CHICAGO — 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 these palm-sized bits of ancient history. Tens of thousands of them. They're like a jigsaw puzzle. A single piece offers a tantalizing clue. Together, the big picture is scholarly bliss: 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. These are, to put it simply, bureaucratic records. But in their own way, they 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 survivors of the bombing.
His plan, though, has angered many scholars who see it as an attempt to ransom cultural heritage — the tablets are considered as important a find as the Dead Sea Scrolls — 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 asked this month to weigh in on the long-running dispute. A European association of scholars specializing in Iranian studies — the group is called the Societas Iranologica Europea — has collected hundreds of signatures worldwide on a petition asking the president to stop the tablets from being sold or confiscated.
"The antiquities belong to the cultural heritage of Iran ... and should therefore remain in public hands," the letter read.
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.
"The bottom line is to what extent does a foreign sovereign have immunity for its property," says Patty Gerstenblith, a research professor at DePaul University's College of Law and founding president of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. "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."
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.
But winning in court doesn't guarantee payment. Far from it.
And no one understands that better than David Strachman, the Rhode Island lawyer representing the bombing victims. He won a $116 million judgment a decade ago against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the deaths of a married couple shot by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank in Israel.
So far, he has collected only a fraction of that amount.
This case stems from a horrific September afternoon in 1997 in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers, in a synchronized attack, 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 20.
The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, took responsibility. Two Hamas operatives were convicted in Israeli court.
Two groups of Americans — many were students — sued.
"These were absolutely life-changing injuries," Strachman says. "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."
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, the lawyer. "Maybe they'll all end up on coffee tables around the country."