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They like to say, for instance, that when invaders came to Iran, the Iranians did not become the invaders; the invaders became Iranians. Their conquerors were said to have "gone Persian," like Alexander, who, after laying waste to the vanquished Persia, adopted its cultural and administrative practices, took a Persian wife (Roxana), and ordered thousands of his troops to do the same in a mass wedding. Iranians seem particularly proud of their capacity to get along with others by assimilating compatible aspects of the invaders' ways without surrendering their own—a cultural elasticity that is at the heart of their Persian identity.

Welcome to Aratta

The earliest reports of human settlement in Iran go back at least 10,000 years, and the country's name derives from Aryans who migrated here beginning around 1500 b.c. Layers of civilization—tens of thousands of archaeological sites—are yet to be excavated. One recent find quickening some hearts was unearthed in 2000 near the city of Jiroft, when flash floods along the Halil River in the southeast exposed thousands of old tombs. The excavation is just six seasons old, and there isn't much to see yet. But intriguing artifacts have been found (including a bronze goat's head dating back perhaps 5,000 years), and Jiroft is spoken of as possibly an early center of civilization contemporary with Mesopotamia.

Youssef the archaeologist, an authority on the third millennium b.c., directs the digs. He used to run the archaeology department at the Univer­sity of Tehran but lost his job after the revolution and moved to France. Over the years, he said, "things changed." Interest in archaeology revived, and he was invited back to run Jiroft. Youssef thinks it may be the fabled "lost" Bronze Age land of Aratta, circa 2700 b.c., reputedly legendary for magnificent crafts that found their way to Mesopotamia. But thus far there's no proof, and other scholars are skeptical. What would he have to find to put the matter unequivocally to rest? He chuckled wist­fully. "The equivalent of an engraved arch that says, ‘Welcome to Aratta.' "

Prospects for more digs at the thousands of unexplored sites seem daunting. In Iran the price of meat is high, there aren't enough jobs, the bureaucracy is inscrutable, bloated, and inefficient, and state corruption—as described to me by three different people—is "an open secret," "worse than ever," and "institutionalized."

"The country has many needs," Youssef said, "and certainly archaeology is not the main subject." But since Jiroft, "all the provinces are interested in excavating, and every little town wants to be known around the world like Jiroft. They're proud, and there are rivalries."

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