By Marjohn Sheikhi

‘Passion, penchant for uncertainty’ are what you need for archaeology, says Prof. Barbara Kaim

September 29, 2019

TEHRAN - Renowned Polish Professor Barbara Kaim, an archaeologist with a focus on Iran and Central Asia, says you need passion and a penchant for uncertainty to venture into the realm of archaeology.

Professor Barbara Kaim is a renowned scholar and scientist from the Warsaw University, Poland, specializing in the archaeology of Iran and Central Asia.

Her archaeological excavations in Turkmenistan and Persia, particularly the Sassanian era, shed more light on the culture and heritage of Iran. Her focus has been directed to fire temples in Central Asia for the most part. Since 1997, Prof. Kaim has been conducting excavations in the Serakhs region in Turkmenistan, in the remnants of one of the best preserved Partho-Sasanian temples. This experience enabled her to compare the Central Asian temples with the Iranian ones and then share her knowledge with Iranian scientists. She is also an author of many publications on the Zarathustrian fire temples, as well as ancient Iranian art and culture.

Last Sunday, the University of Tehran, in collaboration with the Polish embassy, organized a program in honor of Professor Kaim, for her valuable achievements while conducting extensive research and excavations in Iran.

After the event, I had a chance to sit down with the renowned, yet extremely humble scholar, for an interview.

Prof. Kaim believes in the value of even the smallest of discoveries, ‘the not-so-interesting piece of pottery’, and how that value is not inherent in the object itself, but in the way the people from all walks of life interact with it.

Here’s what this great scholar had to share about her experiences as an archaeologist: 

Will you please tell me a little about yourself, and how you got into archaeology and ended up here in Iran?

I was always interested in history, but because I also wanted to travel, I chose archaeology. During my studies, I didn’t know what branch of archaeology I wanted to get into deeper, but then I made a trip to Iran with a group of other students, which proved to be an eye-opener for me. This was the first time I saw the famous Persian monuments such as Pasargadae and Persepolis, not in the books but with my own eyes. And I realized this is exactly what I wanted to do: To study Iran’s past. While on the trip, we met several Iranian people who were really kind and friendly, so I thought it would be good to work here. This is how I realized what my dream was.

When I was finishing my PhD on a scholarship in Belgium, I had the pleasure to work with Professor Louis Vanden Berghe, who was very famous at the time in Iran because he spent several years in excavations in Lorestan. In fact, the ‘Luristan Bronzes’ were his subject. While in Belgium, I met Masoud Azarnoush, who became the director of the Iranian Center Archaeological Research several years later, and he invited me to visit Iran and maybe work on a site there. But at that time, I was already working in Turkmenistan. More precisely, on the border of Iran and Turkmenistan; which, I should note that while the border nowadays divides the two countries, the culture of antiquity is the same. It is the Iranian culture. So, for me it was very interesting and relevant to come here. For the excavations, we chose one place in Khorasan. The name of the place is Khune-ye Div, ‘House of Devil’ –

Did you choose that place for the name?

No, No. We chose that place because we were told that there’s probably remains of a fire temple. Because I was working on fire temples in Turkmenistan, it seemed natural to follow up the same subject in Iran. So, we signed the agreement, but after we returned to Warsaw, Dr. Azarnoush called me and told me he needs my help with an important rescue excavation in Tange Bulaghi near Pasargadae, where an artificial lake was going to be constructed and there was the fear that many archaeological objects would be submerged. So, it was our obligation as archaeologists to be there. That’s how my first mission in Iran began. We started working on the Sivand dam project there. We excavated some Achaemenid remains and also Sassanian villages. This was very important to me, because usually archaeologists choose a significant place to work on, like cities or temples, something exceptional, but when it comes to life in villages in antiquity, we know almost nothing. So, I think the results of that excavation are very important as they shed more light on rural settlements.

After that, we went to Sabzevar to start working on the Khune-ye Div. After three years of excavation, we could finally say it was another fire temple. Maybe a pilgrim center. And it was also in function during the Islamic period, which was another important finding.

Now, I’m still working in Turkmenistan on a Sassanian site. The site is important because it was a place where a big owner of land was living. So, we can see how life in this province was like. They were involved mostly in agriculture, which is very important for the reconstruction of ancient economy. 

You mentioned that fire temples have been your main focus during the excavations. What about fire temples interests you so much? What secrets do they hold?

As you know, Zarathustrianism is a very traditional religion. For me, the most exciting thing is that we could find from the Parthian period, let’s say from the 1st century AD, the same instruments that they use nowadays. It is something exceptional that you can reconstruct religion having only the modern sources. While we don’t have any sources on the religious ceremonies in the past, when you see the same instruments being used you can imagine that they were used during the same ceremony. And this is a fantastic find.

Speaking of, what has been one of your most exciting discoveries?

The most exciting discovery was made before me, I think (laughs). But maybe Mele Hairam fire temple in the Sarakhs oasis in south-western Turkmenistan, which was very well-preserved. For an archaeologist, it is very unique to find a site that has been well-preserved through ancient times. And we also managed to uncover several items which are very important for the iconography of Zoroastrianism.

Have you ever unearthed an artifact that you wished you could keep for yourself?

No. Certainly not. Because I am convinced that not only me but a very broad audience should know about the discoveries. It is a pleasure for an archaeologist to see that the object which she has found is put into the museum.

So, you don’t find the value in the object itself but in the way other people could interact with it.

Yes, exactly. This is some kind of an ethic of our job.

What advice do you have for students wishing to become an archaeologist? What skill sets are required?

The passion is the most important quality to have. I think archaeology is a very good job for people who like to be in situations where you don’t know what tomorrow has in store for you. Because of the new discoveries, new obstacles…you can plan something but after several days, there’s nothing left of your plans because somebody in the team has decided something else. For Iranian archaeologists, what is important, I think, is to work on the archaeology of the modern time. When I see here in Tehran the buildings from the Qajar period, which are so beautiful, I think it’s very important to document these buildings. Maybe carry out some small excavations to know when exactly the building was constructed, when it stopped to be in function, and so on. You have so many beautiful and old buildings in Tehran, which you have to care about. I think working on these buildings is very important for the future.

So, although archaeology is the study of the past, you think the discoveries can be relevant to the future?

Of course. We are all still very much involved in the past because our culture has roots in the past. It’s not possible for the human beings to cast aside the past of previous generations. Everything we do now has roots in the experiences of our previous generations. This is very important for the human race. 

In your opinion, what makes being an archaeologist so rewarding?

Our work is very hard, but it becomes better as we work in teams. The collective efforts of our research are very important. The discussions that happen among your colleagues is very important. And also, the uncertainty. You are never certain that you will still be working in this place tomorrow. This is, for me, very exciting.

Most people, when they think about archaeological discoveries, tend to think in terms of conventionally valuable objects like gold artifacts or something like that, but this is usually not the case. Making major discoveries is of course important, but what is even more important to us is the small things, the not-so-interesting pieces of pottery, for example. This kind of object is important for chronology. So, it’s not just about the big discoveries, but also the small things.

Looking back, how do you view the changes in archaeology since you started out working in the field?

The most important change is the more attention that has been given to stratigraphy while excavating.  The Layer by layer process. For example, if this building became an archaeological site, and unprofessional archaeologists were to carry out excavations on it, they could just say that this is the floor, but they couldn’t tell you this building was in function from this year, for several years or even centuries, and when it went out of function. Therefore, the most important thing to pay attention to on excavation sites is stratigraphic principles.

Another important change is that archaeologists have been publishing the results of their excavations. If you don’t publish the results, your work is for nothing.

How can we make archaeological discoveries more accessible and relevant to the public?

There is in fact a branch of archaeology called ‘public archaeology’, in which the excavation team is obliged to organize a lesson for the local people about what they have worked on and discovered. This is very important work, because if people understand about their past, they could inform the relevant bodies about the discoveries they made by chance. This is how public archaeology introduces our work to the public. 

Archaeological discoveries are nowadays being used in reimagining and rebuilding ancient civilizations in the world of entertainment, for example in video games. There are certain games in which you as the player can walk through, for example ancient Egypt or Renaissance Italy, and interact with the people and take into the scenery. If you were approached by a game studio team and consulted about ancient Persia, what aspect of it would you like to see come to life?

Well, last year, I had a lecture about the Achaemenid court. After the lecture, a student of history told me that in their class, they are taught about the Greek civilization and the barbarians, and that I was the first who opened their eyes and showed them that there was another great civilization at the same time as the Greek. And I think that it is important for all students, no matter which field they’re studying, be it engineering or medicine, to know that during the ancient times, the people tried to discover some instruments to make their lives easier as they do now, and it was a practice carried out throughout the whole world, not just in Greece. And if you do this reconstruction, what is important is to make it as exact as possible. It’s not easy to make a movie or a video game about the past. For that, you have to make extensive studies to make the reconstruction as true as possible.


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