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Iranian archaeologists race the clock


19 December 2004


Archaeologists are digging against the clock in an Iranian gorge, striving to learn as much as possible about sites around ancient Persia's "Royal Road" before they are submerged by flooding.


Iranian archaeologists said on Tuesday excavations in the Tang-e Bolaghi valley had unearthed a cobbled stretch of the "Royal Road" that linked ancient Persian cities from Persepolis the capital of Achaemenid Empire in southern Iran to Sardis, west of the Empire nowadays known as western Turkey.


They have pinpointed 129 sites of interest in the gorge along this ancient highway, ranging from prehistoric finds to remains from the era of the Qajar monarchy that fell in 1925.

The gorge will be flooded when the Energy Ministry opens a dam there, probably in February 2006, as part of the Islamic Republic's plans to help farmers in parched southern Iran. Many key sites will be flooded.


Mohammad Hassan Talebian, director of the research group conducting the "rescue archaeology", said the sites held a wealth of information on Iran's past. "One clearly sees the unspoken thoughts of past peoples in Tang-e Bolaghi," he told Reuters. "We are not in a position to say 'don't do that project', but we can delay the construction process," he added.


The dam's opening had been pencilled in for March 2005, but Talebian lauded the Energy Ministry for rolling the start date back to early 2006. He added this would give eight foreign teams, including French and Italians, an opportunity to work on the archaeological blitz needed before the deluge.


How people lived under Darius the Great
Many finds hail from the time of the Achaemenid dynasty, the king og kings such as Darius the Great and Xerxes, famed for their wars against Greece in the early 5th century B.C.


Tourists flock to Iran to see the imposing Achaemenid palaces and temples at Persepolis but archaeologists feel the Tang-e Bolaghi could offer more of an insight into everyday life under the opulent long-robed monarchs. "Unfortunately data related to the people has been very thin," said archaeologist Shahram Zare, sensing clues on everyday life in Achaemenid times could lie in the gorge.


Archaeologists described the region as mainly peopled by pastoral nomads, building shelters shared between men and flocks that have altered little over the last two and a half millennia.


Two larger structures have been found with capitals of columns that suggest they may have been palaces or houses of important officials. One will be lost under the 11 kilometer (7-mile) square lake that swells to 13 kilometers square in winter.


The other will be on the border of the new reservoir, the ground around its foundations soaked by the waters.


Masoud Azarnoush director of archaeological research at the state Cultural Heritage Organization was stoical about the flooding of the valley, only a few kilometers from the tomb of 6th century B.C. empire builder Cyrus the Great at Pasagardae. "We are losing irreplaceable human heritage here but we have to take into account the fate of the country and people as well," he said.


One of the archaeologists was even more upbeat when asked whether he was saddened by the impending flood. "Quite the reverse, we are are happy to have been given this pretext to investigate," Mohammad Taghi Ataee said.

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