News ID: 319515
Published: 1144 GMT January 19, 2022

History of archeological research in Iran

History of archeological research in Iran

By Leila Imani*

Archeologists have made great strides to understand the culture and civilizations of the past and breathe a new life into the body of social sciences.

The methods employed for carrying out archeological studies and the approaches used to achieve progressive results arouse the curiosity of people, especially those interested in the historical roots of civilizations.

The best way to popularize archeology is to link it to tourism, which has common areas with archeological activities. Thus extensive efforts are being made for the preservation and restoration of ancient sites and monuments.

Iran is one of the most important archaeological areas on the Earth. It is evidenced by hundreds of ancient hills, architectural wonders and monuments scattered across the country.

In a book entitled, ‘Persian Antiques Splendor,’ published by German Mining Museum in Bochum, a number of researchers from various academic centers write about the craft of mining and archaeology in ancient Iran.

”The earliest literature pertaining to archaeological activities in Iran dates back to the middle of the 19th century,” wrote Sadeq Malek Shahmirzadi, a professor at the Department of Archaeology of the University of Tehran, in a chapter titled, ‘A Short History of Archaeological Research in Iran’.

Following is an edited version of the illustrated chapter.


*Leila Imani is a staff writer at Iran Daily.


Archaeological activity in Iran began in the early 19th century, though at this early stage exploration was little more than treasure hunting. While visiting Iran from 1880 to 1881, French architect and historian Marcel Dieulafoy met with some of the close companions of Naserddin Shah Qajar (1831-1896 CE). The result of these meetings may be considered the beginning of the era of enlightenment in Iranian archaeological history.

Six years later, during his second visit to Iran in 1886, Dieulafoy began excavations at the biblical site of Susa, in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. His work was later continued by other French excavators such as Jacques de Morgan, Roland de Mecquenem, Roman Ghirshman and others. The last of them was Professor J. Perrot, who led the last season of excavations at Susa in 1979, a few months before the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

In 1901, the French archaeological mission under the directorship of de Morgan obtained a monopoly on all foreign archaeological activities in Iran; from that time until 1930, French archaeologists were the only active excavators in the country.


End of French domination of archaeological research


The Antiquities Law was passed by the Iranian Parliament in 1928, an event which marked the end of the French domination of archaeological research in Iran, and the establishment of the Antiquities Service in 1930. By 1932, archaeologists and scholars from many different countries were permitted to work in Iran, except in Khuzestan and especially at Susa.

Iranian authorities were looking for some experts to organise the new office of Antiquities Service. In the beginning there was competition between Ernst Hertzfeld (of German origin), Arthur Upham Pope (American) and André Godard (French), archaeologists and art historians, for organising the newly-established office.

First, there was a close coalition between Hertzfeld and Pope. Later, Pope tilted toward Godard, thus Hertzfeld, who was excavating on the most prestigious and important historical sites of Iran, including Persepolis in the southwestern province of Fars, was left alone and forced to leave Iran after nine years.

His successor Erich Schmidt (of German origin) took over and excavated in Rey, south of Tehran, and Tappeh Hesar, in Damghan, in the northern province of Seman. Later, Pope was also put aside by Godard, who became the only decision-making person, and directed the Iranian Archaeology Service for over 30 years. Pope stayed in Iran and spent all of his time publishing the monumental volumes of ‘The Survey of Persian Art’. He died in 1960, and was buried on the southern bank of Zayandehrud in Isfahan.

After eliminating his rivals for one or another reason, the French architect and art historian, Godard, was appointed as the first director of the Antiquities Service of Iran in 1930, and stayed in that office for some 30 years. During his service, he accomplished one of his duties by completing the building of Iran Bastan Museum, which is now the National Museum of Iran, in 1936. A year later, all historical objects were transferred from the Masoudieh Palace to the newly-built museum.


Second era of archaeological work in Iran


The period from 1930 to 1950, from the establishment of the Antiquities Service to the development of radiocarbon dating, may be considered the second era of archaeological work in Iran.

Archaeologists from a variety of academic and national backgrounds worked on various sites during the period. Susa in Khuzestan Province (R. Ghirshman, French), Persepolis in Fars Province (E. Hertzfeld, German), Sialk in Isfahan Province (R. Ghirshman, French), Tall-e Bakun in Fars Province (E. Schmidt, A. Langsdorff, and McCown, American), Geoy Tappeh in West Azarbaijan Province (T. Burton Brown, British) and many other sites were excavated during this period.


Divergence from earlier methods


In this era, there was a divergence from the earlier methods of excavation and approaches to stratigraphy. The early French excavators had based their excavation records on the metric system. This method was refined through the introduction of the Wheeler-Kenyon method, which was first used at the archeological site of Hasanlu Hill in West Azarbaijan Province.

The primary goal of archaeologists in this second era was to establish a chronology for the prehistoric periods using typological studies of artefacts, specifically pottery. McCown notably established a typological division of Iran in two cultural areas, the “red ware” and “buff ware” cultures. This typology was accepted until the 1950s, when its validity was questioned by a new group of scholars, which included anthropologically oriented archaeologists. They questioned the validity of the existing interpretations and began to develop a new set of objectives for the investigation and study of existing data.

While establishing an acceptable chronology of Iranian prehistory remained a major goal for this group of scholars, they also believed that a reliable chronology must be based on stratigraphic context rather than an inferred stylistic change in artefacts.

The Iraqi coup in 1957 brought Robert Braidwood and his team to western Iran, specifically into the highlands of Zagros Mountains. Braidwood’s research centred on the development of economic and subsistence patterns. His studies show that although chronology was still an important goal of Iranian archaeology in general, it was no longer the major one concerning material culture. Indeed, it became popular to reinvestigate previously excavated sites with such new research objectives. There are two outstanding examples of such reinvestigation: Hasanlu Hill in West Azarbaijan (R.H. Dyson, American), previously been excavated by M. Rad and A. Hakemi (Archaeological Service of Iran); and Tureng Tappeh in Gorgan, Golestan Province (J. Deshayes, French), previously investigated by E.R. Wulsin (American).

After the establishment of the Iranian Antiquities Service, local archaeologists began investigations side-by-side with their non-Iranian colleagues. At first, Iranian archaeologists were mostly trained at French, German, British, Italian, and American institutes and universities. In the long list of non-Iranian archaeologists excavating and investigating in Iran from 1960 until the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1980, one can read the name of many well-known scholars from the US, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

During this archaeological research period in Iran we often come across active German scholars and archaeologists such as R. Naumann, who was excavating at Takht-e Suleyman in West Azerbaijan Province, his associate director and researcher at Taq-e Bostan, near Kermanshah, H. Luschey. In addition to surveying almost throughout Iran, he was the director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Iran, and head of the excavations at Bastam Village in West Azarbaijan Province.

The last but not the least are H. v. Gall and D. Huff, who are famous for their studies about the Sassanid Period (224-651 CE) in Iran.


Iranian archaeology graduates


In 1940, the first group of students of archaeology graduated from the Department of Archaeology of the Faculty of Literature and Humanities at the University of Tehran. Some of them later studied at prestigious universities in Europe and the United States, as did Ezat Negahban, for example. On his return to Iran, he began excavating the Marlik Royal Cemetery in the northern province of Gilan.

The glamorous and exotic gold and silver treasures of Marlik attracted the attention of Iranian officials, who began to focus on the development of archaeological research in the field. Negahban soon established the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Tehran. The graduates of this institute became active in the field of archaeology all over Iran. Some also went abroad to earn the doctoral and other degrees.

In 1957, Negahban invited Braidwood to come to Iran. Braidwood`s presence in Iran cleared the way towards a new direction in the study of the Iranian prehistoric period. In addition to survey in the city of Kermanshah, Braidwood excavated at the Neolithic sites of Sarab, Asiab and Siabid, located near the city of Kermanshah.

As of 1960, many new foreign researchers joined the Archaeological Research Centre of Iran, which was the new name for the Antiquities Service of Iran.

When F. Baqerzadeh took the office, many permissions were issued for archaeological field work, both for surveying and excavations. Some of the permissions were issued for joint projects. Among them were the joint project of Choghamish and Susa, the two most outstanding ones. From 1960 to the Islamic Revolution (1979) was a period during which the major goal of archaeologists in Iran was to understand past cultures and their mechanisms.

From 1980 to 2000, only Iranian archaeologists were active in Iran. Since then, the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization has begun issuing special permissions, both for archaeological research and excavation in Iran within the new framework of the “joint project”.

The two first joint research projects were implemented by an Iranian-French team in Marvdasht, Fars Province, and an Iranian-Italian team that continued the studies conducted at Old Atiq Mosque of Isfahan, in the central province of Isfahan.

The first joint excavation projects were carried out by an Iranian-German team in Arisman Village, in Isfahan Province, and Veshnaveh Village in the central province of Qom.

In 2003, they were followed by an Iranian-Japanese team excavating and surveying in Rostamabad Village in Gilan Province.


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