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Achaemenid Archaeology

History and Method of Research


By: Professor David Stronach



Patterns of discovery

While outside Iran the Bible, the Histories of Herodotus, and a host of other early sources served to preserve a knowledge of the conquests of Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, in Iran itself all accurate memory of Achaemenid achievement was lost for many centuries. From 1474 onward, early travelers to Iran reported (and on occasion took leave to doubt) the popular belief that the still-intact fabric of Cyrus's tomb represented the "tomb of the mother of Solomon" (A. Gabriel, Die Erforscltung Persiens,Vienna, 1952, pp. 49f.). There matters largely stood until 1802, when G. F. Grotefend, working from the first accurate copies of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis, was able to identify them as records left by the Achaemenid kings (cf. C. F. C. Hoeck, Veteris Mediae et Persiae monuments, Gottingen, 1818, p.56.). Similarly, as late as 1818 R. Ker Porter found the relief of Cyrus the Great at Bisotnn to depict a "king of Assyria and the Medes" before captive "representatives of the Ten Tribes" (Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia during the Years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820 1, London, 1821, pp. 507f.). H. C. Rawlinson was the first to reach the relief and to begin to copy its adjacent trilingual inscriptions something only accomplished with the aid of ropes-in 1835. But from this moment onward progress was rapid: Barely ten years were to pass before Rawlinson had completed his translation of most of the Old Persian version of Darius the Great' inscription (H. C. Rawlinson, "The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, Decyphered and Translated...," JRAS 10, 1847-48, pp. xxvii-xxxix).


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  Oriental Institute of Chicago's excavations at Persepolis in 1931.

Photo: Courtesy of Chicago University (Click to enlarge)

The earliest photographic record of the major sites in Fars is owed to F. Stolze and F. C. Andreas (Persepolis, 2 vols., Berlin, 1882), whose journeys in the region began in 1874. Ten years later M. Dieulafoy, the first in a long line of French excavators, initiated the first major excavations at Susa. In three successive seasons he explored the Achaemenid city wall and uncovered much of the Apadana (q.v.). This last work was also rewarded by the discovery of the famous glazed-brick frieze of the "royal archers" of Cyrus the Great (M. Dieulafoy, L'Acropole de Suse d'apres les fouilles executees en 1884-86, Paris, 1893). The last 19th-century traveler of interest was Lord Curzon, whose still-standard work, Persia and the Persian Question, includes a meticulous description of the early sites he visited (cf. G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question II, London, 1982, pp. 115-96). The arguments he marshaled to support the now-accepted identity of both the site of Pasargadae (q.v.) and its principal monument, the tomb of Cyrus the Great, still command respect, as do his summaries of prior scholarship.


E. Herzfeld made his first visit to Pasargadae in 1905 and published his dissertation on the site three years later (E. Herzfeld, "Pasargadae. Untersuchungen zur persischen Archaologie," Klio 8, 1908, pp. I-68). In his subsequent excavations at Cyrus the Great capital, Herzfeld opened trenches at three of the main structures: Gate R, Palace S, and Palace P; in so doing he provided a new starting point for the study of monumental construction in the Achaemenid period (E. Herzfeld, "Bericht caber die Ausgrabungen von Pasargadae, 1928," AMI 1, 1929-30, pp.4-16). In 1931 Herzfeld was called upon to direct the Oriental Institute of Chicago's excavations at Persepolis; over the next four years these brought to light the reliefs on the north side of the Apadana (Āpādānā), the gold and silver foundation plaques from the same great audience hall, and the great body of Elamite cuneiform tablets now known as the Persepolis fortification texts. E. Schmidt, Herzfeld's successor at Persepolis from 1935 to 1939, conducted painstaking excavations in the Treasury and revealed the impressive audience reliefs that had formerly formed part of the relief facade of the Apadana, a further collection of clay tablets (the great bulk of which were again written in Elamite), and a wealth of other objects, including bronzes, glassware, and stone tableware. Schmidt also unearthed the floor plan of the severely burnt throne hall, exposed the entire height of the tower-like Ka'baye Zardosht at Naqš-a Rostam, and secured, through his pioneering use of aerial photography, a memorable record of the monuments of the Persepolis region as seen from the air.


When the French Archeological Mission began its work under J. de Morgan in 1897, new attention was at once given to Susa's earlier levels. A major find proved, nevertheless, to be that of a rich Achaemenid coffin burial containing jewelry of great quality (J. de Morgan, "Decouverte dune sepulture achemenide a Suse," Memoires de la delegation en Perse, 1905, pp. 29-58). In the subsequent years of R. de Mecquenem's directorship isolated Achaemenid finds continued to be made, most notably in the vicinity of the "Donjon" at the southern limit of the Ville Royale. Finally-with reference to all but the most recent work at Susa-R. Ghirshman's long stewardship was most closely connected with his deep excavation on the Ville Royale, which revealed a succession of Elamite strata stretching through most of the 2nd millennium BCE His work on the western flank of the Ville des Artisans also revealed one part of an extramural satellite township, dated possibly between 625 and 250 BCE (cf. D. Stronach, "Achaemenid Village I at Susa and the Persian Migration to Fars," Iraq 26, 1974, pp.244-45).  

More recently, the German Archeological Institute, founded in 1960, was occupied for several years with the study and documentation of Darius the Great' relief at Bisotun (cf. H. Luschey, "Studien zu dem Darius-Relief von Bisitun," AMI, N.S. 1, 1968, pp. 63-94), not to mention the excavation of a small Achaemenid settlement at Takt-i Solayman. The British Institute of Persian Studies, founded one year later, also turned to a major site, Pasargadae. In a three-year program of work that in many ways represented a continuation of the earlier campaigns of Herzfeld and `A. Sami (Pasargadae, the Oldest Imperial Capital of Iran, Shiraz, 1956), the Institute sought to reexamine the history of each of the main monuments, as well as to carry out extensive excavations on the elevated Tall-a Takt and in the partly preserved gardens of the palace area. This last work, despite the limited depth of deposit, led to the discovery of a hoard of fine jewelry and other objects, which may have been buried close to the middle years of the 4th century BCE


Two of the main concerns of J. Perrot, who was appointed to lead the French Archeological Mission in 1968, were to establish a secure stratigraphic sequence at Susa and to provide a more complete picture of the Susian Apaddna. The work of the 1970s also saw the recovery of two marble foundation tablets from the adjacent residential quarters of Darius the Great' palace; the identification and excavation of the "Chaour Palace," (once the paradayadâm or "pleasant retreat") of Artaxerxes II; and perhaps most gratifying, the discovery of a larger-than-life-size statue of Cyrus the Great that had been transported from Egypt to flank one of the doorways of the great gateway leading to the Apaddna.


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 A silver spoon with a swan's head handle. Pasargadae, second half of the Achaemenid period. (Click to enlarge)

In the past few years Achaemenid levels have been recognized at such widely distributed sites as Choga Mish (Čoga Miš), Baba Jan Tepe, Hasanln, Yanek Tepe, Turang Tepe, Dahan-i Ghulaman (Dahan-e Goldman), and Tepe Yahya, while with reference to other recent research, the surveys of L. Vanden Berghe in southwestern Iran have revealed the existence of the Buzpar tomb ("Le tombeau achéménide de Buzpar," Vorderasiatische Archdologie, Festschrift A. Moortgat, Berlin, 1964, pp. 243-58); the perceptive observations of C. Nylander have provided new directions for the study of Achaemenid masonry; and M. Roafs penetrating examination of the reliefs from Persepolis (Sculptures and Sculptors at Persepolis, Iran 21, 1983) has done much to define the organization of the sculptors' work. A special debt is due to the meticulous surveys of G. and A. B. Tilia which have thrown new light, for example, on early Achaemenid construction in the Persepolis plain, on the original location of the "Treasury reliefs," on the use of color at Persepolis, and on the surviving remains of a monumental stairway facade of Artaxerxes I (A. B. Tilia, Studies and Restorations at Persepolis and Other Sites of Fars I and II, IsMEO Reports and Memoirs XVI and XVIII, Rome, 1972 and 1978). Last but not least, the suggestion put forward by J. Hausman, and subsequently confirmed on the basis of textual evidence by E. Refiner, that the large site of Malyan, located some 50 km to the west of Persepolis, could represent the ruins of the city of Anshan (Anšān) (J. Hansman, "Elamite, Achaemenians and Anshan," Iran 10, 1972, pp. 101ff.; E. Refiner, in RA 67, 1973, pp. 57ff.) has triggered many new developments. In particular, it has served to clarify certain of the basic realities of Achaemenid geography, which can now begin to be integrated with the ample data contained in the Persepolis fortification texts.


Problems in chronology

Only twenty years ago the uncertain date of many of the uninscribed stone monuments of southern Iran allowed such prominent sites as Masjed-a Solayman and the Tall-a Takt at Pasargadae to be assigned respectively to the early 7th and the early 6th century BCE (R. Ghirshman, Persia. From the Origins to Alexander the Great, London, 1964, pp. 12931). By extension, the last stages of the Persian migration to Fars were assumed to have taken a rather unlikely course from the foothills of Kuzestan to the plain of Pasargadae; and on the basis of the specific character of the two sites just mentioned, the Persians were further presumed to have demonstrated a familiarity with large stone construction well before the accession of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE).


This reading of the archeological evidence was called into question when it became apparent that neither site could be said to predate the reign of Cyrus the Great (D. Stronach, Iraq 36, 1974, pp. 246f.). It has also become apparent that there is no compelling reason to suppose that Kudur Nahunte (693-692 BCE) was the last Elamite king to exercise control over Anshan (cf. G. G. Cameron, History of Early Iran, Chicago, 1936, pp.16465 and 179-80). From hints found in the surviving titles and protocols of the period it is likely that Elamite dominion in Anshan only came to an end close to the time of Ashurbanipal's conquest of Susa in 646 BCE (see F. W. Konig, Die elamischen Konigsinschriften, Archiv fur Orientforschung, Supplement 16, 1965, p. 172). In short, the Persians did not necessarily arrive in Fars as a conquering force, at once capable of driving the Elamites to the west. Instead, these newcomers from the north may have entered their eventual homeland in a peaceful fashion, perhaps over a surprisingly long time, and, following a period of increasing acquaintance with the literate world of Elam, and took steps to acquire direct political control of Fars only in the wake of the severe dislocations occasioned by Ashurbanipal's assault on Susa.


A richly furnished tomb of the late 7th or early 6th century BCE from the vicinity of Behbahan may well lend a measure of support to certain of the developments just described. First, this newly discovered tomb, which appears to have been that of a certain Kidin Hutrun, an Elamite of rank (F. Vallat, "Kidin Hutrun et l'époque neo-elamite ," Akkadica 37, 1984, pp. 1-17), may show that the boundary between the reduced Neo-Elamite kingdom of Susa and the new Persian rulers of Anshan lay somewhere to the east of Behbahan. Second, a quite exceptional gold object from the tomb, with a pair of confronted griffins on each of its two disc-like finials (F. Tawhidi and A. M. Kalilian, "A Report on the Investigation of the Objects from the Tomb of Arrajan (Behbahan)," Atar 7-9, 1361 8./1983, pp.23286, in Persian) is arguably representative of the blend of Elamite and Persian artistic skills which could be expected at this specific moment of transition.


Material culture of Achaemenid mainland-Iran

The Persian delight in gold and silver tableware, or in many other objects of personal finery, ranging from parade weapons to elegant jewelry and cosmetic articles (see Art in Iran iii), only rarely extended to earthenware vessels. In contrast to the Assyrians, who seem to have had a particular regard for their own palace wares, the Persians did little to export or reproduce their ceramics elsewhere. One of the very few forms that appears to have had a wide distribution throughout much of the empire in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE is a small drinking bowl with a rounded body and evened rim directly imitating those of along-lived metal type. There is no uniform ceramic specific to the Achaemenid dynasty; the archeological record in Iran has only revealed "pottery of the Achaemenid period," from some nine different ceramic zones (Figure 1). Each of these zones has a separate history of change or interaction that persisted, in surprisingly similar terms, down to the end of the Parthian period (cf. E. Haerinck, La céramique de la période parthe , Gent, 1983, fig. I).


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Figure 1. Map of mainland-Iran showing the approximate boundaries of the nine ceramic zones into which the pottery of the Achaemenid period can be divided (Click to enlarge)

In zone I, a group of fine monochrome bowls from Chogha Mish (Čogā-Mīš) in southwestern Iran is possibly representative of the often ill-defined border between the Iron III period (800-550 BCE) and the Iron IV period, a division that conveniently subsumes both the Achaemenid period (550-330 BCE) and the brief Seleucid or post-Achaemenid period (330-250 BCE). In zone II, in western Iran, there are indications from Jameh Shuran (Jāma-Šūrān) in the Mahi Dasht (Māhī Dašt), not to mention Ziwiye (Zī-wīya) in upland Kurdistan, that the plain buff wares of the late Iron III period gave way to painted "triangle wares," also well known from sites in southern and eastern Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the important and still not published pottery sequence from Jameh Shuran shows (L. Levine, personal communication) that, at least in the Mahi Dasht, the local triangle wares gave way to painted buff wares of the type found in quantity at Pasargadae, where they were seemingly most at home in late or even post-Achaemenid loci.


Without a full "grammar" of the evolving pottery styles of the Iron IV period, any attempt to define Achaemenid settlement patterns throughout Iran is unlikely to be definitive, yet W. Sumner's recent survey in central Fars has shown that a beginning can be made: The independent testimony of the Persepolis fortification texts (which refer in all to some 400 geographic names) is taken to support certain strictly archeological indications for the presence of between 100 and 150 Achaemenid settlements within the bounds of the Persepolis plain alone (W. Sumner, "Achaemenid Settlement in the Persepolis Plain," AJA, forthcoming). The "Spring Cemetery" near Persepolis is presumably representative of the many cemeteries that must have complemented such local villages. In this late 4thcentury (or later) cemetery the dead lay in extended positions, in slipper coffins. The majority of the grave goods consist of simple pottery vessels (E. Schmidt, Persepolis II, 1957, pl. 89). Richer graves, such as may have been associated with the country estates referred to in the fortification tablets, have not been encountered to date. Notwithstanding the recent excavation of Achaemenid levels at more than a dozen different sites in Iran, the great mass of objects from controlled contexts still comes from three sites: Pasargadae, Susa, and Persepolis. Pasargadae and Susa are obvious points of reference for any study of jewelry. Fine stone vessels are well represented at Persepolis, though the looting of the site before it was burned in 330 BCE must clearly account for the absence of any examples of Achaemenid gold and silver plate. Persepolis has also yielded handsome horse-bits and, among various weapons, thousands of barbless trilobate bronze arrowheads that seem from examples recovered from Cyprus, Palestine, and the early 5th-century battlegrounds of Greece to have represented a standard issue within the Achaemenid army. For seals and seal impressions it is again appropriate to look to the rich material from Persepolis, particularly since the many sealings from the fortification tablets promise to reveal much about the beginnings of Achaemenid iconography (cf. R. L. Zettler, "On the Chronological Range of Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Seals," JNES 3, 1979, pp. 257f.). In addition, certain recently discovered seal impressions from Persepolis (A. Tadjvidi, Iran 13, 1970, p. 187) no longer depict the once-canonical scene of a "royal hero" dominating animals and therefore call attention to changes in seal design that took place during the Achaemenid period.


Evidence for those two special Persian luxury items, cut glass and gold plate, is rare indeed. Fine glass was recovered from Persepolis (Schmidt, Persepolis II, pl.67), but sumptuous gold vessels of the kind that accompanied the Persian king both at home and on the march are today known only from a number of examples reportedly found during clandestine ex cavations at Hamadan, and not all of these "court style" vessels have been accepted as genuine. (Cf. O. W. Muscarella, "Excavated and Unexcavated Achaemenian Art," D. Schmandt-Besserat, ed., Ancient Persia: The Art of an Empire, Undena, 1980, pp. 23 f.) Finally, no gold darks or silver sigloi like those minted in Anatolia in order to meet the needs, in part, of an existing coin economy, have been found so far within the limits of Iran. Unless new evidence is forthcoming, the home economy can be seen to have been based, down to the time of Alexander, on a currency consisting of cut and weighed silver, a type of currency that was present in Iran at least from Median times (cf. A. D. H. Bivar, "A Hoard of Ingot-Currency of the Median Period from Nush-i Jan, near Malayir," Iran 9, 1971, pp.97-111).


Material traces of Achaemenid rule from the Greater-Iran and beyond Iran

It has never been easy to assess the influence that the Achaemenid empire came to exert on the indigenous cultures within its wide bounds. Wherever detailed regional information is available, the precise forms of Persian authority-and Persian investment-can be seen to have varied not only from one region to the next, but often from one district to another.


Map of Achaemenid Empire (Click to enlarge)

No exhaustive treatment of the archeology of Mesopotamia in the Persian period has yet been attempted. Such a study could profitably combine the disparate evidence recovered from such major centers as Babylon, Kis, Ur, and Nippur with the results of several relatively recent field surveys and "rescue excavations."


In north Syria the 5th-4th century BCE inhumation cemetery at Deve Huyuk can be associated with the presence of a permanent Persian garrison to the west of one of the more important crossings on the upper Euphrates. This cemetery, Deve Huyuk II (P. R. S. Moorey, "Cemeteries of the First Millennium BCE at Deve Huyuk," in British Archaeological Reports 87, 1980, pp. 7f.), provides evidence for such characteristic Achaemenid objects as zoomorphic rhyta (here in pottery, not metal); bronze phialai, or drinking bowls; alabastra with small lug handles; and, among iron weapons, fanged javelin heads, socketed spearheads, and examples of the Persian short sword-the akinakes of Herodotus's account (7.54). Bronze horse bits, bracelets, and fibulae are also complemented by relatively simple silver earrings and by cylinder seals which here appear, probably in deference to local taste, in glass.


In Palestine the free passage of goods from one part of the country to another seems to have offset the region's very varied mixture of peoples and its diverse forms of government so as to create a distinctive, more or less uniform material culture. As has been recently demonstrated in E. Stern's survey (Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period, Jerusalem, 1982, p.229), Persian authority operated effectively wherever its sole prerogative was to be expected: in the construction of palaces and fortresses, in the provision of support services for the army, and in its seemingly exclusive right to issue all the more valuable forms of coinage. The presence of a Persian elite also finds a very probable reflection in the recovery of typical Achaemenid jewelry from such sites as Gezer and Ashdod (ibid., figs. 253-54); still more remarkably, elements of a bronze throne were found in clandestine excavations at Samaria, the capital of the province (cf. M. Tadmor, "Fragments of an Achaemenid Throne from Samaria," Israel Exploration Journal 24, 1974, pp. 37f.).


The part of the empire that left the largest imprint on its Persian occupants was almost certainly Anatolia. In the Achaemenid period, it is not always easy to distinguish a Persian of rank from an Anatolian dignitary with a taste for the trappings of Achaemenid protocol. While the difficulties are manifest, and the Achaemenids are seldom very visible in the archeological record save for their royal (and subsequently satrapal) coinage or their seals and sealings, J. Cook has offered a persuasive picture of the mechanics of local Persian government and of the role of the Iranian landed gentry who so often sought a landscape, and a way of life, that contained echoes of their homeland (J. M. Cook, The Persian Empire, 1983, p. 180). Also, certain finds from western Anatolia, such as the gold jewelry discovered by the first archeological expedition to Sardis (C. D. Curtis, Sardis XIII, Leiden, 1925, passim), the silver incense burners and other objects of precious metal of Achaemenid design recovered from the tombs at Ikiztepe in eastern Lydia (B. Tezcan, VIII Turk Tarih Kongresi, 1979, pp.391-97), and the wall paintings found on the interior walls of the stone tomb at Karaburun in Lycia (M. J. Mellink, "Excavations at Karatag-Semayuk and Elmah, Lycia, 1971," AJA 7480, 1970-1976, pp.265-69) could each be taken as partial reflections of high dynastic fashions set by the distant court at Susa. Nevertheless, as the finds from these and other sites demonstrate, the idioms of Greek art made an increasingly strong appeal from the early 5th century onward. Greek, Persian, and Anatolian influences are to be found in varying measure in the "Greco-Persian" stamp seals of western Anatolia (cf. J. Boardman, "Pyramidal Stamp Seals in the Persian Empire," Iran 8, 1970, pp. 19f.), while each of these influences, combined with strong hints of a north Syrian or Apamean (Aramean) style, is to be seen in the distinctive funerary stelae of local officials from the region of Daskyleion, close to the Troad. (See most recently R. Altheim-Stiehl, D. Metzler, and E. Schwertheim, "Eine neue Grako-Persische Grabstele aus Sultaniye Koy and ihre Bedeutung fur die Geschichte and Topographie von Daskyleion," Epigraphica Anatolica 1, 1983, pp. 1 f.).


In contrast to each of the regions just described (as well as Egypt, another seat of ancient and foreign culture), the satrapies to the east of Iran were chiefly inhabited by Iranian peoples. Yet for all the linguistic, religious, and cultural ties that presumably linked the east Iranians to the Medes and Persians, there are strong archeological indications that they possessed a vigorous material culture of their own. Most of the pottery of the northeastern provinces, for example, is utterly different from any in contemporary Iran. It is distinguished, as E. E. Kuz'mina ("The 'Bactrian Mirage' and the Archaeological Reality. On the Problems of the Formation of North Bactrian Culture," East and West 16,1976, pp. 111-31) and A. Cattenat and J. C. Gardin ("Diffusion comparée de quelques genres de poterie caractéristique de l'époque achéménide sur le Plateau Iranien et en Asie Centrale," in J. Deshayes, ed., Le Plateau Iranien et l'Asie Centrale des origines a la conquête Islamique, Paris, 1977, pp.225-48) have lately shown, by wheel-made cylindrical-conical jars such as begin to appear in the region around 600 BCE Pottery with clear western links is not in evidence before the late 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, when it is tempting to associate its appearance with the new political conditions imposed by Alexander.


Direct echoes of Persian rule, such as the fragment of an Achaemenid Elamite tablet found at Kandahar (S. W. Helms, "Excavations at `The City and the Famous Fortress of Kandahar, the Foremost Place in All of Asia'," Afghan Studies 3/4, 1982, p. 13) are, for the present, all too rare on Afghan sites. But if the relevance of both the 4th-century funerary furnishings from tomb V at Pazyryk (S. I. Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia. The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970) and the late Achaemenid and post-Achaemenid objects for the so-called Oxus treasure (see O. M. Dalton, The Treasure of the Oxus with other Examples of Early Oriental Metal-Work, 3rd ed., R. D. Barnett, ed., London, 1964) should be admitted, it can not be questioned that Achaemenid motifs and Achaemenid tastes eventually traveled a long road eastward.


Much work still remains to document the material remains of Median and Persian rule, both inside and outside the boundaries of Iran. In regions beyond Iran in particular, the Achaemenid period is often one of the least archeologically explored and understood. This condition appears to derive in part from the nature of Persian dominion: Persian rulers preferred on the whole to adopt and to modify those institutions they encountered rather than to impose a single imperial pattern on their possessions. Nevertheless, detailed research into the once far-flung Persian presence constitutes a prime historical and cultural requirement. Only new archeological discoveries can serve to supplement those literary records that at present most largely illuminate the internal workings of the empire (cf. J. M. Cook, The Persian Empire, pp.167-182), and only a thorough knowledge of the sources of the Achaemenid court style, and of the diffusion of that style through some thirty satrapies, can be used to account for the subsequent appearance of time-honored Near Eastern themes deep in Europe and well across the breadth of Asia.  



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