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Parthian Archaeology of Mainland Iran

History & Method of Research


By: K. Schippmann


Iran under the Arsacid Dynasty (248 BCE - 224 CE)



There are considerably more monuments dating from the Arsacid dynasty than from the Seleucid period, perhaps because there has been greater interest in the Parthians in recent years [It is well possible that Arsacids as an Iranian dynasty reigned nearly five centuries, in contrast to Seleucids who were occupiers and ruled Iran only 80 years]. Through the numerous digs in the Soviet Union, especially in the Parthian capital Nisa (q.v.), a fairly clear picture of this epoch has been recovered (see G. Frumkin, Archaeology in Soviet Central Asia, 1970; T. N. Zadneprovskaya, "Bibliographie de travaux soviétiques sur les Parthes," Stud. Ir. 5, 1975, pp. 243ff.; E. Haerinck, La céramique en Iran pendant la période parthe [ca. 250 av. J. C. a ca. 225] après J. C. Typologie, chronologie et distribution, Gent, 1983; most Parthian sites in mainland-Iran are treated in this work). Most of the Parthian monuments currently known to us in mainland-Iran are to be found in the provinces of Kurdistan and Khuzestan. For the latter region the designation "Parthian" should be used with caution or qualification, for the areas of Susiana with Susa, and particularly Elymais, with the Baktiari mountains, were ruled, from about 45 BCE, by Elymaid kings (their rule must have lasted at least until CE 200, see Le Rider, MDAI 38, 1965, pp. 426ff.). It may be the case therefore that certain finds, above all in what was ancient Elymais, might better be described as "Elymaid" sites or monuments (see also L. Vanden Berghe and K. Schippmann, Les reliefs rupestres d'Elymaidea l'époque parthe, Louvain, 1985).


Susa, Khūzestān Province: On the tell known as the "ville des artisans" a Seleucid/Parthian necropolis was discovered in 1947-48 (R. Ghirshman, RA 46, 1952, pp. 12117.). On the "Acropolis" tell the dig of 1950-51 uncovered a layer containing evidence of a Parthian settlement and found a large amount of Parthian pottery. This Parthian settlement was destroyed, perhaps by Ardašir I (ibid., pp. 9f.). To the last phase of this Parthian settlement belongs the stele of Artabanus V, found in 1947 on the tell called the "Royal city." It bears an inscription dated CE 215 (R. Ghirshman, Monuments et Mémoires publies par l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. Fondation Eug. Piot [Monuments Piot] 44, 1950, pp. 97ff.; W. B. Henning, Asia Major, N.S. 2, 1952, p.176; F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Supplementum Aramaicum, Baden-Baden, 1957, pp. 98ff.; G. Le Rider, op. cit., p.430).


Būhlahyāh, Khūzestān Province: In 1929, while carrying out a preliminary investigation of the tell known by this name in the neighborhood of Susa, J. Unvala discovered pottery and several sarcophagi from the Parthian period, in addition to older material (J. Unvala, RA 26, 1929, pp. 132ff.; L. Vanden Berghe, Archéologie, p. 83).


Dāstova, Khūzestān Province: In the course of a preliminary investigation of this site (3 km southeast of Šūštar) in 1969, A. A. Sarfaraz found among other things traces of a Parthian graveyard (A. A. Sarfarāz, Bāstān Chenāssi va Honar-e Iran (Revue d'Archéologie et d'Art iraniens) 4, 1970, pp. 12-13; pp. 72ff. [Persian section]).


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Statue of a Parthian Princess in Iranian Hail Posture, from Bard-e Neshandeh, discovered in 2005.

(Click to enlarge)

Bard-e Nešānda, Khūzestān Province: This great cultic terrace was also utilized in the Parthian period, when it was again extended. At this time a temple dedicated to the divinités Anahita and Mithra was erected on the lower terrace (Ghirshman, Terrasses sacrées).


Maĵed-e Solaymān, Khūzestān Province: Here too the religious buildings continued to be used in the Parthian period. The "Grand Temple" was rebuilt after being destroyed at the end of the 2nd century CE and is dedicated to the gods Anahita and Mithra. The temple of Hercules remained intact and merely underwent some restoration work (Ghirshman, ibid.).


Qal'a-ye Bardī (Tall-a Badr), Khūzestān Province: This is a terraced site again in the Baktiari mountains that has not yet been investigated in detail (E. Keall, Expedition 13, 1971, p.58).


Šamī, Khūzestān Province: It is debatable whether this dates from the Seleucid or the Parthian period. The site was discovered in 1936; the dates of the Parthian statues and statuettes found in the shrine are hotly disputed. Ghirshman (op. cit., I, p.236 n. l) believes that Šami could be one of the two temples of the Seleucid ruler Antiochos IV Epiphanes (175-164) which Mithridates I destroyed when he liberated Elymais. H. von Gall (Istanbuler Mitteilungen 19-20, 1969-70, p.304) dates the Parthian bronze statue from Šami [denoted to General Surena] back to the second half of the 1st century BCE and maintains that the temple could have been rebuilt after being razed by Mithridates. The precise function of the temple (a fire shrine?) is also a matter for speculation. (H. Seyrig, Syria 20, 1939, pp. I77ff.; Schippmann, Feuerheiligtiimer, pp. 227ff.)


Tang-a Sarvak, Khūzestān Province: A group of rock reliefs with inscriptions, in the Bakhtīārī mountains. They depict such scenes as an investiture, the paying of homage, hunting and a battle, as well as an individual warrior. The execution of the reliefs and the establishment of the site as a whole certainly did not ensue all at once. At the end of 1973 E. de Waele found a fragment belonging to the partly damaged third relief (numbered according to his new system) at the foot of the rock. In 1963 J. P. Guepin discovered ruins above the ravine of Tang-a Sarvak; he believes this to be the site of the frequently mentioned temple of Artemis-Nanaia which Strabo refers to under the name of Ta Azara. (A. Stein, Old Routes, pp. 103ff.; W. B. Henning, Asia Major, N. S. 2, 1952, pp. 151 ff.; L. Vanden Berghe, Archéologie, pp. 59-60; J-P. Guepin, Persica 2, 1965-66, pp. 19ff.; H. von Gall, AMI, N.F. 4, 1971, pp. 207ff.; E. de Waele, in Bagherzādeh, op. cit., pp. 2541117. [with a more recent bibliography], idem, RA 69, 1975, pp. 59ff.; R. Ghirshman, Terrasses sacrées, pp. 194-95.)


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Bronze statue of Shami, denoted to general Surena (Click to enlarge)

Khong-a Nowrūzī (Khong-a Azdar), Khūzestān Province: A rock relief on the edge of the plain of Izeh (Ida; Malamir); it depicts on the left a horseman with an attendant and on the right four figures, perhaps of vassal princes. The horseman has often been identified as Mithridates I (ca. 171-139/8 BCE). In 1971 de Waele discovered a fragment of another relief on the ground in front of the first one (L. Vanden Berghe, Iranica Antigua 3, 1963, pp. 155ff.; E. de Waele, RA 69, 1975, pp. 59ff.).


Khong-a Yār `Alīvand, Khūzestān Province: Barely 2 km to the west of Khong-a Nowrūzī there is another rock relief showing an investiture. It was found by W. Hinz in 1963, who very tentatively suggests the 1st century BCE as a dating. (W. Hinz, Iranica Antigua 3, 1963, pp. 169ff.; E. de Waele, RA 69, 1975, pp. 65ff.)


Khong-a Kamālvand, Khūzestān Province: 1.5 km northwest of Kong-a Yār `Alīvand, W. Hinz discovered a rock relief depicting two figures-a horseman, and someone standing to the right of him. Above the two figures runs a problematic one-line Aramaic inscription. It may be dated to about the end of the 1st century CE (W. Hinz, lranica Antigua 3, 1963, pp. I70ff.).


Bīdzard, Khūzestān Province: 15 km south of Khong-a Nowrūzī there was a relief carved on a block of stone; it depicted two figures-probably a sacrificial scene, like the "Parthian stone" in Bīsotun. When de Waele visited the spot in 1971 the block had disappeared (L. Vanden Berghe, Iranica Antigua 3, 1963, pp. 167-68).


Mehernān, Khūzestān Province: Near the village of that name on the Kārun (about 25 km directly north of Izeh) lies a site consisting of one fairly large and two smaller tepes, which were discovered by the present author in 1968. On the larger tepe there is a block of stone bearing the image of a male figure (a warrior?); this might be the site of a temple (Schippmann, Feuerheiligtümer, pp. 221ff.; E. de Waele, Orientalia Lovaniensa Analecta 13 ( = Studia Paulo Naster Oblata II. Orientalia Antigua Leuven, 1982, pp. 37ff.).


Šīmbār, (Tang-a Būtan), Khūzestān Province: In a valley some 60 km northeast of Masjed-a Solaymān there are several rock reliefs (investiture scenes, including a depiction of Hercules), a small site, and Aramaic inscriptions (A. D. H. Bivar and S. Shaked, BSOAS 27, 1964, pp. 265 ff.; K. Schippmann, op. cit., pp. 258ff.; G. Scarcia, Oriens Antiquus 18, 1979, pp. 255ff.).


Tarāz, Khūzestān Province: A badly worn rock relief northeast of Šīmbār, depicting an investiture scene (L. Vanden Berghe, On the Track of the Civilizations of Ancient Iran, p. 19).


Kūh-a Tīnā, Khūzestān Province: 100 km west of Tarāz, Vanden Berghe discovered another rock relief, again ravaged by wind and weather; it shows two people, one of them reclining (Vanden Berghe, ibid.).


Kangāvar, Kermānšāh Province: Here stood the great Anahita temple known since classical times, and there still remains the great complex of a structure which the Iranian Department of Antiquities excavated from 1968 on. Previously it was believed that this enormous complex was erected in the Seleucid period, but now it is known that it dates from the late Sasanian epoch. However, a graveyard dating back to Parthian times has also been discovered. (Schippmann, Feuerheiligtiimer, pp. 298ff.; Kāmbakhš-Fard, Bāstān Chenassi va Honar-e Iran 6, 1971, pp. l Off.; in Bāgherzādeh, op. cit., pp. l Off. [Persian section]; Bāstān Chenāssi 9-10, 1972, pp. 2ff.; 3rd Symposium 1974, pp. 73ff. [Persian section]; and Iran 11, 1973, pp. 196-97; M. Āzarnoush, AMI 14, 1981, pp. 69ff.).


Kangāvar valley, Kermānšāh Province: In this valley T. C. Young, Jr. found ninety-five Parthian settlements, large and small, in the course of a survey in 1974 (T. Cuyler Young, Jr., Iran 13, 1975, p. 192 and in 3rd Symposium, pp. 23ff.).


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Parthian rock relief in Bistun. (Click to enlarge)

Bīsotūn, Kermānšāh Province: Two Parthian rock reliefs have been known for some time: That on which four satraps render homage to Mithridates II, the Great (123-88/7 BCE) is badly damaged, but the design can be reconstructed thanks to a drawing made by a 17th-century European traveler. (See E. Herzfeld, Am Tor Von Asien, Berlin, 1920, pp. 36ff.; U. Kahrstedt, Artabanus III and seine Erben, Berlin, 1950, pp. 19-20; L. Vanden Berghe, Archéologie, p. 107.) The well- known "Parthian stone" is a large square block, with among other figures, a Parthian (king?) depicted on one of its sides. A few years ago G. Grope discovered an inscription on the stone, which, he believes, incorporates the royal name Vologases (Herzfeld, op. cit., p. 55; W. Kleiss, AMI, N. F. 3, 1970, pp. 147-48; G. Grope, ibid., p.200). At the eastern corner of the Bisotūn massif, above the Hercules relief, the German digs of 1964-66 uncovered a settlement that seems to have reached the peak of its prosperity in the Parthian period (see Kleiss, op. cit., pp. 133ff.).


Tāq-a Bostān, Kermānšāh Province: In 1970 Kāmbakhš-Fard discovered a Parthian necropolis in close proximity to the well-known Sasanian grotto and rock-reliefs, and a Parthian settlement 50-60 m west of Tāq-a Bostān, on a hill called "Kūh-a Pārū" (S. Matheson, Persia: An Archaeological Guide, 2nd ed., London, 1976, p. 131).


Qal'a Yazdegerd, Kūrdīstān Province: This large site is some 40 km east of Qasr-Šīrīn; excavations were begun by E. J. Keall in 1975. Though initially a Sasanian dating was assumed, Keall now believes that the ruins go back to the late Parthian period. The site as a whole encompasses several fairly large complexes, such as a fortified palace and an extensive garden with a pavilion. (E. J. Keall, Iran 14, 1976, pp. 161ff.; 17, 1979, pp. 158ff.; 18, 1980, pp. 'ff.)


Sarpol-a Zohab (Sar-a Pol-a Dohab, also Sar-a Poly, Kūrdīstān Province: A Parthian relief with inscriptions, depicts a horseman and a figure standing in front of him. On the basis of the inscriptions Grope believes the horseman to be Gotarzes I. (G. Grope, ZDMG 118, 1968, pp. 315ff.; idem, AMI, N. F. 3, 1970, p.201; L. Trumpelmann and G. Grope, Iranische Denkmkler, II. Reihe, Lieferung 7, Sarpol-i Zohab, Berlin, 1976; M. L. Chaumont, Syria 56, 1979, pp. 153ff.)


Nush-i Jan (Nūš-e ĵān), Kūrdīstān Province: Near the extensive and long-known Median sites, D. Stronach discovered a subsequent Parthian settlement whose origins date back to about 100 BCE (D. Stronach, Iran 12, 1974, pp. 214ff.; idem, Iran 13, 1975, pp. 187-88; idem in Bāgherzādeh, 3rd Symposium 1974, p. 132).


Hamadan Province: Near the well-known stone lion, a Parthian graveyard dated to the first century BCE - first century CE was uncovered by an Iranian team in 1974 (M. Azarnoush, Iran 13, 1975, pp. 181ff. and idem in Bagherzadeh, op. cit., [Persian section], pp. 51 ff.; idem, in AMI, Erganzungsb. 6, 1979, pp. 281ff.)


Nūrābād, Fārs Province: The dating and purpose of this long known tower site are debated: some believe it to be Parthian, others Sasanian (Schippmann, Feuerheiligtümer, pp. 153ff.; D. Huff, AMI, N.F. 8, 1975, pp. 187ff.; W. Kleiss, AMI, N.F. 5, 1972, pp. 199ff.).


Khārg Island, Persian Gulf, Hōrmozgān Province: The two "Palmyrene" rock graves belong, in E. Haerinck's view, to the Parthian period, that is, to the 2nd or 3rd century CE (E. Haerinck, Iranica Antiqua 11, 1975, pp. 134ff.).


Ray, Tehran Province: During the excavations of 1934-36, a Parthian temple was found by E. Schmidt; he and his colleagues ascribed it to a period ranging from the first century BCE to the first century CE, on the basis of coins found on the site. (Schippmann, Feuerheiligtiimer, p. 400.)


Takht-a Solaymān, Āzarbāijān Province: On this long-familiar site with its extensive Sasanian ruins (temple and palace), intensive excavations have discovered no substantial traces of a Parthian settlement (see D. Huff, Archeologischer Anzeiger, 1975, pp. 140, 168); the commonly held opinion that Takht-a Solaymān is identical with the Parthian city of Phraaspa (Phraata) is therefore no longer tenable. (Schippmann, op. cit., pp. 309ff.; R. Naumann, D. Huff, and R. Schnyder, Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1975, pp. 109ff.; H. H. von der Osten and R. Naumann, Takht-i Sulaiman, Berlin, 1967; and more recently D. Huff, Iran 16, 1978, pp. 194f., and 17, 1979, p.153; W. Kleiss, Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1979, pp. 605-06; R. Naumann, AMI, Ergänzungsb. 6, 1979, pp. xxiff.)


Garmi, Āzarbāijān Province: 120 km northeast of Ardabli; in 1965 a large Parthian necropolis was discovered here by Kāmbakhš-Fard. It probably dates to the first century CE (Barrasīhā-ye tārikhī, 1346 Š./1967, pp. 4 ff.).


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Zohhak Castle - The remaining standing watchtower on verge of collapse, due to negligence. (Click to enlarge)

Qal'a Zohhāk, Āzarbāijān Province: On the railway line from Marāgheh to Miāneh fairly extensive sites dating back to various periods. The best preserved building is a pavilion-like structure which, according to W. Kleiss, belongs to the Parthian period (Schippmann, Feuerheiligtümer, pp. 424ff.; W. Kleiss, AMI, N.F. 6, 1973, pp. 163 ff.).


Daylamān and Gīlān Province: A Japanese expedition carried out various surveys and subsequent digs from 1960 onwards. As a result three Parthian necropolises were discovered-in Nowrūzmahalla, Khorramrūd and Hasanīmahalla. (N. Egami, S. Fukai and S. Masuda, Dailaman II, Tokyo University Iraq-Iran Achaeological Expedition Report 7, Tokyo, 1960; T. Sono and S. Fukai, Dailaman III, Tokyo, 1968).


Šāh-pīr, Gilān Province: A site in the Halīmajān valley; herein 1976 a Parthian necropolis was discovered by S. Fukai (3rd-1st century BCE). (Exposition des dernières découvertes archéologiques 1975-76 (catalogue), 5ieme Symposium annuel de la recherche archéologique en Iran, Centre Iranien de Recherches Archéologiques, Tehran, 1976, p.22; S. Fukai and T. Matsutani, Halimehjan I. The Excavation at Shah Pir 1976, Tokyo University . . . Report 16, Tokyo, 1980).


Gabri Qal'a, Gorgān, Golestān Province: 15 km east of Gonbad-e Qābūs; here, while conducting a small-scale dig in 1974, M. Mani came across the square plan of a town (about 36 hectares in area), surrounded by inner and outer walls (M. Kianī, in Bagherzadeh, 3rd Symposium 1974, pp. 147ff. [Persian section]; idem, Parthian Sites in Hyrcania. The Gurgan Basin, AMI, Ergänzungsb. 9, Berlin, 1982, pp. 56-57, with reference to many Parthian sites in Gorgan.)


Dašt-a Qal'a, Gorgān, Golestān Province: Southeast of Gonbad-e Qābūs; during the same survey M. Kīānī carried out a limited dig on this extensive city site; he is of the opinion that this would be the location of the Parthian city of Sirinx (Kīānī, op. cit., pp. 48ff.).


Šahr-a Qūmes, Khorāsān Province: Sad-Darvāzeh (one-hundred Gates), was one of the major Parthian city known to Greeks as Hekatompylos. Some 32 km to the west of Damghan (Dāmgān). Excavations have been carried out here since 1967 under the direction of D. Stronach and J. Hansmann. (J. Hansmann, JRAS, 1968, pp. ll Iff.; J. Hansmann and D. Stronach, JRAS, (970, pp. 29ff. and in JRAS, 1974, pp. 8ff. On the Seleucid period see also L. Vanden Berghe and E. Haerinck, Bibliographique analytique de l'archéologie de 'Iran ancien, Leiden, 1979; Supplement l: 1978-1980, Leiden, 1981.). 


Rebāt-a Safīd (Bāz-a Khor), Khorāsān Province: A series of sites including a čahār-Tāq, which lie 71 km north of Torbat-e Haydari have been known for some time. According to the results of an investigation by U. W. Hallier the buildings date not from the Sasanian period, as had been assumed hitherto, but from the Parthian period (Schippmann, Feuerheiligtümer, pp. 13ff.; U. Hallier, AMI, N.F. 8, 1975, pp. 143ff.).


Neh, Khorāsān Province: About 190 km south of Birjand on the road between Mashad and Zāhedān; U. W. Hallier investigated the site in 1973 and concluded from the masonry techniques used that the ruins dated to the Parthian period (U. W. Hallier, AMI, N. F. 7, 1974, pp. 173 ff.).


Nakhlak, Kermān Province: About 30 km directly north of Anārak. This ancient mining settlement has been known since 1890; it was investigated by Hallier in 197071. On the basis of plaster and mortar analyses and fourteen individual excavations, he came to the conclusion that the Čahār-tāg, mine and fortification (this last with certain reservations-it could also be Sasanian) date from the Parthian period (U. Hallier, AMI, N. F. 5, 1972, pp.285ff. and also in AMI, N.F. 6, 1973, pp. 195ff.).


Qal'a Zarī, Kermān Province: A mining complex south of Birjand. The site of the fortification was investigated in 1972 by Hallier; though he ascribed it to the Sasanian period, he conceded that it could also be Parthian in origin. L. Trumpelmann, however, surmises that it belongs to the Islamic period (ZA 66, 1976, p. 149; U. W. Hallier, AMI, N.F. 6, 1973, pp. 189ff.).


Tepe Yahyā, Kermān Province: 225 km south of Kerman. The excavations, which have been taking place since 1967 under the direction of C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, brought to light a Parthian citadel during Phase I (C. Lamberg Karlovsky, Iran 7, 1969, p. 185; idem "Progress Report I," Peabody Museum, Harvard Bulletin 27, 1970, pp. 6ff.; idem, Iran 9, 1971, p. 182).


Kūh-a Khwaja (Xwāja), Sīstān, Sīstān va Baluchestān Province: The extensive site, originally discovered by A. Stein and E. Herzfeld, was investigated in part by G. Gullini in a short expedition of 1960. According to his findings the palace and the fire temple were already in existence in the Parthian period (G. Gullini, Architettura Iranica dagli Achemenidi ai Sasanidi, Turin, 1969; Schippmann, Feuerheiligtümer, pp. 57ff.).


Qal'a-ye Sām (Se-Kūha), Sīstān, Sīstān va Baluchestān Province: 32 km south of Zabol; the large fortified site was investigated by U. Scerrato in 1964 and thought to have originated in the Parthian period (Gullini, ibid., pp. 303ff.).


Sīstān: This province contains numerous other settlements and sites probably from the Parthian period (W. A. Fairservis, Jr., Archaeological Studies in the Seistan Basin of South-Western Afghanistan and Eastern Iran, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, vo1.48, pt. 1, New York, 1961, p. 101).




Given in the text.


Editors Note: This article does not cover all the Parthian sites present in mainland Iran. There are many other sites, such as Tāq-e Garā, Khorhe, Bam, Bampur, Damāvand, Kaluraz, Kharbes, Kūh-Dasht, Kish Island, Rashkān, Mināb, Shiān, Veshnoveh, Gachsārān, etc.




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