Student's passion for classics leads to treasure hunt with ancient clay tablets

When Christina Chandler transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder as an English major, her advisor pushed her to take a course in classics. It would meet a requirement, the advisor said, and it fit into her schedule.

Chandler, who didn’t think she’d be interested in the subject, was not happy. But she gave in.

“I didn’t know classics was a thing. I didn’t know the word. I didn’t know it was a field,” she said. “But immediately, I was just so enamored. I think it took me maybe two weeks to declare it as a minor and then another two days to declare it as a second major.”

Four years later, Chandler is set to graduate. Her time at CU-Boulder has been filled with a deep exploration of the classical world, including learning ancient Greek and Latin. But a highlight of her undergraduate career has been her research into the impressions of seal stones used in the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, located in modern-day Iran.

Citizens throughout the Achaemenid Empire, of which Persepolis was the ceremonial capital, used seal stones as their signature. The stones, each one carved with distinctive iconography, were pressed into administrative clay tablets to ratify a transaction, such as the disbursement of grain or wine throughout the vast empire.

Last summer, with the help of CU-Boulder’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Chandler worked at the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where about 20,000 administrative documents from about 500 BC are stored.

Chandler’s job was to examine the seal impressions used on clay tablets and determine if the seal was among the 3,000 or so already documented on the archive. Knowing all the instances in which a single seal was used helps scholars understand the connections between people across the empire.

If the seal had not been used before, Chandler carefully drew the impression and catalogued it for future reference.

“It was very much like a big puzzle or treasure hunt with the ancient iconography,” Chandler said. “Because they’re on clay tablets, they’re not perfectly preserved a lot of the time. So you have to have out your magnifying glass and you have to be under the light just right to see what you’re looking at.”

A cylinder seal impression of a hero in combat with a winged monster found on a tablet in Persepolis. The seal is likely Assyrian from the ninth to eighth centuries B.C. Image courtesy of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

The meaning of warfare scenes

As Chandler worked, she began to notice common themes. It turned out ancient Persians especially liked to depict a hero figure wrestling a beast—either a real animal or a hybrid, such as a winged lion—on their seals. Animals fighting each other and people sitting down at banquets or participating in rituals also were common.

But what was rare, Chandler noticed, were warfare scenes: depictions of people battling each other. Less than 1 percent of the seals identified in the archive are even remotely related to warfare.

“I was really surprised to find so few because this is a giant empire that would certainly depend on human dominance and the military for control and expansion,” she said.

Chandler’s summer work will help scholars decode connections within the empire in their future research, and her interest in warfare scenes grew into an honors thesis back at CU-Boulder. Chandler compared the warfare iconography on seal stones found in Persepolis with art and seals found in Nimrud and Nineveh, the two great Neo-Assyrian capitals built in the ninth and seventh centuries respectively, said Classics Professor Elspeth Dusinberre, an expert on the ancient Near East and Chandler’s advisor.

Chandler found that Assyrian seals dealing with warfare tend to depict glory after the battle, including victory banquets, instead of the actual violence. But the few warfare scenes found on Persian seals were usually violent and tended to clearly show whom the Persians had defeated, for example, a Greek or Egyptian warrior. Those Persian seals stand in contrast to the fact that Persian art, in general, tends to show a world at peace and harmony. 

“The specific violence of those few Persian seals showing warfare demonstrates that some individuals in the Persian Empire emphatically departed from the official imperial rhetoric of a world at balance, to emphasize specifically Persian prowess in battle,” Dusinberre said. “The research that Christina did last summer paved the way for her to write a thesis that illuminates a completely new aspect of the Persian empire. It is breathtaking in its scope, its learnedness, and its contribution to scholarship.”

Chandler plans to continue her study in classics during graduate school: “I don’t see myself being able to stop thinking about these things anytime soon,” she said. Noting that four years ago she couldn’t have predicted that she’d find this passion, she encourages other students to be open to exploring new subjects.

“I think it’s important to try things that you wouldn’t normally make yourself try and do things that look hard and scary and foreign,” she said. “I remember when I declared the major and I learned I had to learn Greek or Latin—I was terrified. But I powered through and it opened up a whole new world.”