Shahr-e Sukhteh, unearthing the 5000-year-old city

February 29, 2012 - 14:36
altShahr-e Sukhte is an archaeological site of a sizable Bronze Age urban settlement which has been witness to four eras of civilization. Also known as the Burnt City, the site was unearthed in 1915 opening its secrets to archaeologists and enabling them to unearth its magnificence to contemporary generations. 
Thousands of years the inhospitable soil of this desert land was inhabited by people with their own civilization and architectural style, the remains of which have been excavated and pulled out of the ancient hills of the region.
The vast desert is littered with fragments of clay works. However, the archeologists were unable to inspect the entire region due to the hot weather and desert wind. 
Dr. Mansour Seyed Sajjadi, an archaeologist who has for years made research works in the Burnt City, said: "With every step that we took the soil under our feet moved aside, revealing more fragments of clay works. We were told that after each rain the earth is washed away causing more fragments come to the surface, where they can be easily found by the excavation team. The moment we touched the clay fragments that were buried under the soil we got a strange feeling that reminded us of our Oriental background and this feeling made us search for our lost identity within the Burnt City"
The Burnt City, which spans 150 hectares, is the largest Brass Age site in the Middle East. It was founded in 3200 BCE and was ruined in 2100 BCE and in the course of its 1100-year life was witness to four eras of civilization. It was sacked three times and completely ruined in the third fire, hence the name "Burnt City". 
altSo far, no one has discovered the real name of the city and only when archaeologists gain access to the historical record of the ancient city, will it be possible to find out the real name of the city.
The available evidence indicates that the Burnt City was first discovered by British scholar Orwell Stein in 1915. In the 1960s and 1970s, a team from the Italian institute for the Middle East and Oriental studies launched archeological excavations with the cooperation of the Archeology General Department.
With the discovery of 250 graves, the team collected interesting valuable information. However, excavations were halted in the ancient area from 1978 for a period of 18 years but archeological activities once again resumed around 1997.
Dr. Sajjadi, whose love for the ancient region is incalculable, was cautious in his endeavor lest anybody might trample the newly repaired walls of the invaluable historical heritage.
altHe believed that the Burnt City is a big laboratory in the heart of the desert that has housed various sectors such as residential quarters, historical monuments, graveyards and industrial units. Given that so far no defensive fortress or walls have been discovered in the Burnt City, archaeologists believe that the inhabitants of the city were all peace-loving and calm people who lived a peaceful life in the absence of any boundaries and without getting involved in any war or confrontation.
Studies show that in the early stage of their settlement in the region (3200 to 2800 BCE), the people of the Burnt City established contacts and entered into transactions with the people in the Eastern and North-Eastern parts of the Greater Iran, Central Asia and Quetta (in what is today known as Pakistan's Baluchistan). 
Dr. Sajjadi, the expert archaeologist of the Burnt City, says that in the second phase of their settlement (2800 to 2500 BCE), the people halted their contacts with Khuzestan but strengthened their ties with Central Asia. Seals that have been discovered in the Burnt City, Mishmahig (Bahrain), Kuwait and southern Khvarvaran (Iraq) lend further proof to such a theory. In the third phase (2500 to 2300 BCE) and even in the fourth phase (2300 to 2100 BCE) the inhabitants of the Burnt City had contacts with northern and eastern areas but gradually their relationship cooled.
The archaeologist further opines that the Burnt City was the center of a civilization known as "Civilization of the Hirmand River Zone" that served as the capital of the civilizations that existed 5000 years ago. 
However, due to the displacement and drying up of the Hirmand River's delta, living in the region lost its charm. It is said that the Burnt City had about 70 villages that were thriving agricultural centers that produced a large quantity of clay works.
altIn the course of the 2001 archeological excavations in the area, over one ton of clay objects were collected from inside the graves and in the surrounding areas. The number of objects discovered from the historical site is huge. It was very hard to come to conclusive theories on the lives of the people that lived in the Burnt City, when their possessions, including 12 patterns of fabrics in different colors have been dated back to around 5000 years ago. 
The efficiency, knowledge and state-of-the-art craftsmanship deployed by these ancient people leaves no room for any judgment. A 13-year-old girl’s skull was unearthed from the site, which had indentations implying surgery had been performed on its owner, who was suffering from hydrocephalia at the time. This is the earliest evidence of skull surgery ever found on earth and it is due to be displayed at the first medical history museum of Iran. 
Some of the most significant archeological discoveries were in the graves that were excavated in the course of the dig. 
"We slowly proceeded towards the graveyard section as if our steps would disturb the sleeping ancestors. The graveyard sector was expanded in an area of 20 hectares of the dead land", said to Dr. Sajjadi. 
The graveyard contains about 40,000 graves of which only 134 were excavated during the four operational seasons. Up to now 158 skeletons have been discovered inside, of which about 120 samples have undergone anthropological studies. 
Research studies show that due to hard labor, men and women who lived in the Burnt City had a short life span: of the samples discovered the men died from between 26 and 53, and women perished at ages between 26 and 46. Archaeologists see these graves as as data banks, through which they can discover the occupier’s style of living, beliefs and even the professions of their ancestors.
Findings obtained in the course of four archeological seasons in the Burnt City indicate a range of jobs. Of the bodies exhumed, the professions include jewelers, painters, shepherds, farmers, weavers and carpenters.
Archaeologists also found the remains of paints in a number of pots suggesting that artists of that time used to paint clay pots. Elaborating on the discovery of buried flowers and quotidian objects in the graves, Dr. Sajjadi said the inhabitants of the Burnt City believed in the afterlife and thus viewed death as merely a temporary sleep.
Dishes, food, water and other day-to-day objects were buried with the dead so that on Resurrection Day, they could be of use when they are revived back to life.
Dr. Sajjadi also points out that cloves of garlic were found in a number of graves, adding that in some countries in southern Europe and certain Indo-European tribes it is believed that garlic will expel the wicked spirits from the homes. Therefore, it is also believed that people who lived in the Burnt City put cloves of garlic inside the graves of the dead for the same reason. The doctor said that the evidence found in one of the graves showed that the occupier had been murdered because his head and the murder weapon were both laid to rest beneath his feet.
Despite the invaluable information obtained by the archaeologists from the graves in the Burnt City, Dr. Sajjadi believes that no firm conclusions can be made until 1000 graves are examined. He said that using the present technology available for the excavation, it will take 150 years to finish the project.
"We were curious to find out what happened to the people in the last fire of the city and in the aftermath of the drying of the Hirmand River's Delta and that where we could find their traces following their migration from the Burnt City". 
According to Dr. Sajjadi, after migrating from the Burnt City, the people had apparently settled in neighboring regions.
He says that there is no trace of them after 2100 to 2000 BCE because no scientific research work has been conducted in this regard. It seems that as more information is gathered about the Burnt City, more sadness will emerge from the cracked and dry lands.

Jump, goat, jump!
altOne thing that has fascinated experts in recent years has been the flow of discoveries coming from the excavations in the Burnt City. As if the city, itself, wasn’t interesting enough, there have been some truly amazing finds: the oldest known backgammon set complete with six-sided dice, a prosthetic eye made of light-weight resin and covered with gold, and what might be the oldest example of animation ever found, a ceramic goblet with painted images of a goat.
altThis beautiful piece has five images of a goat with a leafy tree. These images aren’t static images and each one shows the goat in a different pose. When this goblet is spun around, the images act like a flip-book animation and the goat seems to launch itself into the air to snag a leaf off the tree.