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IRANIAN ART & ARCHAEOLOGY: MEDIAN DYNASTY

Median Archaeology

History & Method of Research


 

By: Professor David Stronach

 

 

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Figure 1. Godīn Tepe. Plan of the Godīn II structures (Click to enlarge)

The rise of the Medes and the Achaemenids, the first and second Iranian dynasties was in part a product of changes that took place far beyond the bounds of the ancient kingdoms of the Near East. The establishment of Indo-European populations on the steppe lands west of the Tien Shan, followed by the emergence of pastoral economies based on horse riding, served to bring successive waves of invaders into more fertile lands to the south. At least as early as 2000 BCE, the long-established Bronze Age settlements located southeast of the Caspian Sea became subject to external attack, and anywhere from five hundred to a thousand years later the main body of the Iranian tribes can be presumed to have established themselves on the upland plateau that today bears their name. Among such invaders it was the Medes of Iranian stock, close cousins of the Persians, who assumed the dominant role in the early 1st millennium BCE.

 

Unfortunately many of the details that contributed to this pattern of events may never be known to us. While the Medes were likely to have been present in mainland-Iran well before the Assyrians first encountered them in 835 BCE, it remains unclear how the earliest Medes, let alone the early Iranians as a whole, should be distinguished in the archeological record. Even during the next two to three hundred years-years that saw the eventual integration of Median and non-Median elements in the Median kingdom of Cyaxares (ca. 625-585 BCE)-the firm identification of one or another site as specifically "Median" is necessarily hazardous. Any search for a strictly Median component in the material culture of western Iran in the Iron III period (ca. 800-550 BCE) should probably concentrate on evidence from sites not too distant from the Median capital of Ecbatana, now the city of Hamadan.

 

It is striking to observe that, within these boundaries of time and space, virtually nothing was known of Median dynasty material culture prior to the mid-1960s. The French excavations of C. Virolleaud and C. Fossey, begun at Hamadan in 1914, were never resumed, and in the absence of any other major investigation in the immediate area for more than half a century, all but the most recent general studies focus on the late Achaemenid or post-Achaemenid rock-cut tombs of the western Zagros as the most tangible reflection of Media's once prominent place in Asian history.

 

During the past twenty years the search for the Median dynasty on the ground has been largely concentrated within the "Median triangle," the region bounded by Hamadan, Malayer and Kangavar. At Godīn Tepe, located 13 km east of Kangavar on the left bank of the Gamas Ab, it is evident that a substantial Bronze Age site was reoccupied after an interval of about five hundred years, close to the beginning of the Iron III period. Here the excavations of T. C. Young, Jr., begun in 1965, have exposed the remains of a series of monumental mudbrick buildings presumed to be part of a single, eventually quite substantial, local ruler's residence (T. C. Young and L. D. Levine, Excavations of the Godīn Project: Second Progress Report, 1974, p. 35).

 

The two main halls of this Godīn II settlement (Figure 1) exhibit contrasting proportions. While the smaller hall, at the western edge of the surviving plan, is emphatically rectangular in shape and once possessed two rows of four columns, the larger, older, almost square reception hall originally contained five rows of six columns. This last structure is distinguished by several fixed installations: a bench marks the side and rear walls and is complemented, at the back of the hall, by a raised square hearth set approximately opposite an elevated seat and footstool.

 

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Figure 2. Tepe Nush-i Jan. Plan including the four principal buildings: the Central Temple (1), the Western Temple (the Old Western Building) (2), the Fort (3), and the Columned Hall (4) (Click to enlarge)

The northeastern corner of the extant plan at God-in Tepe includes a building of quite a different character. Its ground plan is taken up by two opposed ranges of six narrow storerooms, each of which probably had a vaulted ceiling. Directly outside the southwest corner, rather than within the building itself, a broad staircase provided access to an upper story. The external north wall of the building, which was erected in two separate stages, also served to extend the fortified perimeter wall that ran along the precipitous north limit of the site.

 

The parallels that can be adduced for the Godīn halls are not without interest. From Hasanlū IV, within the Iron II period (ca. 1100-800 BCE), there is abundant evidence for rectangular columned halls with two rows of four freestanding columns. The Hasanln halls also exhibit permanent internal fixtures akin to those found in the larger hall at God-in. Nevertheless the God-in halls are by no means carbon copies of those from Hasanlū , nor indeed of the late Iron II columned hall of Baba Jan III, which has itself been claimed as Median (cf. C. Goff, "Excavations at Bābā Jān: Pottery and Metal from Levels III and II," Iran 16, 1978, pp. 40f.; cf. also Art in Iran i). Unlike these earlier partly residential halls, the two God-in halls may have been reserved for purposes of reception alone. Moreover, the spacious plan of the larger hall can be compared to one substantially later monument, Palace P at Pasargadae, which dates to the second half of the 6th century BCE (D. Stronach, Pasargadae, Oxford, 1978, pp. 78f.). At the same time, most of the close parallels for the architecture and the pottery of Godīn II come, not surprisingly, from the adjacent and partly contemporary site of Tepe Nush-i Jan (Nuš-i Jān) (ca. 750-550 BCE).

 

The excavations at Nush-i Jan, located 14 km west of Malayer, have uncovered most of a compact settlement (Figure 2) that appears to have been at least partly religious in character. The site's four principal buildings consist of the central temple, the western temple, the fort, and the columned hall; they were probably constructed in that order and predate the squatter occupation of the first half of the 6th century BCE

 

The tower-like central temple, built on what was at first a bare, steep-sided rock outcrop, occupies a commanding position more than 30 m above the level of the surrounding plain. The internal plan includes a single narrow entrance, an antechamber, a ramp leading to an upper room, and a stepped triangular sanctuary, 11 x 7 m2 in area, which once rose to the full height of the building. The altar, which stands within the western bay of the sanctuary, is 85 cm high with four projecting steps and a shallow hemispherical fire bowl at the center of its broad flat top (Plate III). The western temple, which for a time faced the central temple across an open court, is distinguished by a different orientation and an oddly asymmetrical plan. Nevertheless it contains a similar set of rooms: an antechamber, a spiral ramp leading to a room above, and an inner cella with the possible remains of a further altar. The so-called fort, a two-story structure that seems to have combined the functions of a storehouse and a residential unit, is the largest of the buildings found at Nush-i Jan. The well-preserved ground-floor plan includes a single entrance, a guardroom, a ramp-staircase of some size (which may have taken two complete revolutions to reach the level of the upper, now-vanished residential story), and four narrow storage magazines, each of which once stood nearly 6 m in height. The fourth major structure, the columned hall, is an irregularly shaped building approaching 20 x 15 m2 in area. Its flat roof originally rested on three rows of four wooden columns, and its only fixed furnishing consisted of a low mud-brick platform set close to the south wall. The height of the hall may have reached 8 or 9 m. In sum, the main impact of this architecture came from soaring buttressed, recessed, and no doubt crenelated, mud-brick walls. Narrow window openings and tall arrow slots also marked many external walls, while the stark design of one imposing structure-the central temple at Tepe Nush-i Jan provides a notable, if mute, expression of religious belief and practice.

 

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The stepped triangular sanctuary of the Central Temple at Tepe Nush-i Jan. The partly reburied fire altar stands in the foreground (Click to enlarge)

Mud brick was the outstanding medium of construction, although wooden door lintels complement the obviously extensive use of wood in each columned hall. The standard mud brick, at least at Tepe Nush-i Jan, measured 40 x 25 x 13 cm, while the curved vault struts, such as were used in pairs to span distances of up to 2.35 m were often 1.18 m in length. Somewhat against expectation-particularly since large stone column bases can be seen at Ziwiyeh (Zī-wīya)-worked stone was hardly employed; instead the Median brickmason was often prepared to make unexpected, even daring use of the malleable properties of brick and plaster. This determination to build wherever possible with mudbrick elements, including curved vault struts, recalls a similar inclination in the less forested regions of the east Iranian world. The architecture of the Medes came to combine the extensive dependence on mud brick and plaster that was to remain a fixed feature in the arid zones of the East with the interest in wooden columnar construction that took a strong hold in the northern Zagros from the beginning of the Iron Age onward.

 

The family of ceramics represented in the Median levels -at Tepe Nush-i Jan seems to be associated with the moment that the Medes consolidated their power in the vicinity of Ramadan in the second half of the 7th century BCE Four separate wares are recognized. "Common ware" vessels are buff, cream, or light red in color, often with a distinctive gold or silver mica temper; they include bowls with horizontal handles, small jars with single or opposed vertical handles, a few larger types of jar, and, largest of all, a form of elegant ribbed pithoi. Only smaller, often more elaborate vessels were produced in "grey ware," and these frequently display a carefully smoothed, even burnished surface. "Cooking ware" is represented by a single form: a wide-mouthed cooking pot, handmade with a heavy concentration of quartz or mica in the temper. "Crumbly ware" is also represented by a single handmade product: a tray-like dish with flakes of gold-colored mica in the temper.

 

Pottery of this kind is well represented in the Malayer plain. Apart from its general resemblance to that found in Godīn II and Baba Jan II, its distribution suggests that the monumental administrative and religious centers of the Medes were matched by modest but nonetheless permanent villages (cf, R. Howell, "Survey of the Malayer Plains," Iran 17, 1979, pp. 156-57). If the plant remains recovered in part from the squatter settlement at Tepe Nush-i Jan may be used as a guide, the economy of these villages was based on such crops as two-row and six-row hulled barley, emmer, bread wheat, peas, lentils, and grapes. The still generously forested mountains provided an extensive range of game, but animal husbandry remained prime; the domestic bone sample at Nush-i Jan included nine species, the most common of which were sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. There are also indications, entirely in keeping with the age-old repute of the grasslands of Media, that horse breeding already played a significant role.

           

Our knowledge of the Median occupation at Hamadan itself remains slight. For the moment we not only lack any evidence for stone reliefs or other worked stone elements such as would substantiate the existence of a former "court school" of Median stone carving intermediate between that of Ashurbanipal and that of Cyrus, for instance, but the chance and clandestine excavations that have inevitably taken place in Rama-danover the years have failed to reveal any Median goldwork. If, however, the latest gold vessels from Mārlīk can be ascribed to a date near 700 BCE (O. W. Muscarella, "Fibulae and Chronology, Marlik and Assur," Journal of Field Archaeology 11 /4,1984, p. 417), Median art promises to provide an almost direct link between the vigor of earlier Iranian art forms and the measured refinement of Achaemenid art.

 

 

Contin... Achaemenid Archaeology: History & Method of Research

 

 

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Source/Extracted From: Encyclopaedia Iranica

 

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