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-size 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 in Chicago, 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, 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 Obama, who was asked this month to weigh in on the long-running dispute.
The fight, though, is centered in the courts as both sides navigate 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."
This case stems from a horrific September afternoon in 1997 in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers blew themselves up on the city's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.
The bombs, packed with rusty nails, screws, glass and poisons, killed five and wounded nearly 200, splattering blood on buildings and leaving the victims sprawled on the cobblestone streets.
The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, took responsibility. Two Hamas operatives were convicted in Israeli court.