Nearly 2,500-year-old ancient Persian artifact returns to the Oriental Institute
Coming to power around 550 BC, the Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire the world has known; its vast central administration served as a model for subsequent empires and is an essential part of understanding the course of human civilization. But after only two centuries, Persepolis and the Empire fell when the armies of Alexander the Great sacked the city in 330 BC.
According to the Roman historian Plutarch, it took 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels to take the treasure looted by Alexander’s army from Persepolis. However, there were still columns and halls, staircases and doors, all intricately carved by the artisans of the Achaemenid royal court.
Many of them were still standing two millennia later when the OI began a pioneering excavation that lasted eight years and required hundreds of workers. On the site of several hectares, excavations have uncovered everything from the cups and bowls of kings to the treasures looted during the Achaemenid conquests of other kingdoms.
Hundreds of cuneiform tablets, preserved from their firing in the fires that consumed the rest of the city, filled the details of life in ancient Persepolis. From them, scholars learned everything, from land deals and taxes to how much haoma, the sacred intoxicating drink, must be used during religious services.
Although much of what was excavated remains in place at Persepolis, several large pieces, such as the head of a colossal bull that once guarded the Hall of Hundred Columns, in addition to smaller finds, have been donated to the OI by the Iranian authorities in recognition of the works which made it possible to discover and preserve the ancient site and were shipped to Chicago, where they have been exhibited in the OI Museum for almost a century. The relief of a lion and a bull in combat has, however, been on long-term loan to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
In honor of the OI’s centennial, the museum plans to bring the stone relief back to Chicago.