the persepolis tablets -- 5/9/23

Today's selection -- from Persians by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. Much of the history of Persia, including its bureaucratic bungling, is documented in one of the world’s most amazing archeological discoveries:  
"From sites as wide apart as Aswan in Egypt to Bactra in Afghanistan, surviving administrative documents (in these cases written on clay, papyrus, wood, and strips of bone) testify to the tight administrative grip the Achaemenid kings had over their empire. Nothing was too trivial to be logged. The number of nails needed to repair a wooden boat in Upper Egypt or the fact that a plague of locusts meant that a mud-brick wall could not be built in Bactria -- each and every case was indi­vidually recorded, signed off, reported to the central administration in Persia, and methodically filed away.

"Discovered in the 1930s in the northern fortified walls of Persepolis and in the Treasury building that sits at the centre of the palace, some 30,000 tablets, whole and fragmentary, were unearthed by archaeologists. Known by their place of discovery as the Persepolis Fortification tablets (PFs) and the Persepolis Treas­ury tablets (PTs), these unique written documents are a snapshot of daily life in and around Fārs and eastern Elam. Altogether, the Persepolis texts record around 750 place names -- cities, towns and villages, provinces, and districts -- between Susa in Elam and Persepolis. Their focus was chiefly on distribution of foodstuffs, the management of flocks, and the provisioning of workers and travellers. The Fortification tablets were drafted between the thir­teenth and the twenty-eighth regnal years of Darius I, i.e, from 509 to 494 BCE, while the Treasury tablets cover the thirtieth year of the reign of Darius I to the seventh year of the reign of King Artaxerxes I (i.e. 492-458 BCE). The Fortification tablets record the transportation of various food and drink commodities from one place to another, and also register the distribution of products to the 'workers' (Old Persian, kurtash) and to state officials, as well as fodder for livestock and poultry. The Treasury tablets record the issue of silver and foodstuffs to workmen of the royal economy in Persepolis and its suburbs. These magnificent collections of admin­istrative tablets from Persepolis made up merely a tiny percentage of Achaemenid documentation which, sadly, has not survived to the present day.

Persepolis tablet.

"During Darius' reign, one courtier in particular stands head and shoulders above all others in respect of his role in the Achaemenid administration. We have met him already. His name was Parnakka. He was known, grandly, as a 'son of the royal house', that is to say, he was an Achaemenid prince, very probably an uncle to King Darius. He was the director of the civil service and the chief overseer of the entire Persepolis administrative system as well as of Fārs province more generally. He seems to have had free and open access to the king and was therefore a man of great authority. He is frequently cited in the Persepolis tablets receiving his orders directly from Darius. It was Parnakka's duty to oversee the distribution of food­stuffs and other goods from the royal storerooms, and it was he who conveyed the king's orders in writing.

"Working under Parnakka was a man named Zishshawish who was also responsible for recording and issuing rations. He some­times deputised for Parnakka, but he was usually seen working alongside the royal prince as his chief aide. Between them, Parnakka and Zishshawish supervised numerous storeroom managers and rations operatives, as well as a whole range of officers in charge of provisions. These men looked after the departments of wine, beer, fruit, grain, livestock, poultry, and numerous other food and drink supplies. Parnakka and Zishshawish worked alongside the head scribe and his vast workforce of secretaries and translators; basic to the Persian administrative system was a highly trained civil service composed of men recruited on the principle of merit [all well-documented in the Persepolis tablets]."



Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


Persians: The Age of the Great Kings


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


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