China’s Cyrus Cylinder extracts spark debate in academia

August 9, 2010 - 0:0

TEHRAN -- An Iranian archaeologist believes that more studies are needed to prove the authenticity of alleged extracts from the Cyrus Cylinder carved on two bone fragments found in China.

“We should wait patiently for in-depth studies by experts on ancient languages and other laboratory research to confirm the genuineness of the objects,” Kamyar Abdi told the Persian service of CHN on Saturday.
“If the objects are proven authentic, the discovery will begin to transform our knowledge about relations between the Near East, especially the Achaemenid Empire, and China during the first millennium, in particular during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 BC),” he added
The discovery will also extend back the history of relations between China and Iran. Until the discovery, it was believed that political relations between Iran and China dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-221 CE) in China and the Parthian dynasty in Iran.
“The Cyrus Cylinder had undoubtedly been important for the people living under the Achaemenid Empire, but, if the objects are proved authentic, the first question would be how the Cyrus text had been transferred to China and why the text was important enough for the Chinese to copy it,” he stated.
Considered the world’s first declaration of human rights, the Cyrus Cylinder is a document issued by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great in the form of a clay cylinder inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script.
The cylinder was created following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, when Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian king Nabonidus and replaced him as ruler, ending the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
The text of the cylinder denounces Nabonidus as impious and portrays the victorious Cyrus as pleasing to the chief Babylonian god Marduk.
It goes on to describe how Cyrus had improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples and restored temples and cult sanctuaries.
The cylinder was discovered in 1879 by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuz Rassam in the foundations of the Esagila, the main temple of Babylon. Today, it is kept in the British Museum in London.
Two fossilized horse bones bearing cuneiform inscriptions, which are extracts from the text of the Cyrus Cylinder, have recently been discovered in China, the London-based Art Newspaper reported last week.
The objects seem to be genuine based on research by British Museum specialist Irving Finkel.
The texts inexplicably have fewer than one in every 20 of the Cyrus text’s cuneiform signs transcribed, although they are in the correct order, Finkel said.
The bones had been donated to the Beijing Palace Museum in 1985 by deceased Chinese traditional doctor Xue Shenwei, who bought the artifacts in 1935 and 1940.
Two years after the donation of the objects, specialist Wu Yuhong realized that the text of the first bone came from the Cyrus proclamation, but the text of the second was not yet identified.
In January 2010, two fragments of a clay tablet with inscriptions of part of the text of the Cyrus proclamation were found in the British Museum’s collection.
Afterwards, experts hypothesized that the Cyrus proclamation might have been widely copied during ancient times.
Thus, Finkel conducted an in-depth study on the pair of Chinese bones to determine whether they might be authentic.
Based on existing photographs, he learned that the text on the second bone was also from the Cyrus proclamation, and requested more information from Beijing.
Chinese Assyriologist Yushu Gong provided a much better image of the text and took the photos to the British Museum for a workshop that was held on June 23-24.
“The text used by the copier on the bones was not the Cyrus Cylinder, but another version, probably originally written in Persia, rather than Babylon,” Finkel said.
He surmised that it could have been a version carved on stone, written with ink on leather, or inscribed on a clay tablet. Most likely, the original object was sent during the reign of Cyrus to the far east of his empire, in the west of present-day China.
There was some skepticism among the scholars attending the workshop, but Finkel believes that the evidence is “completely compelling”.
He is convinced that the bones have been copied from an authentic version of the Cyrus proclamation, although it is unclear at what point in the past 2,500 years the copying was done.
Photo: Irving Finkel with a rubbing of the ancient Chinese bones