Targeting ancient tablets to settle a score

An ancient tablet, 2,500 years old, contains administrative details on the Persian empire.

KAI RYSSDAL: Along with all the other troubles Washington's having with Iran right now, there's the small matter of $6 billion. American courts have awarded about that much to U.S. citizens injured in terrorist attacks funded by Iran. But collection's turning out to be a problem. So one group of victims is trying to get Iran to pay up in an unusual way. From Chicago, Diantha Parker reports.


DIANTHA PARKER: A little-known collection of ancient Persian clay tablets at the University of Chicago definitely look their age: about 2,500 years old.

That's why Professor Gil Stein, of the school's Oriental Institute, handles them with latex gloves.

[Sound of a rubber glove snapping]

GIL STEIN: When people think about the tablets, they often have a conception of them as these things carved in stone or maybe in precious metals. They're mud balls. That's basically what they are.

They're covered with the hatch marks of cuneiform script, in a dialect called Elamite.

STEIN: Most of them about the size of your tongue, and actually the shape of your tongue if it were cut off at the back.

There are about 40,000 severed tongue-sized mud balls in all. They're actually 10 years worth of receipts for supplies, like barley or beer. And Stein calls them the most complete picture scholars have of the day-to-day workings of the influential Persian empire.

That would probably surprise the stylus-wielding bureaucrats of ancient Persia. As would the fact that today, their work is at the center of an international terrorism case.

The plaintiffs survived a lethal Hamas suicide bombing almost 10 years ago. In 2003, a federal judge found Iran had funded Hamas to carry out the attack and awarded the plaintiffs more than $450 million in damages.

Iran hasn't paid. That's led plaintiffs' attorneys to go after Iranian assets in the U.S. — including the tablets in Chicago.

DAVID STRACHMAN: 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.

Plaintiffs' attorney David Strachman declined to take part in this story. But here's what he told National Public Radio earlier this year.

STRACHMAN: 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.

Researchers at the Oriental Institute say the tablets may not be pretty, but they're still mantel-worthy for collectors.

A call to Sothebys confirms that in the past 10 years, cuneiform tablets from this era have sold for between 500 and $20,000 apiece at auction.

But there's a catch: the tablets auctioned at Sotheby's were privately owned. A sovereign nation, Iran, still owns these tablets. So there are international laws that protect them, says Depaul University Law professor Patty Gerstenblith.

PATTY GERSTENBLITH: If art works enter the United States today for loan, temporary loan for exhibition and display, the institution that is importing them into the U.S. can obtain immunity from this type of legal action.

But these tablets have been in the U.S. since before these laws were passed. Iran lent them to the University of Chicago back in the 1930s to be translated and catalogued.

The U of C has said the plaintiffs in the case are victims of an undeniable tragedy. But as custodians of the tablets, they're going to court to protect them.The U.S. Department of Justice has come out in support of both the University and Iran, saying the tablets are Iran's cultural property.

But the plaintiffs have a significant edge, thanks to the hefty settlement they've already been awarded. If they win in this case, it'll set a precedent for victims of terrorism. But also for museums, which might not be able to hold onto their antiquities forever.

In Chicago, I'm Diantha Parker for Marketplace.

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