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Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission


The most recent results of the archaeological investigations in Shahr-i Sokhta (aka The Burnt City), a sizable Bronze Age urban settlement located on the bank of the Helmand River, in the eastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchistan province, inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, and dubbed the "Pompeii of the East", were presented during an international online press conference organized by the University of Salento. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

In 2016, the Department of Cultural Heritage of the University of Salento initiated the multidisciplinary project MAIPS - Multidisciplinary Archaeological Italian Project at Shahr-i Soktha to study the site and materials being excavated by the Archaeological Mission at Shahr-i Soktha. Funded by the Department of Cultural Heritage of the University of Salento, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and by private bodies and institutions, the MAIPS project is coordinated by Professor Giuseppe Ceraudo and, in the next few years, it mainly aims at providing a more complete picture of the proto-state organizations of the Iranian plateau of the 3rd millennium BC.




"International collaboration is fundamental for the enhancement of material and immaterial cultural heritage," stressed the Rector of the University of Salento Fabio Pollice, "and it becomes even more so when this heritage is recognized as the legacy of the entire human race. Hence our commitment in the Islamic Republic of Iran, aimed at restoring to that country and to all humanity the history of a territory that was the cradle of one of the greatest civilizations of the past."


The importance of the site


The site of Shahr-i Sokhta, which lies between the inhospitable Lut desert and the heights of Baluchistan, is one of the most sought-after centres for archaeological investigation, both because it is perfectly preserved due to saline concretions present over the entire surface that have sealed underground artefacts and structures and also because it has often been associated, in the past, with a number of archaeological findings.


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

Archaeological literature has often associated it with the mythological Aratta, which Mesopotamian texts refer to as "where the sun rises", and which rivalled the sovereigns of the Uruk First Dynasty (including Gilgamesh), the masters of Sumer and custodians of kingship after the Great Flood.


It was precisely the Great Flood that put an end to a series of dynasties of incredible longevity to allow kingship to "descend from the sky", first in the city of Kish (Harireh) and then in Uruk. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

The Sumerian Flood, whose stories inspired the writers of the Biblical account, is therefore understood as an element of separation between a mythical time and a historical time - the post-Diluvian - when history was made by kings, which the archaeological investigation has partly recognised, and by cities, which the project is investigating. 


In particular, Aratta, mentioned in the major Sumerian poems (including 'Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta', 'Enmerkar and Ensuhkeshdanna', 'Lugalbanda and the bird Anzu', and in Gilgamesh's own poem), is presented as a place far away and difficult to reach, fabulously rich, full of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and numerous other precious materials. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

The city is also presented as the seat of the goddess Inanna, to whom a temple entirely built of lapis lazuli was dedicated. 


The city's disputes with Sumerian kings led the goddess to choose Uruk, the centre of southern Mesopotamia, as her residence, handing over kingship to Sumer and the dynasty founded by Enmerkar and continued with Lugalbanda and the mythological Gilgamesh. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

The memory of the city will remain alive in Mesopotamian literature to the extent that it is mentioned in the poems of Shulgi, king of Ur, and in other Palaeo-Babylonian texts roughly dated to the 19th century BC.




Pending confirmation of the site's identification, the discoveries made over the last 23 years by Mansur Sajjadi's Iranian mission and Enrico Ascalone's new project in the so-called 'Pompeii of the East' have confirmed the exceptional nature of Shahr-i Sokhta, which, although it is the repository of an autonomous path of growth, lies at the crossroads of the four great river civilisations (Oxus, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates and Halil) of Middle, Central and South Asia: Sumer, whose cultural heritage flows into mythology; Jiroft, the cradle of a newly discovered and forgotten civilisation; the great centres of Central Asia; and the great settlements of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, with which Shahr-i Sokhta had relations at various levels.


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

Shahr-i Sokhta, which covers an area of approximately 200 hectares and has, on the one hand, demonstrated local growth patterns that are deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of Iran's Sistan region, known in ancient times as Sakastan or "the land of the Saka", and, on the other hand, has provided extraordinary evidence of a 'long-distance trade' between the main centres of the Near East between the second quarter of the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. 


In particular, the evidence of manufacturing activities in the settlement and the discovery of large quantities of unprocessed semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, alabaster and others have made it possible to recognise, in the centre of Sistan, an area of mooring, storage, processing and redistribution of material destined for internal needs and external demand from the Oxus oases and the fertile valleys of the Halil (Jiroft), to the plains of the Indus valley and the Mesopotamian alluvial areas.


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

The archaeological evidence from the major centres in the south (Ur), in Diyala (Khafaja), in the middle course of the Euphrates (Mari), and in Upper Mesopotamia (Tepe Gawra), together with that from Inner Syria (Ebla), is decisive in confirming the presence of two major trade routes that exploited, to the north, the Khorasan route (well known from the later texts of Arab geographers), and, to the south, the Persian Gulf sea route, which, starting from the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, led to the creation of a network of trade centres between the two regions which eventually replaced the northern route.


The most recent discoveries


The latest excavation campaigns have yielded surprising results. To begin with, Carbon 14 dating of charcoal collected from the kilns and kitchens hearths has altered the chronology of the Shahr-i Sokhta site, giving it a new stratigraphic and chronological sequence that increases the life of the settlement by about three to four centuries earlier than the 3,200 BC-1,800 BC range considered so far. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

Significant evidence also suggests that it was a structurally heterarchic and non-hierarchical society. Different tribal groups coexisted in a state of social equilibrium without dominating one another in a regime of economic balance likely dictated by the prosperity that the centre must have enjoyed during the first half of the 3rd millennium BC. This is demonstrated not only by the uniformity of the tomb types but also by the absence of defensive walls which suggests that they had no military apparatus.


This diversity, based on an overall social balance within the clan and between groups, prevented the centralisation of the settlement's resources and with it the emergence of a ruling class on the site and in its territory; a step that was not taken and that did not produce a centralised administration to maintain uniformity and control economic activities on a large scale. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

The settlement's inhabitants lived in rectangular houses which were up to two metres high, enriched with wall decorations featuring geometric motifs. The same geometric motifs are found on pottery, doors and sealstones. 




Certainly the most extraordinary development was the discovery of hundreds of clay 'proto-tablets' which testify to a certain social and administrative organisation. Rudimentary, but with numerical annotations with lines and dots, the tablets were found in individual buildings suggesting they were part of a family-based administrative accounting system, intended for the calculation and management of the economic surplus produced. 


Shahr-i Sokhta: Results of the Italian-Iranian archaeological mission
Credit: MAIPS

With the end of the 3rd millennium BC, the prosperity of the largest centre in Sistan declined over several decades and, like the major centres of the Harappan civilisation, eventually ceased to exist, the result of a crisis that archaeological research tends to explain, not without uncertainty, as a radical and sudden climate change that affected these centres, whose subsistence relied mainly on the region's water resources.


Source: University of Salento [trsl. TANN; March 22 , 2021]



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