Jiroft, a magnificent cradle of civilization

April 25, 2020 - 21:48

TEHRAN – The discovery of the magnificent Jiroft site came by accident in the very early 21st century when rounds of heavy flood along the Halil River swept the topsoil off thousands of previously unknown tombs and led to the discovery of many artifacts believed by archeologists to belong to the Early Bronze Age (late 3rd millennium BC).

Earliest reports said, “An old object was seen floating on the surface of the water.” Realizing it was precious, the following day, villagers impoverished by two years of drought, swarmed the river banks in search of 5,000-year-old antiquities.

Situated in the southeastern Kerman province, Jiroft is surrounded by mountains on three sides, rising some 4,000 meters high. Many Iranian and foreign experts see the findings in Jiroft as signs of a civilization as great as Sumer and ancient Mesopotamia.

Geological factors have led to it being overlooked for years by tourists and archeologists, who have generally been more interested in Mesopotamia some 1,000 km away.

Astonishingly the chlorite vases found in Jiroft were not an unfamiliar object for the archeologists. Chlorite vessels similar to the stunning examples unearthed at Jiroft had been found from the Euphrates to the Indus, as far north as the Amu Darya and as far south as Tarut Island, on the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia.In 2003, Iran invited Jean Perrot, the French archeologist who as the director of French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) had conducted excavations in Shush (or Susa, an ancient city of the Elamite empires in Khuzestan Province of Iran) area between 1969 and 1978.

Referring to the discovery of the Jiroft artifacts as an archeological revolution, Perrot stated: “An area we formerly regarded as resided only by nomads and their cattle, was the heart of an incredibly advanced civilization. In this area people lived with social hierarchy. These people had an explicit view of the world which distinguishes them from the Sumerians. Henceforth, we must consider Jiroft as the origin of civilizations and refer to all other civilizations as pre or post-Jiroft civilization.”

Finally, under the leadership of Dr. Yousef Majidzadeh, a team of international archaeologists began excavations in 2003. Simultaneously an awareness program was initiated for the locals to lecture to them about the historical significance of Jiroft and the irreplaceable artifacts.

Madjidzadeh and his team of experts uncovered more than two square kilometers of remains from a city dating back to at least the late 3rd millennium B.C. The data demonstrates that Jiroft’s heyday was from 2500 BC to 2200 BC. Astonishingly the chlorite vases found in Jiroft were not an unfamiliar object for the archeologists. Chlorite vessels similar to the stunning examples unearthed at Jiroft had been found from the Euphrates to the Indus, as far north as the Amu Darya and as far south as Tarut Island, on the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia.

Madjidzadeh, who is the author of a three-volume history of Mesopotamia and a leading Iranian authority on the third millennium BC, has long hypothesized that Jiroft is the legendary land of Aratta, a “lost” Bronze Age kingdom of renown. It’s a quest that he began as a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago when in 1976 he published an article proposing that Aratta, which reputedly exported its magnificent crafts to Mesopotamia, was located somewhere in southeastern Iran.

Madjidzadeh says that Jiroft artifacts are a “missing link” in understanding the Bronze Age because they help explain why so many incised chlorite vessels, all with remarkably similar imagery, have turned up at widely separated ancient sites, from Mari in Syria to Nippur and Ur in Mesopotamia, Soch in Uzbekistan and the Saudi Arabian island of Tarut, north of Bahrain.

Until now, the principal center of the production of these vessels was a mystery. Although some of them were probably manufactured locally, the sheer volume of artifacts at Jiroft argues that the most prolific chlorite workshops of all were there.

According to an article by Paris-based author Richard Covington, texts dating from around 2100 BC suggest that Aratta was a gaily decorated capital with a citadel whose battlements were fashioned of green lapis lazuli and its lofty towers of bright red brick. Aratta’s artistic production was so highly regarded that about 2500 BC the Sumerian king Enmerkar sent a message to the ruler of Aratta requesting that artisans and architects be dispatched to his capital, Uruk, to build a temple to honor Inanna, the goddess of fertility and war.

“When you start reconstructing actual geographical regions based on legend and mythology, you’re always in deep water,” says Abbas Alizadeh, an Iranian-born archeologist at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. “Some scholars think Aratta is in Azerbaijan. Others say Baluchistan or the Persian Gulf. It’s a murky business.”

Yet even if Jiroft turns out not to be Aratta, it is nevertheless a pivotal clue to a better understanding of the era when writing first flourished and traders carried spices and grain, gold, lapis lazuli, and ideas from the Nile to the Indus. Although not on a par with the more influential civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley, “Jiroft is obviously a very important archeological complex,” says Holly Pittman, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania who is one of a growing number of non-Iranian scholars who are being allowed into the country.

“It’s an independent, autochthonous Bronze Age civilization with huge numbers of settlements of all different sizes that we have only just begun to explore.” By comparison to the research documenting other third-millennium civilizations, these are indeed very early days, she explains. “We don’t yet have enough material to compare it to Mesopotamia. But you have to remember that 500 teams of archeologists have been digging in Mesopotamia for 100 years. In Jiroft, we’ve had two seasons with one team of fewer than 30 scientists.”

Jiroft artisans fashioned pieces with what seems strange and enigmatic iconography. Some were encrusted with lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from the Indus Valley, turquoise, agate, and other semiprecious, imported stones. “The artists had such a naturalistic way of rendering images,” says Madjidzadeh. “It is a style that was not seen anywhere else in that era.

“There must certainly have been a school of stone carvers because you see such an aesthetic unity of these objects throughout the kingdom. This high-level artistic quality did not suddenly appear from nowhere,” he maintains. “The traditions must have taken 300 to 400 years to develop.”

French geomorphologist Eric Fouache, the team’s expert on reading the strata underlying the archeological sites, has discovered something else, however, which gave the Jiroft region a crucial advantage over Mesopotamia: water. A network of artesian wells supplied abundant water for irrigation and drinking even when the Halil River ran dry. With these sources of water, the inhabitants developed agriculture based on calorie-rich date palms rather than the cereals of the Tigris and Euphrates delta, says Fouache. Palm groves also provided shade for extensive gardening.

The primary Jiroft site consists of two mounds a couple of kilometers apart, called Konar Sandal A and B and measuring 13 and 21 meters high, respectively. It was at Konar Sandal B that the archeologists dug out the seal impressions bearing writing. So far, the archeologists have excavated around nine vertical meters of Konar Sandal B, discovering vestiges of a monumental, two-story, windowed citadel whose base covers nearly 13.5 hectares (33 acres). Madjidzadeh speculates that this imposing edifice once housed the city’s chief administrative center and perhaps a temple and a royal palace.

Finding the structure’s façade was difficult enough, but locating an entrance took the team weeks of digging through clay packed hard by millennia of rain-wash. “The mud is like stone,” Madjidzadeh complains. “You can hardly get a pick into it.”

Archeological excavations in Jiroft led to the discovery of several objects belonging to the fourth millennium BC.

In 2019, a team of Iranian and German archaeologists discovered remnants of a prehistorical settlement during a survey in an ancient hill in Jiroft. Senior Iranian archaeologist Nader Alidad-Soleymani and German Professor Peter Pfalzner co-led a comprehensive survey, which aimed to record evidence about previously excavated sites in the counties of Jiroft, Kahnouj, Anbarabad, Faryab, Rudbar, Qalehganj, and Manujan.

AFM/MG

HIGHLIGHT:

Leave a Comment

9 + 8 =