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Parsa emerges from the shadow of Persepolis
 By Hamid Golpira

TEHRAN - The ancient town of Parsa has begun to emerge from the shadows of Persepolis.

An Iranian-Italian joint archaeological team has brought to light the first remains of the town of Parsa, which was the residential area of commoners just outside the palaces of Persepolis.

The Iranian director of the team, Alireza Askari Chaverdi of the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research, told the Tehran Times that the two areas investigated yielded important results.

“The first season of excavations at the site of Persepolis West in search of the ancient town of Parsa has been concluded with important results,” Mr. Askari said on November 10.

“The joint Iranian-Italian Archaeological Mission of the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research, the Parsa-Pasargadae Research Foundation, the University of Bologna, and the Italian Institute for Africa and the East have just completed the first season of activities of their five-year program From Palace to Town.

“This program aims both at contributing a methodological update to documentation and diagnostic analysis for the Achaemenid Terrace of Persepolis, and at the same time at extending archaeological excavations to the nearby town of Parsa, the existence of which is understood in the Elamite and Greek texts and which till now has been investigated only through surface and geophysical surveys. This investigation has particular importance for the knowledge of society, economics, and crafts of the Achaemenid and post-Achaemenid periods, as well as for the study of the historic development of settlement in the area of Persepolis,” Mr. Askari explained.

“In the first season, which was concluded on November 7, 2008, six stratigraphic trial trenches were dug in two areas of the site known as Persepolis West, lying to the northwest of the Achaemenid Terrace of Persepolis.

“In the immediate vicinity of the Persepolis parking lot, an imposing wall 1.8 meters wide was brought to light, having a stone foundation and pressed earth elevation. This wall, which was recognized thanks to the geophysical surveys carried out in the area, was built probably at the end of the Achaemenid period above an earlier mud-brick wall of the Achaemenid era. The structure most likely represents a stretch of an important architectural feature of the town, perhaps a fortification wall, and will be the object of extensive excavation in the next seasons, which will focus on the architectural aspects of the town.

“About 500 meters further to the west, two trial trenches brought to light important evidence which suggests that in the Achaemenid and post-Achaemenid periods the area was dedicated to craft activities. In fact, one of the trial trenches yielded a kiln for pottery making, while the other was characterized by the presence of a large number of successive dump pits extremely rich in pottery shards, bricks, charcoal, and bones. Also for this area, the very promising results of the trial trenches suggest that extensive excavations will be carried out in the next season. Being one of the few stratigraphic excavations to have been carried out in the area of Persepolis for the historic period, this activity will allow a comprehensive and fundamental study of the pottery as well as of the other classes of materials recovered for the historic period from the Achaemenid through the Islamic periods, and thus bring a relevant contribution to the knowledge of everyday life in ancient Fars,” Mr. Askari added.

In an interview with the Tehran Times on November 10, the Italian director of the team, Professor Pierfrancesco Callieri of the University of Bologna, said the new discoveries provided the first information about the city where the common people lived.

“This was the city. It is some distance from Persepolis. That was the place of the king. We were searching for the commoners’ city, and actually we found this structure, which probably is one of the boundary walls of the city. It is a monumental area. We made small trenches for preliminary investigation. But this came out to be very important,” Professor Callieri said.

“There are probably two Achaemenid phases. Or this is post-Achaemenid, also a possibility. I think it is Achaemenid, because it is an important structure there. This is the wall which belongs to the common people of Persepolis.

“We investigated the area at the foot of the terrace and beyond, because we were in search of, and found, Parsa, the urban settlement which the Greek sources describe as a part of Persepolis, and which maybe corresponds with the town of Mattezish mentioned in the Elamite texts. It is the city where the common people lived at the time of the Achaemenid dynasty. Probably all the people who were involved and worked in the court, many workers, the bureaucrats, all these people had to live somewhere. They could not live in the king’s palace. This is the first archaeological investigation about this. One result is this, which you might think is not much, but we found it, and next year we will be able to extend the excavation in a large area.”

“The excavations were carried out for about fifty days, from the end of September to the beginning of November.”

“With the help of geomagnetic prospecting, carried out previously by two different teams, we selected six areas for trenches, and in all of them we had very good results. And in three places in particular, we obtained a lot of information.”

“We are sure that one site we found was an industrial area, the crafts area, because in this other trench we discovered a kiln and a lot of pits for dumping. So they are connected. In this area we found many bones of animals and broken pottery shards, so it is not a residential area, it is an area for work and production. So we have on one side found an area of settlement, and on the other side found an area dedicated to craft activities. Craft activities usually are polluting and dirty, so they usually are located a little bit far from houses.”

“We found one kiln, but it is very probable that there are more because in the geomagnetic prospecting, very near to this kiln, there are very large signs that are maybe many other kilns. So we have found, in this first campaign, on one side a wall, which is probably the boundary wall of the city, and on the other, an area of craft activities. So we have the basis to continue in the future excavations.”

Professor Callieri said one of the most important finds of the excavation was a five-centimeter fragment of a blue ware in the form of a wing.

“This is the most beautiful object we found. It’s probably the wing of a decoration, which is likely to be a typical Achaemenid representation of the bearded man within a winged sun disk, usually interpreted either as Ahura Mazda or as a Fravahar. This is absolutely Achaemenid.”

“This is an artificial stone. It was made in the Achaemenid period. They took this mineral of a blue color, it is still not clearly known which one, and then they heated it with some chemical procedure, mixed it with some glue, and fired it at a low temperature. It is an artificial material.”

“Because this is an Achaemenid Egyptian blue decoration, this is a kind of royal ware. And this is a fantastic work. This is an object which probably came from the terrace of Persepolis. And in the later period was taken by some people and taken into the industrial area. We found it near the kiln.”

Asked if he was certain it came from the palace area, he said, “Definitely. I am sure because this material probably comes either from Egypt or Babylonia or was produced at the court of the Achaemenid kings. But it is very exceptional and of very high quality.”

“The team found glazed bricks from the Achaemenid period, a stone vessel from the Achaemenid period, painted pottery from the Islamic period, and a fragment of a column, which was a very important find.”

“We also discovered a fragment of Greek pottery. I still don’t know if it is from pre-Alexandrian times or after Alexander. It could be either from the Achaemenid period or the Hellenistic (Seleucid) period.”

“We also found some metal implements, and a coin, which is actually half a coin. This is probably from the local kings of Fars, the Fratarakas. I am not an expert of coinage, but I think this was cut in ancient times. This is very interesting because very few coins were found in excavations in ancient Iran. Coinage was not used very much. They used traditional systems for exchanging goods like barter, or used silver which was cut and weighed. And the fact that they cut the coins means they were still thinking with the old idea of weighing.”

“Some of the items probably were taken from the palace in the post-Achaemenid period, after Persepolis was destroyed.”

“We have also found occupations of the Islamic period, with fragments of glazed and painted pottery from the Islamic period.”

Professor Callieri said the team also found some small sheep bones that are very polished, which he believes were used like dice in a game and were called astragala in Greek.

In addition, he said the team discovered some bronze arrowheads from the Achaemenid period, two iron arrowheads from the Seleucid or Parthian period, a carnelian bead, a copper bracelet fragment and other copper items, mostly from the Achaemenid era, such as a kind of knob for decoration, some nails, other daily implements, a lead weight in the shape of a bone, and a fragment of a glass vessel, as well as glass bracelets from the Islamic period.

The team also found Achaemenid era “eye stones” made of agate that Professor Callieri said were used either as the eyes of stone statues or as amulets to ward off the evil eye.

“Some of these items were found in layers of the post-Achaemenid and Islamic periods. The excavation is not more than one kilometer away from Persepolis. So it was not difficult for the local people to go to Persepolis, where they could get access to anything. It reminds me of Rome, my city, during the Middle Ages. They took everything from the ancient monuments and used them in medieval times for building the houses. They took bricks, stones, columns. And it was the same in Persepolis. They had Persepolis one kilometer away, and whenever they needed something, they went there.”

“The monumental wall is about half a kilometer away from the palace of Persepolis, and the industrial area is another half a kilometer away, so it is one kilometer away from the palace.”

“The industrial area is outside the wall. So it is outside the inner suburb area and was like an outer suburb industrial area.”

“The main bulk of the finds was pottery and pottery fragments. And with pottery you can study the lifestyle of the people. For example, if you find storage jars, you can see that there are some economic activities. If you find there is only a small vessel, it means that this area is largely a residential area. If there is a cooking vessel, you know this is a place for cooking. All the pottery items are good household items.”

“We have studied all the fragments of the pottery and we can thus understand many things about the economics, because from the presence of the large vessels and other vessels, you can understand which type of activity was carried out in that area. If, for example, one room was a residential area or a storage area or a craft area. There are many indicators.”

“So for the moment, we have on one side the kiln, which is in a craft area, and we found a lot of charcoal fragments in the ashes. In particular, charcoal is very useful because we can carry out carbon-14 dating on it. For the moment, I can say maybe it is Achaemenid or post-Achaemenid, but after the analysis, I will be much more precise.”

“So the intention of the project was just to cover all the information. For example, we have a large amount of animal bones. Next year, a bone specialist will come to Persepolis to study all the bones. In that small area we found remains of many animals.”

“We discovered the same information in Pasargadae when we excavated it last year. The bones were studied by bone specialists. They did it with the charcoal. They studied the bones and they understood, for example, that most of the animals were sheep and goats and there were also cows. There were few signs of butchery on the cow and bull bones. Probably they were not used for food but were used for agriculture, while the sheep and goats had signs of butchery. For example, we know in Tall-e Takht (Pasargadae), they used cows mainly for milk and for agriculture, and there were not many in numbers, and most of the other animals, which were used for meat, were goats.

“Now, when we study a very large amount of bones, we will get a very clear picture of how people lived and what meat they ate. Also, we can obtain more information about the breeds of animals and also secondary animals like dogs or horses.”

“We also got important information from the points where the virgin soil began in these six trenches. We can reconstruct the profile of the field near Persepolis in the earlier period. Now we have this flat land. At that time it was not so flat. The natural soil in the kiln area is higher than in the dump area. Probably the dump area was a kind of valley which they used to throw things away.”

“In the future, we are going to reconstruct the ancient landscape around Persepolis. Studying the layers, we understood that there was some kind of watercourse nearby. Now there is no river there. But we found signs of sand and gravel, so it means that there was probably a stream there coming from the nearby mount or maybe it was a periodical stream.”

“All this type of information in the end is very useful because from it, we can begin to understand the situation around Persepolis in ancient times. Now Persepolis is like a ship in the sea because we have this very important complex but nothing around it. We don’t know anything about it, nothing about the context. This terrace could not have survived without the surrounding area.”

“The cultural sequence starts in different areas and periods. In one area, the beginning of human presence is post-Achaemenid. In another area it is Achaemenid. In one area, it may be pre-Achaemenid. And then from there we want to study the different periods, for example the Sassanid period, what happened in Persepolis during Sassanid times. From the preliminary information, I think the kiln area was also used in the Sassanid era, but we are not sure. It is necessary to understand what happened to those areas in different times.”

“We know Istakhr, near Persepolis, was a major settlement in the Sassanid era. Then, about two centuries after the advent of the Islamic era, Istakhr rebelled against the Arabs and was destroyed, and the settlement at Qasr-e Abu-Nasr near Shiraz gained importance.”

“Our aim is to study the entire history in the different eras. When William Sumner, an American scholar, studied this problem in the 1970s, he suggested that the city of Persepolis West had an area of 25 hectares, which is very huge. Probably not all but most likely some areas were built in the Achaemenid period. Maybe some were abandoned afterwards and some areas continued.”

“At the moment, we have only one limit of the city on one side of the city and the industrial area. This is the beginning of the work. The shift of interest from the palace to the town is very important for getting a correct view. Up until now, most of the studies were on the palace.”

“The joint Iranian-Italian project is a five-year program. Next year we will resume the excavation. For example, with Mr. Askari we will excavate a large trench in the wall of the city. We want to understand the architecture. This year was the first season. We could not make large excavations. We only made soundings, trial trenches.”

“Our joint mission also has interest in the terrace of Persepolis from two aspects, one is conservation, the other is documentation.”

“Persepolis is a world heritage site, so we agreed that our collaboration will also be for updating the methodology of restoration and conservation in Persepolis. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports the project. Because, you know, from 1964 until 1979, Italy directed the restoration of Persepolis. Professor Giuseppe Tilia, an Italian architect, who was an expert in restoration, worked there for 15 years continuously. Unfortunately, he died, but we have his son. He is a topographer and works with us.”

“This year, in the first season of the joint team’s activity, Italian conservation specialists came to Persepolis and studied with the Parsa-Pasargadae Research Foundation specialists all the problems of the stone monuments, the problems of pollution, water, heat, and snow, and also checked the durability of material used for restoration.”

Professor Callieri said the team, in collaboration with the Parsa-Pasargadae Research Foundation, is also studying the possibility of setting up a centralized data base compiling all the information on Persepolis and the surrounding area, which may also be put online on a web site.

Asked if the excavation provided further evidence of the fact that Persepolis was the only major monument of ancient times that was built by paid workers and not by slaves, Professor Callieri replied, “No new information, not yet. We understand that one of the cities which had exchanges with the Persepolis Terrace was very near Persepolis. Probably it is the city we are going to excavate.”

However, he noted that in previous excavations tablets have been found that record the payments to the workers, and added that these “objective” documents prove the workers were paid.

“In the joint Iranian-Italian excavation in the Bolaghi Valley, we excavated one house of a village, and in the house we found one inscription in Aramaic on a pottery item which said ‘double quantity’. This means that the pot had the measure of its contents written on it. So this means there was a system of administration for which it was necessary to write the quantity. A simple peasant would not bother to write it. If there is an inscription, it means there was somebody checking, an official system. We know from the texts of Persepolis that the Achaemenid royal family and princes had many estates, and probably Bolaghi was one of those estates. So that is why administration men were sent from Persepolis or Pasargadae and the peasants had to show them one, two, three, what was the weight written on the pot.”

Asked if he found any similarities between the excavations in the Bolaghi Valley in 2005 and 2006 and the recent excavations on the outskirts of Persepolis, he said, “Similar material was used for pottery, this is a common point. But the structure that we found in Persepolis is much better architecturally, although that was to be expected. In the village in the Bolaghi Valley, the house was very simple. But the wall that we found outside Persepolis is a nice wall.”

He explained the differences by saying that the recent dig was at an inner suburb area close to Persepolis, whereas the site in the Bolaghi Valley that the team excavated was a rural village about 19 or 20 kilometers from Pasargadae.

“We have a very a clear difference between a rural village and an urban settlement.”

“This is only the beginning and once we succeed in excavating one important monument or maybe one important house, or the small houses of the workers, we can bring to light more evidence of the craft activities. We also hope to find some well preserved areas of the wall that can be used as a museum or as a tourist site. We would like to make people interested in seeing the rest of the city, to bring tourists not only to the royal terrace but also to see where ordinary people lived.”

Professor Callieri also commented on the Frataraka period, which came after the Seleucid period and before the Sassanid era.

“The Fratarakas were the local aristocracy. And Frataraka is a title which means governor. This is a title which was used by the Achaemenids. We have Aramaic papyri from Egypt which mention governors with the title of Frataraka. It is an ancient Persian term. And the first king in Fars who issued coins using the title Frataraka was named Baydad, which means given by God. It is a Persian term. They did not take the title of king but used the title governor. He was issuing coins, so it means he was asserting independence. If you issue a coin you are asserting independence. But still they did not call themselves kings. So why did they select this title? It is my idea that they thought of themselves as a kind of representatives of the former kings of Fars, the Achaemenids, but they called themselves governors as a sign of respect for the Achaemenids, as if they were governors for the Achaemenids.”

“There is a connection. The Fratarakas were the intermediate stage of Persian kingship between the Achaemenids and the Sassanids. I am sure that the Sassanids were very well aware of the fact that the Fratarakas and the Achaemenids came before them. It was never written anywhere, and many scholars say the Sassanids had no such idea. But I am sure they had such an idea. Also, in their architecture, there are some similarities. In Firuzabad, the Ardashir Palace uses the same type of lintel decoration as the Tachara of Darius. Why? It is not by chance. And the first king of the Sassanid dynasty, Ardashir, was the last of the Fratarakas. That is the connection. And the Fratarakas ruled from the second century BC to the beginning of the third century CE. Four hundred years they ruled Fars. They had a very important role in the transmission of ideology.”

“The Parthian kingdom was very decentralized. So probably the Parthians had accepted that Fars was independent. But we have no Parthian period in Fars, because there were the Fratarakas.”

“The Parthians were more interested in Mesopotamia. They focused more on this area. The Sassanids were also interested in Mesopotamia. In Mesopotamia, agriculture is fantastic. They had flat land, water, two, three crops a year.”

“Probably the Parthians were not very interested in the Iranian Plateau, although they had an important presence in Ecbatana. Professor Azarnoush finally understood the important structures brought to light in the excavations of the Hakmataneh (Ecbatana) tepe belong to the Parthian period.”

When asked about the fact that this site had previously been identified as Median, Professor Callieri said, “Now we are certain that those structures are Parthian.”

“We have one important piece of evidence from the Sassanid period in Persepolis. We have a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) inscription on the stone of the Tachara Palace of a prince of the Sassanid dynasty, the prince of Sistan, who on his way back to Sistan, stopped in this area called Sad-Sotun (One Hundred Columns) and made some offerings for the ancestors. It is very clear, the Achaemenids are the ancestors.”

“The Fratarakas used Persepolis. We are sure the Greeks and Fratarakas used Persepolis because archaeologists found some reused structures in Persepolis, after the Achaemenid era.”

“The southwest corner of the Persepolis Terrace has very important traces of post-Achaemenid times. The area next to the palace of Xerxes has evidence of use during the Seleucid and Frataraka periods.”

Professor Callieri also pointed to the interactions between the Persians and the Greeks and Romans, saying that although the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the Greeks fought against each other in wars and the Sassanid Empire and the Roman Empire also fought wars against each other, the people had many close contacts and always had some relations and exchanges in the areas of art, commerce, and culture.

“In the Achaemenid era, there were many contacts with Greece. Many Greek cities were Achaemenid. Ephesus and Miletus were Achaemenid cities. We have this idea that Greece and Persia were only enemies. It is not true. Politics always tends to make things very sharp. But fortunately, men always have relations.”

“Alexander married three Iranian princesses. One was Roxane, the daughter of Oxiartes, one of the chiefs of Sogdia, the second was Barsine, also called Stateira, the daughter of the last Achaemenid king, Darius III, and the third was Parysatis, the daughter of Artaxerxes III.”

“Seleucus I, the first king of the Seleucid dynasty, married Apama, who was the daughter of the Bactrian chief Spitamenes. So the Seleucid dynasty was half Iranian since the mother was Iranian. We have to learn much more about the history of the Achaemenid and post-Achaemenid eras up to the Sassanid era. It’s very important.”

“I think Fars and Persepolis are some of the roots of Iranian culture. It’s the importance of this empire. It was the greatest empire of ancient times. Fantastic organization, a multicultural civilization, so well organized. It is an important Iranian heritage. So I think it is necessary for us to investigate in this field.”

Photos:

1. A five-centimeter fragment of a blue ware in the form of a wing is one of most important artifacts unearthed by the Iranian-Italian joint archaeological team during their latest excavation at the ancient town of Parsa near Persepolis.

2. Achaemenid era “eye stones” used either as the eyes of statues or as amulets to repel the evil eye have been discovered by the Iranian-Italian joint archaeological team during their latest excavation at the ancient town of Parsa near Persepolis.

3. Remains of a wall were brought to light at one of the trenches dug by the Iranian-Italian joint archaeological team searching for the residential area of commoners outside the palaces of Persepolis. It is believed to be one of the boundary walls of the city of Parsa.

4. Searching for the residential area of commoners outside the palaces of Persepolis, members of the Iranian-Italian joint archaeological team work at one of the trenches they dug.



 

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