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 thousands of bits of ancient history. They're like a jigsaw puzzle. A single piece offers a tantalizing clue. Together, the big picture is a scholar's dream: 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. They are, to put it simply, bureaucratic records. But they also 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 bombing survivors.
His plan, though, has angered many scholars who see it as an attempt to ransom cultural artifacts 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 recently asked to weigh in on the long-running dispute. A European association of scholars — the Societas Iranologica Europea — has collected hundreds of signatures asking the president to stop the tablets from being sold or confiscated.
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.
"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," says Patty Gerstenblith, a research professor at DePaul University's College of Law and founding president of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
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. Winning, though, doesn't guarantee payment.
Rusty nails and poison
This case stems from a horrific September afternoon in 1997 in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers 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. The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, took responsibility. Two Hamas operatives were convicted in Israeli court.
Two groups of Americans 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, large scars and chronic headaches.
Others sustained nerve damage, partial loss of vision and psychological trauma — one of the wounded later tried to kill himself.
"These were absolutely life-changing injuries," says David Strachman, the lawyer for the bombing victims. "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."
Issue with Iran
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, a lawyer for the families.
Some argue this approach is misguided because it could deprive a nation of its heritage — and have no impact on those responsible for the bombing.
"The ones feeling the pain are not the ones behind these terrorist attacks," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "
But Strachman says his clients are the ones in pain.
"They don't want to mention the people who were horribly victimized," he says. "Their lives were shaken forever. ... 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 represents the third generation of academics working on the project. The collection 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 filled with tens of thousands of tablets and fragments.
"They knew pretty quickly that they had found something extraordinary," Stolper says.
The tablets, inscribed with wedge-shaped cuneiform characters, were loaned to the university for study. When they arrived, there were great expectations.
"The first thing people said was 'Hot dog! at last, now we can see Persia from the inside,'" Stolper says. But it turned out the tablets recorded food rations and the day-to-day business of an empire.
It would take decades to fully grasp their importance.
Studying an ancient society
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 pieces were as large as place mats, others were nuggets. Many were written in Elamite, a complicated language dating back to 2300 B.C. or earlier. (Stolper is among a small group of people in the world who understands it.)
The tablets revealed how rank shaped food rations, the movement of animals and the distant travels of people. It was a top-to-bottom look at a society.
"It wasn't just a bunch of guys in bed sheets running around saying thee and thou," Stolper says. "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 an opportunity.
Chilling effect on safeguards
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 this winter the first installments of a digital photo archive of the collection.
No one knows how much the tablets 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 and says he has no intention of trying to sell them commercially.
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.
As this case works its way through the courts, Stein, head of the Oriental Institute, worries about broader implications.
"It would have a deadly, chilling effect on any kinds of cultural exchanges in the future," he says.