Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Persepolis Fortification Archive Project

*DISCLAIMER* This post is now linked at the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project's blog, so I thought I'd toss in a disclaimer. First of all, nothing I say here should be considered an official position of the project or anything like that. I wrote this post before starting the project, and some of the info may or may not be accurate. For instance, I'm not sure that the fortification wall actually fell down on the structure that housed the documents. (It may have, I don't know.) This post was basically written to friends and family trying to explain what I'm doing now, so don't take any of the info here to the bank.

About twenty five hundred years ago, a man walks through the desert with a donkey carrying figs. He enters the city of Persepolis and goes to the delivery building, near the town wall. He enters the building and unloads the donkey while a scribe picks up a handful of clay, and digs into it with his stylus. "A donkey-load of figs was brought into Persepolis by Bandaba and recieved by Nababa in the 21st year." The scribe writes. Nababa leaves with the figs, Bandaba goes back home, and the scribe deposits the receipt in the back room with all the others.

Fast-forward to 230 BCE. Alexander the Great, emperor of the Greeks, is on a military campaign when he comes to the town of Persepolis. His soldiers breach the wall and sack the city. In the commotion, part of the city is set on fire. The fire burns near the city wall baking the clay bricks until they are too brittle to support the wall's massive weight. The wall buckles, and falls. The collapsing wall slams down on a structure housing thousands of documents, reducing the building to rubble, and burying the documents beneath it for thousands of years.

Fast forward to the 1930's CE. Archaeologists from the University of Chicago are digging in Iran, and unearth the documents that have been buried under that building for 2,260 years. Not much is known about the language that they were written in, so the Iranian scholars send the tablets back to the University of Chicago where they can be housed and available for study. The documents reveal a lot of new information about the language that was spoken in Persepolis all that time ago, but unfortunately, most of them are mundane, and don't arouse much attention from scholars because they simply aren't very interesting to read.

Fast-foward to 1997. Five Americans are in a shopping mall while they tour Jerusalem. They exit a store and walk out into the middle lobby when a suitcase explodes. Glass shatters, bodies break, five American tourists are killed. A group funded by the Iranian government claims responsibility for the bombing, and the surviving family members of the American tourists decide to sue the Iranian government for the deaths of their relatives. They win the lawsuit, awarded $71 million dollars, but Iran won't pay. So, the relatives decide to go after the Iranian possessions that are held by US institutions. The University of Chicago is ordered to divide the collection of tablets unearthed at Persepolis and sell them on the private market.

Most of the documents the University is ordered to sell are unimportant and boring on their own. Their only real value is as an entire collection, where they can tell us about the development of the city, the history of the economy, and reveal more information about the language that was spoken at the time. But the University has been ordered to sell the documents on the private market, where the only people who will buy them will be novelty seekers wanting a piece of something very old.

The decision has been appealed, and the University of Chicago is now battling to keep the tablets. If U of C loses the appeal, they'll have to sell this treasure to novelty seekers and destroy the entire collection. If they win, they can continue to house the tablets and learn more about the city, ancient culture, ancient language, and maybe ancient economies. But because they could lose and be forced to sell the whole collection, the University is busy photographing all of the documents. That way, if they do have to sell them, they'll still have some kind of archive to look back on.

Unfortunately, these documents are all written in clay, and simply taking pictures of them is often not enough. The scribes wrote on all six sides of the tiny rectangles, and in order to read what is written on them, they have to be tilted and turned so that the light can hit them at different angles. It's not possible to simply take a picture and read the photo. There are two methods going to record the images. In one method the tablet is photographed, tilted, and photographed again generating anywhere from six to seventeen photos of the tablet. These are then placed together as an archive of the tablet. Another method places the tablet under a special hood with 32 lights on it. There is a camera at the top that takes pictures of the tablet being lit from all sorts of different angles. Those pictures are then stitched together into an image of the tablet that where someone can rotate the light around the tablet almost as if you were controlling the flashlight being used to read it. So, while the appeal is in the court, the project is moving at as fast as it can to create a digital recreation of every one of these thousands of tablets.

I've been trying to get in on the project for a few months now. Originally I heard that I could get in on it, and then I heard that there might not be enough room on the machines to help. I kept asking and today I got an email saying that I can start tomorrow. Which means that tomorrow morning at 8:00, I'll be walking into the Oriental Institute to start editing the photos of these documents hoping to help preserve the Persepolis Administrative Archives. Man, this is cool. I can't wait to start.