By: Abbas Alizadeh, Senior Research Associate, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
Iran is one of the most important regions in the archaeology of ancient Near East. The country consists of lowlands (Khuzestan, ancient Susiana), highland plateau, high and vast chains of the Zagros and Alborz Mountains (in the west and north), large and small intermountain valleys, and vast deserts. This remarkably varied geography and climate has provided a context for the development of a large mosaic of local cultures since the early Neolithic period.
The Central Zagros region is the loci of early domestication of some species of plants and animals and early Neolithic villages. The lowland plains of Deh Luran and Susiana are the loci of the early expansion of sedentism and the region where sociopolitical complexity and early state organizations developed. Susiana also was the main theater of confrontation between Mesopotamian forces and the local Elamites. In addition, it was the main province and seat of power during the three Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian Empires.
So, it is not surprising that many archaeologists since 1900s were interested in exploring Iran in search of answers to myriad of questions and problems that we routinely pose to understand long-term cultural development and processes. However, the French monopoly of archaeological activities in the country that was granted to France by the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah (1831-1896), and then was finalized in 1900 by his son and successor Mozaffar al-Din Shah (1853-1907), prevented any other country from doing archaeological research in Iran. When in 1925 Ahmad Shah, the last Qajar king, went into exile in Paris, power was transferred to Reza Shah in 1926, who abolished the French monopoly and paved the way for other countries to approach Iranian authorities for permission to conduct archaeological research. As a result, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago was one of the first to secure a permit to work at Persepolis, Istakhar, Pasargadae, Naghsh-e Rustam, and Tall-e Bakun A and B, from 1930 to 1939.
Soon, many other nations sent archaeological expeditions to Iran. But by the beginning of World War II, all archaeological activities ceased and work did not resume until the early 1950s. In the early 1940s, archaeology also became an independent field of inquiry at the University of Tehran, but it was not until the 1950s that the department gradually included more professors and students. But archaeology was still taught in classes with no field experience. That meant that Iranians had no participation in archaeological investigations of their own country. There were, however, some employees of the Ministry of Culture’s Bureau of Antiquities (later Central Bureau of Archaeology), who were sent as government’s representatives to the various foreign expeditions.
The newly established department of archaeology at the University of Tehran produced an increasing number of Iranians who, unlike the representatives of the Ministry of Culture, were more informed of what archaeology was all about. But there were two major problems for the young archaeologists to have an active voice in their participation in the field. Their education completely lacked field experience and unless they were sent as representatives to a foreign expedition, they had no other way to be trained in field methods. Even those who did participate were primarily shunned, dismissed, and even insulted by many, although not all, foreign expeditions—the French expedition at Susa, for example, did not even allow Iranian representatives to sit at the same tables with them. In short, the colonial attitude towards Iranians was high and ironically was encouraged by the lack of action from the Iranian authorities to demand due respect for their representatives. That bitter treatment is still lurking in the minds of most in the archaeological community in Iran, even though since at least the year 2000, Iranians have had a major role in the joint projects.
This situation changed greatly when Ezat Negahban established in late 1960s and early 1970s two field schools for training Iranian students. The first was established at the ancient site of Haft Tappeh in Khuzestan, and the second in the Qazvin plain of the Central Iranian Plateau. This development resulted in more active participation of Iranians in the field.
The decade of 1970s was the golden age of Iranian archaeology. Both Iranian and foreign expeditions, some joint, were present in almost all the regions in Iran, particularly in Khuzestan in the southwest, archaeologically and historically the most important region in the country. Much of what we know about the archaeology of southwestern Iran is founded on the seminal researches that were conducted in the decade.
The 1979 revolution ended all that. As in any political upheavals, social sciences and the humanities were among the first victims of the chaos that ensued. Archaeology was dismissed as a Western, and thus unacceptable, field. Countless archaeological sites were plundered, and many farmers harvested archaeological mounds as fertilizer for their fields. The closure of Tehran University, and the department of archaeology, as well as the Central Bureau of Archaeology,created a vacuum of authority to prevent the tremendous damage to archaeological sites—even Persepolis was seriously threatened with bulldozers and had it not been for the local people, large parts of this unique site would have been destroyed.
As the revolution was cooling off, a new organization was established, not only to manage archaeological activities, but all cultural realms in the country, including, restoration and preservation of historical monuments, development of handicrafts, and later even tourism. This organization, now known as Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicraft, and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), brought some order to the post-revolutionary chaos. For many years, however, as recently as 1995, no foreign expedition was allowed to work in the country, and all archaeological research was conducted by Iranians. This period of isolation provided some needed field experience and self-confidence for the young generation of Iranian archaeologists. Nevertheless, the authorities realized that Iran is simply too vast to be properly explored by the young generation and a handful of older, experienced archaeologists. But it was politically still too sensitive to start with a foreign expedition. So it was that in 1995, I was given a permit as an Iranian from US and from an American university with a long tradition of work in Iran, to conduct a regional survey in highland Fars province, in southern Iran. This was the first joint expedition in which Iranians actually participated in every aspect of the work. It opened the door to more joint expeditions—in fact, like almost many other Middle Eastern countries, foreigners in Iran can only conduct field work within a joint expedition. The increasing numbers of joint expeditions in which the Iranian participants actually had authority and could not be ignored resulted in the training that the young generation of archaeologists needed.
While these developments had positive impact on the young generation of archaeologists, it did not improve the lot of foreign expeditions. While it is expected that a country that experienced violent political revolution would be charged politically in almost every aspect of even daily life, Iran has yet to come out of that phase. This has major consequences for foreign archaeologists who wish to have long-term, at least three to five years, research programs that are so vital to archaeological research. The problem is that even when the ICHHTO approves a proposal and signs a three or five year contract, there is no guarantee that the Foreign Ministry will grant visas to the applicants. Almost all joint expeditions in Iran have experienced this problem. This has resulted in modest proposals and a rush to work as if there is no tomorrow, which negatively affects data retrieval and attention to details. The uncertainty of obtaining visas with an approved proposal not only has frustrated many archaeologists in the field, but also has discouraged some to the point that many have shifted their focus on regions such as Central Asia, Iraqi Kurdestan, and Turkey.
Things are not that rosy for the Iranian archaeologists either. Several attempts were made by the government in 2008-10, supported even by the then chief of the ICHHTO, to dismantle the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR). First this was done by relocating it to Persepolis and Shiraz, with hardly any office space, library, and so on-many refused to relocate, and then by giving them a “choice” either to retire or stay employed, but work at home! This scheme did not work and several years ago the ICAR was re-established in Tehran. This time, a new problem arose. The ICHHTO decided that it no longer would cover the cost of its own archaeological expeditions and that any archaeologist who wishes to work will have to apply to the province where the target site or region is located. The provinces, not having the budget or unwilling to allocate any financial support for archaeology, baulked. When they did support an expedition, the priority was given to their native archaeologists regardless of whether they were or were not qualified.
It is truly unfortunate that archaeological activities should be so heavily charged with politics in a country where active, year-round archaeological projects could take archaeologists to many remote places in the country, where their presence not only would help preserve the sites, but also educate the locals and make them aware of the importance of their own cultural heritage.
Abbas Alizadeh is senior research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
After the Revolution: the Oriental Institute and Archaeology in Iran (video)
Oriental Institute Persia (Iran) Projects
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