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Interview with Iranologist David Stronach, the 39th Recipient of the AIA's Gold Medal


 08 June 2004



David Stronach

Professor David Stronach

LONDON, (CAIS) -- Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology David Stronach is the 2004 recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America's Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement. The medal is the highest honor bestowed by the AIA, and is given in recognition of a scholar who had made distinguished contributions to archaeology through his or her fieldwork, publications, and/or teaching. The award caps Professor Stronach's 23-year career at UC Berkeley.

Although Professor Stronach will retire on June 30, 2004, he will remain on recall and will be leading students on an archaeological dig in Iran in the Fall. In a recent interview with Genevieve Shiffrar he spoke about certain moments of special interest in his career.

GS: Let's start with a simple question: How did you get started in your career?

DS: From the age of 9 I knew I was fascinated by archaeology and my more specific wish to concentrate on the ancient Near East began to take shape at Cambridge University, where I studied archaeology and anthropology. Although some of my first excavations sought to document early farming communities, I soon realised that my main interests centred on Mesopotamia and Iran in the first millennium BC. It is in this part of the Near East — and in this time-frame — that I have concentrated most of my efforts.

To begin with I was able to work in Anatolia with one of the great practioners of the art of excavating mud-brick structures, Professor Seton Lloyd. This was an invaluable learning experience. Shortly afterwards, I went to Nimrud, in Iraq, where I worked for Sir Max Mallowan between 1957 and 1960. This was a particularly formative time for me. Max's maxim — learnt from his mentor, Sir Leonard Woolley, was "read well and you will write well!" I also remember Max saying with good effect (as I procrastinated over finishing an article) "David! The perfect article never has been written and never will be!" I suppose my CV at this point might also read "part-time shopping assistant;" in any event Agatha Christie, Max's celebrated wife, chose me to accompany her on her frequent shopping expeditions to the bazaar in Baghdad — and I have to say that carrying beautiful carpets and kelims back to the British School was one adjunct scholarly duty that I never tired of!

I had always hoped I could work in Iran, sometime, somewhere, having fallen totally in love with the country during a brief visit in 1958. Two years later, still not quite believing my luck, I found work there. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, then the Secretary of the British Academy, with whom I had dug in Pakistan, appointed me as the British Academy Archaeological Attaché to Iran. It was my task to pave the way, if I could, for the creation of a British Institute of Persian and, through an almost unbelievable sequence of events, the new Institute came to be founded within a matter of months. In April 1961 I was asked to direct the new Institute and to select a site for excavation.

GS: It is wonderful that you found yourself in the place you most desired to be, with the resources to do what you most wanted to do. How did you begin your work there?

DS: Iran in the late 1950s and the early 1960s was a relatively underdeveloped country and it did not have a long history of prior, widespread excavation. Relatively few sites had been looked at with any thoroughness. One site that cried out for closer attention was Pasargadae, one of the most magical sites in Iran and the capital of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC), the estimable and unusual founder of the Achaemenid [dynasty] Persian empire. In the end we worked there for three years, from 1961 onwards.

GS: Please describe some of the things that you found at Pasargadae.

Silver spoon with swan head

A silver spoon with a double-curved handle terminating in a duck's head or a swan's head. Length 15 cm. From the Pasargadae Treasure, 5th/4th centuries BC.

DS: We made one discovery which was particularly dramatic. We were excavating a small garden pavilion when I noticed the remains of a not very prepossessing pottery vessel in the ground. Thinking that I should perhaps excavate it myself in case it might contain seeds or the like I began to loosen the soil at the top. I pulled out one root, a second root, and a third root, which turned out to be the handle of a beautiful silver spoon — a magnificent object with a swan's head at the end of a long, curved handle. The pot contained a treasure of some 1200 objects — mainly of gold with inlays of both lapis lazuli and turquoise. It was probably the jewelry of a great lady of the Persian court that had been secreted in this mundane container. I estimate the date of the burial of the objects to a moment shortly before the time that Alexander the Great invaded southern Iran late in 331 BC. While the circumstances that might account for this unexpected find will never be known for sure, I like to think that, at a moment when Susa and even Persepolis were about to fall into Alexander's hands the owner of the jewelry took aside her most trusted retainer and said something like, "Hide this quickly, in a place where we can come back for it later." And in all the confusion of the events of those turbulent days the only people who knew of the hiding place never managed to return.

GS: What a human story! Could you describe other findings at the site?

DS: There are wonderful stone monuments at Pasargadae. And working partly in tandem with a close friend, Carl Nylander, we had the rare opportunity to make the first comprehensive record of this stunning stone architecture. In addition, our team was able to build on certain earlier not very well understood finds in order to reveal the intriguing plan of the stone water channels of a royal garden.

GS: Could you talk further about both, perhaps the monuments first?

DS: Working from both Carl's seminal studies of the debt that the big stone masonry of Pasargadae owed to Lydo-Ionian masonry of the mid-sixth century BC as well as from other chronological clues that I was deriving from the ongoing excavations we were able to define for the first time the true history of construction at this exceptional site.

It emerges that Pasargadae was indeed founded by Cyrus, probably on the same broad plain where he had defeated the last Median dynasty king, Astyages, in 550 BC. But because of the exceptional quality of the masonry it is equally clear that Cyrus could only have founded his new capital after he had captured Sardis, the Lydian capital, in about 547 BC. In other words this signal victory allowed him to bring skilled stonemasons and architects back to Iran to take part in the construction of his tomb, his palaces, and other monuments. This finding indicates, moreover, that Cyrus sought to underscore his new-found power by referencing the established arts and technologies of the far-flung regions that were now falling under his control.

One of my particular interests at this time was to document the introduction of such methods and motifs in the new setting of southern Iran; to understand just how such methods were copied or adapted; and to record the ways in which local stoneworking practices gradually changed over time. Needless to say, such a framework makes for greater chronological certitude — without which other detailed interpretations are hardly possible.

GS: I'd greatly like to hear about the excavation of the royal garden.

DS: Although there were countless things to do during our three intense seasons at Pasargadae, I decided that we should make every effort to recover the plan of what promised to constitute the earliest excavated monumental garden, at least from anywhere in western Asia.

In the end, the work exposed an unexpected four-fold garden plan, which may have been intended to refer to the Achaemenid empire in microcosm particularly since Cyrus chose to adopt the age-old title "King of the Four Quarters." Intriguingly also, this four-fold garden accords with the traditional Persian garden plan known today as a chahar bagh. It used to be thought that the chahar bagh, or four-fold garden, was a design that had chanced to be separately invented in both Moghul India and early Islamic southern Spain. However, by eventually tracking down a number of intervening garden plans of Sasanian and early Islamic date, I was able to show that all the gardens in question most probably owed their ultimate origins to Cyrus' novel garden plan.

Pasargadae Garden Plan

Plan of the Palace Area at Pasargadae. At the core of the plan stands Cyrus' innovative four-fold garden design.

While all of this was quite gratifying, I have to say that I had to struggle manfully to escape from the overriding fascination of early gardens. But, at all events, I am delighted that the early garden at Pasargadae has given Iranian gardens a secure place in the history of garden design.

GS: You mentioned that your work in Pasargadae lasted for three seasons. What were you interested in exploring after that?

DS: I wanted to know more about another Iranian people,the Medes, who in 612 BC had brought about the fall of the last Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and who appear in the Bible as well as in Greek, Assyrian and Babylonian records. As late as 1965 a number of us had come to recognise the undeniable fact that it was impossible to point to a single site with incontrovertible Median dynasty remains. And since no progress could be made without an appropriate field survey, I used the latest available ceramic evidence to try to identify a suitable site for excavation somewhere in the vicinity of the erstwhile Median dynasty capital, Hamadan.

Some five seasons — and twelve years — later the excavations at Tepe Nush-i Jan succeeded in exposing a remarkably well preserved Median dynasty religious site with distinctive architecture and pottery that had flourished from the late 8th to the early 6th centuries BC.

Curved mud brick struts

Tepe Nush-i Jan. A view of the curved mudbrick struts that were used to form the ceiling of the antechamber of the Median dynasty temple. Because the temple was filled with stone when it was closed near 600 BC the struts survived in place.

Of the four major buildings that came to light, one was a well preserved temple with mud-brick walls that still stood to a height of more than seven meters. Among other things the building provided evidence for a totally new form of mudbrick vaulting. It seems that Median dynasty vaults made use of opposed, curved rib-like mudbrick struts that met at the middle of each room. Of particular importance was the discovery of a still intact fire altar. This pointed to an early stratum of Iranian religious belief that was conceivably connected, in a general sense, to the emergence of the Zoroastrian faith.

GS: I can see that the discoveries at Nush-i Jan were very satisfying. You not only gave physical, archaeological definition to the remains of an important, well known Iranian people but you were able to illustrate some of their unique contributions to techniques of construction as well as to the evolution of new religious practices. At this point, however, I imagine you were still not ready to "hang up your trowel" — and I sense that there must be further stories to tell!

DS: After twenty years of fieldwork in Iran, not to mention a useful period of writing in which I was able to complete my book on Pasargadae, I was in fact ready for a change — a change that Ruth and I knew would be important, not least, for the education of our daughters, Keren and Tami. With this in mind I applied for my present position at UC Berkeley and I had the great pleasure, in 1981, of joining the Near Eastern Studies Department — and an array of excellent colleagues both in the department and in Berkeley's Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology.

Some years later, after I had settled into my teaching duties, I decided to make a return visit to Iraq in order to see if I could find a suitable field project in which I could involve my graduate students. It was at a time when the archaeological authorities in Iraq had decided to move away from rescue excavations at often small sites in favor of a return to larger sites. Accordingly, after I had taken a fresh look at Nineveh, the last great capital of Assyria, the Director General of Antiquities asked me if I would like a permit to work there. It was an extraorinary opportunity and we were able to squeeze in three seasons of work before the outbreak of the first Gulf War.

In its day — in the late 8th and 7th centuries BC — Neo-Assyrian Nineveh was the largest city in the world. It is, of course, a huge site with a long history of excavation stretching back to the 1840's. I felt there were two areas in particular where we might make a contribution. The first was in the extensive lower city. Here one of my then graduate students, Stephen Lumsden, now of Copenhagen University, used a combination of surface survey and excavation to complement the written record and to arrive at an appreciably more accurate understanding of this important part of the city. The second chosen area had the most immediate appeal for me. As part of a project to try to determine why Nineveh fell as swiftly as it did to a joint attack by the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 BC, I elected to excavate at one of the city's 14 external gates. My choice fell on the Halzi Gate — one of the largest and also one of the more remote gates located near the extreme southeastern corner of Sennacherib's elongated city plan.

David Stronach with skeleton

Immediately prior to final photography, David Stronach gives a last brush to the skeletons of a number of individuals who met their death on the roadway of the Halzi Gate in the course of the siege of Nineveh in 612 B.C.

Archaeologically speaking, the choice was a fortunate one. The Halzi Gate had remained virtually untouched since the terrible destruction of 612. In the narrowed passageway of the gate we exposed numerous skeletons — most probably of Assyrians — whose bodies lay in all sorts of anguished poses amidst the charred remains of beams and other debris that would appear to have fallen on them, and buried them, at the climax of the assault.

GS: How did this fit into the broader picture?

DS: It looks as if the great city fell for a number of reasons. First, the major outer defenses were never completed by the Assyrian monarchs of the 7th century and the generously wide external gates themselves were poorly designed to resist a truly determined attack. Since our gate stood at the extreme southern end of the five-kilometer long, narrow city and since excavations conducted by the University of Mosul had exposed evidence for a similar desperate struggle at one of the northernmost gates, it looks as if the besiegers chose to attack two of these vulnerable city gates at opposite ends of the city's long walls. These attacks may have been successful in themselves or they may have been only designed to draw the Assyrian defenders away from the mid-point of the long east wall, which was pierced by the bed of the River Khosr. There is some indication in extant Babylonian and other texts that water and flooding were associated with the fall of Nineveh. Hence, it may be that the Assyrian dams on the upper reaches of the Khosr were breached and that the resultant flood slighted the area of the walls at the point where the Khosr entered the city — and that the main force of the besiegers broke through the defenses at that point. This is no more than a hypothesis, but it could fit the facts that are known to date.

GS: I'm afraid to ask what you discovered next in Iraq.

DS: I couldn't continue to work at Nineveh after June 1990. Following the first Gulf War foreign excavations in Iraq became a comparative rarity and, obviously, more recent events have done nothing whatsoever to improve the situation. In the meantime I was continuing to teach here at Berkeley and I had good numbers of graduate students who wanted to work with me in the field. Eventually, at the invitation of a friend who was looking to start a collaborative archaeological enterprise in the Caucasus, I and my students took the opportunity to join Philip Kohl of Wellesley College in excavating for a number of years in Armenia and Daghestan. The work was very productive and rewarding in its own right, save that, as so often happens, political events can all too readily overtake you if you are an archaeologist working anywhere in the Near East. We had to end our operations in Daghestan in the late 1990s, having done useful work, but perhaps not as much as we had hoped to do.

I might add that I greatly enjoy working with my graduate students, whether in the field or in the classroom. It is not only on a dig that a sense of camaraderie can obtain. And, apropos something that I would like to refer to in a moment, I will just mention a recent occasion when, after an outburst of rather too much uncontained hilarity, I found it necessary to call the table to order. "Oh, you are a rotten lot!" I exclaimed. At first there was a circle of shocked faces, then my smile was detected, and they laughed.

GS: Surely, there must be a next site to explore. What is it?

DS: I am now looking, I'm happy to say, at a chance to return to Iran. Last year, after I had given a lecture in Tehran at my old institute, the British Institute of Persian Studies, the director of excavations for the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization approached me and asked if I would be interested in returning to Iran. Plans have moved forwards since then and I am now expecting to take a number of my graduate students to work with me at a Parthian site, adjacent to the line of the Silk Road to the east of Tehran, which currently goes by the name of Shahr-i Qumis and which was known to the Greeks as Hecatompylos or "the Hundred Gated City." The work there will probably complete my own explorations for a while.

GS: It is not difficult to see why you received your award from the AIA.

DS: I am very conscious that the award also honors the University and my colleagues. The one other Berkeley archaeologist who received the Gold Medal was Professor Desmond Clark and I very much wish that he and his wife, Betty,could still have been with us and, hence, a part of the recent occasion.

Of course it was a fortunate coincidence that this year's awards ceremony took place in San Francisco. As far as I was concerned, this made everything seem more of a relaxed, almost home-grown event than would otherwise have been the case. This was most clearly underlined at the conclusion of the morning's Gold Medal Colloquium. At the end of the session, the chairman, Andrew Moore, made a somewhat unusual announcement. He asked everyone to stay in their seats since "David's students have a present for him." Naturally, I had no idea what this was.

One of the students came forward, holding something black. She said to me, "This is for you, please open it." A T-shirt with the words, "Stronach's Rotten Lot" unfolded! At that same moment a row of students who had been somewhat mysteriously seated in a long line across the width of the hall stood up and opened their coats to display identical "Rotten Lot" T-shirts. I will simply say this was the best award I could have asked for.

GS: I think you are right. Thank you so much for speaking with me and thank you for sharing so many vivid memories with me.




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Source/Extracted From: University of Berkeley, California (College News & Events)



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