Fortification archive, which Garrison has been researching for most of his academic career. Even his dissertation was based on seal impressions found on a subset of tablets from the archive. Originally discovered in a storage area inside the fortification walls at Persepolis, the tablets offer a treasure trove of information about the administration, art, and society of the one of the largest empires of the ancient world at its most critical, formative period, the reign of Darius the Great. The archive itself dates to the period 509-493 BC.

Garrison points out that any one tablet from the archive is not what one would consider a treasure. What makes them valuable is the information that can be gleaned from the tablets collectively as the remnant of a complex imperial administrative system. The tablets are part of a specific archive that originated from a specific site at a specific point in time; the tablets were, moreover, excavated in a controlled manner. "The tablets document the collection of agricultural commodities by the state and the subsequent distribution of those commodities as payment to workers, administrators, and high-rank officials, including members of the royal family," explained Garrison.

The tablets not only carry texts in Elamite and Aramaic, but also the impressions of seals.

Seals, generally made of stone, had figural imagery carved in the negative. When the seals were rolled or pressed into the still-moist clay of an administrative tablet, they left images in relief on the tablet. These images acted as a kind of signature of the administrators who were responsible for the transactions recorded in the texts. Garrison is particularly interested in the imagery of the seals, especially how they were used to denote administrative rank and social status. "The contextual information in which these images are embedded in many ways makes them a unique resource for the study of ancient art. The fact that you have thousands of these images that are linked together, in time and space, is exceptionally rare in the study of ancient art," said Garrison.

Since they were discovered about 80 years ago, the tablets have been housed in the Oriental Institute of the Chicago. Outside of a handful of academics, most people were not even aware the archive existed.

That changed, however, when a suicide bomber killed and injured dozens of people, including some Americans, in a terrorist attack in Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian organization, took credit for the attack, but Iran, as a sponsor of Hamas, was also implicated. In 2000, some of the American victims and their families sued Iran in U.S. federal court, using the terrorism exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The courts awarded a default judgment to the plaintiffs for $71 million plus another $300 million in punitive damages.

Since the court decision, the plaintiffs have tried to collect on the judgment by seizing Iranian assets located in the United States. Eventually they became aware of the Persepolis Fortification archive. The plaintiffs seek to take control of the archive with the intent to sell the tablets, as a complete corpus, in groups, or individually, as a method of collecting payment.

The case raises an important legal question. Can national treasures of cultural heritage be sold or auctioned off to satisfy a courtroom judgment? For now the matter is still working through the legal system, although a group of museums in Boston recently won a related legal battle brought by the same plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, Garrison works quietly and diligently on the archive. When he's not in Chicago doing the documentary research, he spends much of his time writing interpretive studies on the seal imagery. "It is just unbelievable how rich and detailed the imagery is," he said. "I am continually astounded by the complexity of the material."

When asked how the Persepolis Project influences his teaching, Garrison said that the constant process of looking at new images reinforces the importance of careful and accurate observation, as well as the need for critical analyses. He tries to impart to his students the importance of looking at the images that surround them in the same critical way. "Although our students are immersed in images, from computers, television screens, and phones, they generally are only passive receivers of that imagery," he said. "They are so saturated with images that oftentimes they do not stop and ask ‘what is this thing that I'm looking at, why am I reacting to it in a certain manner, and in whose interest is it that I have this particular reaction?'"

The images above and to the right show three of the small-format tablets from the archive. Each carries a seal impression. The top and the bottom ones are impressions of cylinder seals, the middle one an impression of a large stamp seal. The photographs appear courtesy of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project at the University of Chicago.

Courses Taught

  • Introduction to Art History: Prehistoric Through Medieval Art
  • Art and Archaeology of Egypt and the Ancient Near East
  • Art and Archaeology of Mesopotamia
  • Introduction to Roman Art and Architecture

Selected Publications

  • Elam and Persia. Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake 2011 (co-author and co-editor with J. Álvarez-Mon).
  • "The Heroic Encounter in the Visual Arts of Ancient Iraq and Iran c. 1000-500 B.C." In The Master of Animals in Old World Iconography, eds. D.B. Counts and B. Arnold,  Archaeolingua 24, Archaeolingua Foundation: Budapest 2010.
  • "Archers at Persepolis: The Emergence of Royal Ideology at the Heart of the Empire." In The World of Achaemenid Persia, History, Art and Society in Iran and the Ancient Near East, eds. J. Curtis and St. John Simpson, 2010.