Irving Finkel, the British Museum specialist on the Cyrus Cylinder, has announced that horse bones now in the Palace Museum in Beijing inscribed with extracts from the Cyrus proclamation are genuine ancient copies.
The discovery raises important questions about relations between Iran and China during the 1st millennium BC, and why the text was important enough for the Chinese to copy. The original text of the Cyrus proclamation is inscribed on a baked clay cylinder, some 225mm (9in) by 100mm (4in) in diameter. It was written in Akkadian cuneiform script some time after Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. Often characterised as the world’s first human rights declaration, the text includes a promise by Cyrus to restore the city and its temples and improve the lot of its citizens, recognising their rights to liberty and freedom of worship.
The cylinder, excavated in 1879 by the archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam, was once considered to be a unique object, made for ritual burial in the foundations of the Esagila, ancient Babylon’s main temple, when Cyrus rebuilt it. In January 2010, however, Finkel found two more clay tablets within the British Museum’s collection inscribed with extracts from the cylinder and deduced that the text was more widely copied and disseminated than had been realised.
He decided to re-examine a pair of Chinese bones donated to the Beijing Palace Museum in 1985 by Chinese doctor Xue Shenwei, who bought the artefacts in 1935 and 1940. The text on one of the bones had already been identified as an extract from the Cyrus proclamation by Chinese Assyriologist Wu Yuhong, but the text of the second had not been identified, nor the age of the bones.
Finkel made his preliminary conclusions known at an international workshop at the British Museum in June: he said the inscription on the second bone was also from the Cyrus proclamation, and that the text used by the copier was not from the Cyrus Cylinder itself, but from an intermediary version. The text on the bones omits characters from the original, and the wedges of the cuneiform text are of a style used by scribes in ancient Persia, which is less-developed than those employed on the original cylinder.
It is unclear when in the past 2,500 years the copying was done, but Finkel believes copies of the Cyrus proclamation could have been disseminated during the lifetime of Cyrus, carved on stone, written with ink on leather, or inscribed on a clay tablet and distributed throughout the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire, whose borders stretched into central Asia, west of present-day China. The likelihood that the bones are inscribed with a much more recent copy of the Cyrus text is unlikely, given that text only became widely known in the latter half of the 20th century.
The discovery adds richness to the story of the cylinder, which had been due to be loaned to the National Museum in Iran for an exhibition in January 2010. The postponement of that loan by the British Museum was described by the Iranian government as a ‘politically motivated’ decision. The Iranian government has since ‘cut all ties’ with the British Museum. The British Museum’s position is that ‘exchanges of this sort are an essential part of the Museum’s international role, allowing valuable dialogues to develop independently of political considerations’.