Report from the Field: Archaeological Research in Iran's Islamabad PlainSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Called the "Cradle of Civilization," the Near East has been a major center for archaeological research during the past 150 years. It is here that we find the first evidence for food production, sedentary life, political organizations and systems of writing, as well as some of the earliest and most complex transregional empires in human history. In particular, the highland plains of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran (see map) have attracted several generations of archaeologists.
Archaeological research both in the Near East and throughout the world has undergone an evolution over the past century - from an initial emphasis on recording monuments, to large-scale excavations aimed at finding art objects for European and American museums, to the current concern with anthropological questions. My education as an archaeologist has undergone a similar evolution. As an undergraduate at Teheran University, I focused on the archaeology of Iran in the historical period with emphasis on the history of art and architecture and then moved on to studying history and languages of the ancient Near East (Akkadian, Elamite and Old Persian) at the University of Chicago. But the real turning point in my career began when I transferred to Michigan in 1996 to enter the doctoral program in anthropology.
In the years since, I have begun to envision a regional archaeological project that would address questions pertinent to a rather broad historical spectrum. The processes leading to food production and the origins of village life and complex societies in the highlands of western Iran is an inherently fascinating topic for research, but I have also become interested in learning about sociopolitical developments of highland societies from the Chalcolithic period ( ca. 5000- 4000 BCE) to the Iron Age ( ca. 3300-550 BCE).
To carry out the initial stages of my research, I visited Iran in the summers of 1997 and 1998. During the first year I carried out a preliminary reconnaissance in the Zagros Mountains. I was particularly interested in seeing the Tang-i Var monument, an ancient rock-relief in the Kurdistan province. Long known only to local residents of the area, this monument had come to the attention of an expedition from the then Archaeological Service of Iran in the summer of 1968. Because of its inaccessibility, members of the 1968 expedition had to rely on a team of airborne troops from a nearby army base to suspend them from the cliff above the relief for a few minutes while they hurriedly took notes, photographs, and copies of the relief and its inscription.
Although report of this heroic archaeological endeavor appeared in print shortly afterwards, the expedition was never able to return to the site and the monument remained unstudied until quite recently. The scale and strategic location of this monument suggested to me that it might contain information on late Iron Age (ca. 700 BCE) events in this area. With a vehicle and driver provided by the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization office in Sanandaj, the center of the Kurdestan province, my colleagues and I headed for the monument, traveling some 42 kilometers amidst a rural area dotted with walnut trees, gardens and strawberry fields.
Arriving in Palangan, a modest Kurdish village tucked in a small highland valley, we were greeted by villagers with cold glasses of doogh, a traditional drink made from yogurt and water. To reach the relief, we hiked from the village for about 45 minutes into the gorge locally known as Tang-i Var. Framed in a niche carved in rock-face, about 20 meters above the gorge floor, the relief depicts the standing figure of a man of apparently high status raising his hands in salutation to several divine symbols. A cuneiform inscription, several lines long, runs along the relief. The monument appears to be an example of a victory stelae, occasionally carved or erected by Neo-Assyrian rulers or their generals in the course of their military campaigns.
The second stage of my journey took me south from Sanandaj to the city of Kermanshah, the center of the Kermanshah province. From there I visited various archaeological sites and evaluated the archaeological potential of various plains along the Great Khorasan Road - the main highway connecting the lowlands of Mesopotamia to the Iranian Plateau and beyond. The site of Chogha Gavaneh, located in the middle of the town of Islamabad, was particularly interesting because of its massive Bronze Age and Iron Age deposits.
The third stage of my trip took me southwest from Kermanshah to Ilam, and from there to Deh Luran, a town on a remote and desolate plain along the Iran-Iraq border, where several archaeologists associated with the U-M Museum of Anthropology worked in the 1960s and 1970s. The Deh Luran Plain witnessed many bloody battles during the Iran-Iraq War. Thousands from both sides fell here and the towns in the area were razed to the ground on more than one occasion by the occupying Iraqi forces before their retreat. My visit here was meant to assess the damage done to archaeological sites. Remains of eight years of war can still be seen in the countryside. On some sites we found more shells, shrapnel, and other scraps of military waste than archaeological remains. Although a large portion of the plain is still under military control and thus inaccessible for archaeological fieldwork, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, except in a few cases, damage is minimal and there is still hope to salvage much valuable archaeological data.
From Deh Luran we head back for Kermanshah, stopping once more at Islamabad. By the time I returned to Kermanshah I was convinced that the Islamabad Plain and the site of Chogha Gavaneh are the most promising for the research questions I have in mind.
The Islamabad Plain is the first large agricultural plain along the Great Khorasan Road in the Zagros highlands, and a crossroad of pastoral nomadic migration routes.
This plain was visited by numerous archaeological teams both from the West and from Iran. In 1970 a team from the then Archaeological Service of Iran cleared an area on the top of Chogha Gavaneh and found architectural remains possibly dating to Iron Age II (ca. 1000 BCE). None of these projects, however, resulted in more than a brief note in print.
In 1998 I returned to Iran and carried out six weeks of research in the Islamabad Plain during June and July. In addition to financial support from a number of organizations, I was fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic crew of Iranian students working with me. I focused on three major objectives: surveying the Islamabad Plain to record evidence of settlement and land use from successive prehistoric and historical phases of occupation; documenting an unknown part of the regional pottery sequence by means of a stratigraphic cut; and reexamining the 1970 excavations at Chogha Gavaneh.
Our survey recorded 73 sites of archaeological and historical significance. Chronologically, the recorded sites range from a late Acheulian/early Mousterian open-air site dating to around 100,000 years ago to three recent cemeteries. In terms of size, the recorded sites range from single unit nomadic camps of only a few square meters to a 25 hectare medieval city. (One hectare is 10,000 square meters, or roughly 2.5 acres).
In order to learn more about the pottery sequence of the Plain, we opened a stratigraphic cut at Chogha Gavaneh. We encountered Late Neolithic to Middle Chalcolithic deposits (ca. 6000-4500 BCE), from which we collected pottery, faunal, floral and radiocarbon samples. We also found a large set of baked clay objects, including figures of sheep and goats.
As part of my reexamination of old excavations in the topmost layers at Chogha Gavaneh, we spent five days excavating one of the rooms in the large complex that the Iranian team had uncovered in 1970. In this room the Iranian team had found a set of cuneiform tablets and kilns that had possibly been used for baking tablets. Our re-excavation helped us learn about the arrangement of the kilns and the probable order in the arrangement of the tablets.
Although it is too soon to evaluate the settlement history of the Islamabad Plain, we are in a position to say something about its demographic fluctuations in recent millennia. It appears that the Islamabad Plain has gone through three demographic cycles. The first cycle apparently began in the Neolithic period ( ca. 7000 BCE) and reached its height in the Middle to Late Chalcolithic period ( ca. 4500 BCE), when evidence suggests the emergence of a three-level settlement hierarchy. This settlement system may represent an already diverse population with both settled and nomadic components under some form of unifying political organization.
The second demographic cycle reached its zenith in the late Iron Age, coinciding with the rise of the first transregional empires, those of the Medes and Achaemenids ( ca. 600-330 BCE). Later, in the Parthian period ( ca. 220 BCE-224 CE), there seems to have been a considerable population increase and extensive construction work on the Plain. A large number of recorded sites have Parthian pottery. In addition, we found forts and nomadic sites with Parthian pottery, which may suggest a continuation of the nomadic way of life.
Finally, during Sasanian and early Islamic times (ca. 224-1200 CE), the population in the plain seems to have clustered in a few urban centers. Later, by middle Islamic times (1200-1700 CE), the area around Chogha Gavaneh apparently became, once again, the major center in the plain, a position it has maintained up to the present day as the town of Islamabad.
This project demonstrates the efficacy of problem-oriented and systematic archaeological research. On a broader level, archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware that questions such as the formation and development of early states should be approached on a macro-regional level. Regional research projects like Islamabad are the building blocks of larger archaeological inquiries.
Another significant aspect of the project is its educational function. Systematic archaeological research in Iran was brought to an abrupt halt by the Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Since that time, concepts and techniques used in regional archaeological research in the West have made considerable progress. The Islamabad project will introduce some of these to a younger generation of Iranian archaeologists. In fact, two of the talented graduate students who assisted me during my first period of fieldwork just completed similar regional surveys in the general area, and their efforts represent an exciting renaissance in Iranian archaeology.
Kamyar Abdi is a doctoral candidate in the U-M anthropology department. He spent the past two summers doing fieldwork in western Iran, where he is currently continuing his research on early sociopolitical development of highland societies in the Middle Chalcolithic period (ca. 5000 BCE). His research has been supported by grants from the International Institute, the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the U-M Department of Anthropology (a dissertation research grant), and the American Institute of Iranian Studies.