BMCR 2010.02.68

L’archive des fortifications de Persépolis

, , , L'archive des fortifications de Persépolis: état des questions et perspectives de recherches: actes du colloque organisé au Collège de France par la "Chaire d'histoire et civilisation du monde achéménide et de l'empire d'Alexandre" et le "Réseau international d'études et de recherches achéménides" (GDR 2538 CNRS), 3-4 novembre 2006. Persika 12. Paris: De Boccard, 2008. Pp. 570. ISBN 978701802497. €117.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

The Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA) is a body of around 20-25,000 clay tablets found in two small rooms in a bastion of the fortification wall of Persepolis (Jones and Stolper, p. 37). The majority of the archive comprises texts in the Elamite language that record the storage and distribution of food. The archive also contains a number of Aramaic texts, uninscribed tablets preserving only seal impressions, themselves incredibly important sources for Achaemenid art and history, and a handful of Old Persian, Phrygian, and Greek inscriptions. Much richer than the smaller collection of tablets discovered in the Treasury of Xerxes, the PFA is the most important primary source in existence for understanding the administrative workings of the Achaemenid empire.

Published as the twelfth volume of the series Persika, L’archive des fortifications de Persépolis contains important contributions to the study of the PFA as well as Achaemenid archaeology, art, economy, and history. In addition to providing a great wealth of quantitative data, its chapters chart the direction of future scholarship. Achaemenid specialists will look to this volume as the state of the question of many aspects of the Persepolis Fortification Archive. Classicists, who make up the majority of the BMCR’s readership and for whom this review is written, will find this volume to be a surprisingly accessible introduction to cutting-edge scholarship on the PFA and ancient Near Eastern archival practices in general. If the volume was priced more affordably, it could serve as a support text for graduate courses on Achaemenid archaeology. Since most of the contributions are in English, some of the chapters could also provide challenging course material for advanced undergraduates. It certainly should be included on every academic library’s acquisitions list.

Similar to the Achaemenid History colloquia and publications begun by Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg in the last quarter of the last century, this volume from a 2006 colloquium at the Collège de France provides scholarship with a solid step forward in understanding Achaemenid history based on the critical study of primary Achaemenid sources versus Classical literature.

This volume critically surveys the archive as a unity, a need that is ever more pressing, as the ability to study the archive as a whole in physical rather than virtual form is quickly waning.1 While the archive contains the work of generations of scholars, this volume represents an important step forward in its attempt to move beyond older studies drawn from limited ‘cherry-picked’ samples. The chapters consider the issues within the full context of the PFA and bring it into dialogue with other ancient archives, including those stemming from the Mycenaean, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures.

The volume’s introduction (pp. 16-24) describes the state of the project and highlights four websites that are import for the storage and presentation of PFA material.2

The first chapter, “How many Persepolis Fortification tablets are there?” by Charles E. Jones and Matthew W. Stolper (pp. 27-48), surveys the archive’s size and composition to answer this basic question, a problem that was often unnecessarily obfuscated in the previous generation of scholars’ rancorous debates. They argue that the total number of unedited tablets is between 16,000 and 20,000, and the total number of all the tablets, edited and unedited, are between 20-25,000.3 They estimate that there are 15-18,000 distinct documents in the PFA: “About half are Elamite primary documents; about a fifth are secondary records; about a quarter are uninscribed, sealed clay tags; less than a twentieth are monolingual Aramaic tablets” (p. 43). The chapter also provides an excellent overview and introduction to the archive, the history of scholarship and curatorship. Joining this, Shahrokh Razmjou’s shorter chapter, “Find spots and find circumstances of documents excavated at Persepolis” (pp. 51-58), offers an equally useful synthesis of observations on the circumstances of the deposition and discovery and relates the details of the transfer of the objects from Iran to Chicago.

“Multilingualism in the Fortification and Treasury archives,” by Jan Tavernier (pp. 59-86) examines evidence of acquisition and use of multiple languages in the ‘Fortification Archive’ and ‘Treasury Archive,’ and considers broader issues of multilingualism in the Achaemenid empire. The Achaemenid bureaucracy propagated Aramaic as an imperial administrative language to communicate orders originally composed in Persian while using provincial languages for local affairs. Elamite appears to have functioned largely for record keeping at imperial centers, and the bureaucracy kept translators in the staff of the imperial centers and satrapies to mediate between these different idioms. Although Elamite makes up the largest part of the archive, the PFA reflects this complex linguistic phenomenon and includes a small number of tablets in other languages, often dealing with the same issues as the Elamite tablets. Tavernier reviews the scholarship on the problem of multilingualism, dismissing several old theories, such as Gershevitich’s (1979) that Elamite was simply Old Persian written ideographically. Tavernier then presents a reconstruction of how bureaucratic records were created. He traces the names of scribes in tablets with different languages through scribal subscripts, and identifies individuals who were bi- or multilingual and were part of the high-ranking scribal class at Persepolis. Imperial orders were normally composed first in Old Iranian, translated into Aramaic and thence into other languages, such as Egyptian or Elamite; however, the Elamite texts at Persepolis without Aramaic subscripts were likely translated directly from Old Persian into Elamite. The chapter concludes with an extensive table that presents names of scribes in the PFA in relation to their seal, the year, and administrative formulas and texts.

The following two chapters by Margaret Cool Root and Mark B. Garrison, two leaders of art historical scholarship on the PFA, offer important contributions to our understanding of the contents of seals and seal praxis in the Persepolis Fortification tablets. “The legible image: how did seals and sealing matter Persepolis” (87-148), builds on Root’s previous work on this topic and deals with the extensive body of sealings on the corpus of Elamite tablets published by Hallock 1969. She argues that the sealings in the Persepolis Fortification corpus contained information important to those who used and received the seals that extended beyond their internal content and into the way they were used. She reviews the different sealing techniques and technologies in the tablets. She surveys the limited use of seal surrogates and ‘non-professionally-made seals,’ as well as the absence of name captions. Root surveys the “explosion of image diversity,” noting that it is based on old visual ideas newly reinterpreted as well as new images. She argues that the creativity around seal production is an expression of “a positive assertion of the dynamism of the seal as a mode of expression and as a fully engaged social tool,” and a direct outgrowth, “of the Achaemenid imperial experience generated from the heartland.” (p. 94) After surveying the conventions of sealing the tablets, seal legibility and ambiguity, the phenomenon of recognizable office seals, seals of officials, and seals of recipients, Root offers an in-depth analysis of sealing practice and protocols. She offers observations on the ‘Pattern of seal application,’ and notes, along with Collon 1987, that the manner in which an individual rolled a cylinder seal offered another clue as to the identity of the sealer. Two appendices follow the chapter; the first lists the tablets in Hallock’s publication bearing no seal, while the second describes the author’s methodology for collecting and handling the tablets. Garrison’s chapter, “The uninscribed tablets from the Fortification archive: a preliminary analysis” (pp. 149-238), tackles the 3,962-4,755 tablets that carry only seal impressions and no text. He analyzes a sample of 110 uninscribed tablets and classifies them according to shape, size and seal practice and offers a wealth of quantitative data on the sample. He then inquires as to the range of administrative activities that these tablets documented and the extent to which differences between the uninscribed and inscribed tablets are meaningful. Seals were used on the uninscribed tablets in much the same way as they were in the rest of the corpus with consistency between the size of the tablet and the office of the seal holder and the number of sealings on the tablet. Garrison devotes the final section (179-80) to describing and analyzing the types, imagery, and style of the seals and concludes that the most striking facts that emerge from this study are: 1) the complete absence of the most important seals of the high administrative offices which occur on the Elamite tablets, 2) the higher percentage of stamp seals on the uninscribed seals, which, he concludes, stemmed from commodities’ journey on the royal road. He believes that the uninscribed tablets are not ‘receipts’ for the Elamite texts, as others have supposed, but represent a separate unknown type of transaction that, for whatever reason, did not require text.

In “Seal Impressions on the Persepolis Fortification Aramaic tablets,” Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre reviews elements of seal praxis, seal type, imagery, and style, providing an accessible description of the Aramaic tablets. She devotes a final section to so-called ‘Cross-over’ seals, those few seals that occur on multiple types of tablets. Only ten seals appear on the uninscribed tablets and the Aramaic tablets considered in her study. But they suggest that the uninscribed tablets—and the Aramaic tablets—were linked to commodity transfer and distribution on the royal road.

Annalisa Azzoni’s chapter, “The Bowman MS and the Aramaic tablets,” focuses on the late Raymond A. Bowman’s unpublished manuscript that studied the Persepolis Fortification Aramaic Tablets (PFAT). She describes Bowman’s work and outlines what should be changed given the availability of new information, approaches, and readings. The chapter serves as a preliminary overview of the purpose of her larger project, to edit the Bowman manuscript and publish the tablets. The author notes that a group of PFAT record travel rations for groups of people. Some of the geographic locations, such as Persepolis, Bactria, or Babylon, are known, while others will require a great deal more geographic research to understand them.

Daniel T. Potts studies the relationship between the PFA and travel within the empire. “The Persepolis Fortification texts and the Royal Road: another look at the Fahliyan area,” (pp. 275-301) examines this issue in the context of the author’s archaeological project in the Fahliyan region of Iran and offers a valuable new identification of a toponym in the PFA. Potts analyzes sites within his survey area that possibly relate to way-stations on the Achaemenid royal road, distinguishing between royal and non-royal use. Using a promising methodology, Potts integrates evidence from the Fortification texts with archaeological evidence and considers several attributions of ancient toponyms. He concludes that many of the archaeological sites are likely indigenous settlements rather than imperial staging points; however, the evidence for the Hunar/Huhnar station, located on the outskirts of Ram Hormuz, now appears to be beyond doubt.

“From Gabae to Taoce: the geography of the central administrative province,” by Wouter F.M. Henkelman also deals with the problem of localizing toponyms in the tablets. In this finely argued chapter, Henkelman draws attention to concordances in the textual sources localizing the site of Tamukka on the Persian Gulf and Kabash, the central town from which animals were distributed. Henkelman argues that the residences of the Persian kings in Parsa not only hosted the imperial court, as Strabo relates, but also served an important function in the economic and military structure the province.

“Taxation and death: certainties in the Persepolis Fortification archive?” (pp. 317- 86) by Christopher J. Tuplin, offers a substantial synthesis of evidence of these two certainties of life in the PF tablets. Tuplin first surveys instances where deaths are implied or mentioned in the tablets of workers ( kurtash) and officials. In a very interesting section, the author builds on Wouter Henkleman’s 2003 work and examines instances where the tablets mention funerary monuments for member the royal family ( shumar). Tuplin’s much longer section on taxation forms the core of the chapter. The author examines a variety of words that denote ‘tax’ or ‘tribute’ and the processes that brought commodities into the system in addition to seals and seal praxis in the context of taxation. After surveying these terms, Tuplin examines the role of the, “the standard C1 memorandum,” concluding that its function should still remain an open question and likely does not relate just to tax.

The last five chapters offer comparative studies of archives within Achaemenid provinces or archives from entirely different periods and cultures, some of which, like Michael Jursa’s, are more productive than others. “The remuneration of institutional labourers in an urban context in Babylonia in the first millennium BC,” (pp. 387-427) by Michael Jursa, offers a comparative study of this long-standing institution in the ancient Near East, using evidence from Babylon as a model for understanding the evolution of Persepolitan labor remuneration. Jursa argues that often ‘rations’ should be considered as ‘salaries paid in kind,’ which, like the occasional disbursement of silver, allowed workers to trade the excess to supplement the standard staple of barley with other necessities. He concludes with a detailed appendix offering a preliminary assessment of rations in Babylonian temples after the reign of Xerxes.

Bojana Jankovic’s chapter, “Travel provisions in Babylonia in the first millennium BC,” surveys the system of travel provisions of the Chaldean and Achaemenid periods, again drawing from the Bablyonian archives of the Eanna in Uruk and Ababbar in Sippar. Comparing the Babylonian documents with the travel ration texts in the PF tablets, the author concludes they have little in common.

In “Place et rôle des femmes dans le personnel des grands organismes néo-babyloniens” (pp. 465-79) Francis Joannès surveys mentions of women in the Uruk and Sippar archives, comparing them in passing with the instances in the PFA of kurtash workers. Karen Radner’s “The delegation of power: Neo-Assyrian bureau seals” (pp. 481-516) tracks the spread of bureau seals as a tool of empire in the Neo-Assyrian empire. After surveying the seals and seal praxis, the author traces how power was delegated to the royal family and away from magnates through four case studies, considering role of the seals played in this process.

“Les archives démotiques d’époque perse. À propos des archives démotiques d’Ayn-Manawîr” (pp. 517-524) by Michel Chauveau, offers a short survey of the continuity of demotic archives in Egypt during the Achaemenid period. “Structures administratives et organisation du contrôle économique dans les textes en linéaire B: l’exemple de la production de laine et de tissus de Cnossos,” by Françoise Rougemont (pp. 525-62), is a study of the Mycenaean Linear B archives at Knossos. The author uses the production of wool and textile as a case study of Mycenaean archival practices and administrative systems within the palace and in the provinces. The chapter does not directly engage the PFA, but offers a parallel that might stimulate methodological approaches to the Achaemenid material.

Amélie Kuhrt’s conclusion lucidly surveys the chapters’ major contributions to scholarship and offers important global observations on the PFA. She agrees with Henkelman’s characterization that the archive, as discovered, was ‘dormant,’ rather than dead or active. Building on Tavernier’s contributions, she underscores the importance of evidence of non-Elamite languages in the PFA, all of which were well integrated into the archival system. This, she puts into dialogue with evidence of Aramaic and Elamite in Bactria and points out that this phenomenon emerged from the spread and interconnected nature of Achaemenid imperial bureaucratic practices throughout the empire. Kuhrt foregrounds the distinction between sources like as the Babylonian archives, which she characterizes true archives since they come from a single temple, and the PFA, which she classifies as an ‘interconnected dossier.’ She suggests that scholars must keep this distinction in mind in assessing what the PFA can and cannot tell us.


1. In 2004 a lawsuit was brought against the Islamic Republic of Iran in a U.S. court that ordered Iran to pay some $ 423.5 million in reparations including museum collections that were excavated within the present-day borders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the PFA. The University of Chicago’s Persepolis Fortification Archive Project has been racing against time to record and preserve the archive for future generations. Luckily it appears that a decision from the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals will buy some time for this vital work to be brought to its conclusion.

2. These include: University of Chicago’s OCHRE (“Online Cultural Heritage Research Environment”), the primary PFA resource which will eventually contain the most complete presentation of the PFA, University of Southern California’s InscriptiFact (“A Networked Database of Ancient Near Eastern Inscriptions”), which currently presents the images of the PFA, UCLA’s and the Max Planck Instititue’s CDLI (“The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative”), which contains images of the Elamite tablets and revised and corrected versions of Hallock’s published and unpublished editions of Hallock’s Persepolis Fortification Tablets.

3. They argue Herzfeld’s original 1933 estimate of the PFA as 30,000 pieces and fragments should be reduced by about 5,000 pieces.