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Home > Research > Projects > The Persian Expedition

The Persian Expedition


INTRODUCTION

During the winter of 1930-31, the Oriental Institute organized a Persian Expedition to conduct excavations in the largely unexplored mountainous regions east and southeast of the Mesopotamian plain. James Henry Breasted requested, and was granted, a concession to excavate the remains of Persepolis, an Achaemenid royal administrative center in the province of Fars. Thanks to an anonymous benefactress, work started the same year under the direction of Ernst Herzfeld, Professor of Oriental Archaeology at the University of Berlin. Herzfeld served as director of the Persian Expedition until the end of 1934, when he was succeeded by Erich Schmidt, who continued to excavate in the region until 1939.

Over an eight-year period, the Persian Expedition worked not only in the royal center of Persepolis, but also at a number of sites that fell within a radius of 10 km. - the two prehistoric mounds of Tall-i Bakun, an Achaemenid tower and tombs of the Achaemenid kings at Naqsh-i Rustam, and portions of the Sasanian/Islamic city of Istakhr. In addition, Erich Schmidt led two air-reconnaissance and ground expeditions into the mountains of Luristan in 1935-36 and 1937.

PERSEPOLIS

Plan of the terrace of Persepolis showing structures that had been excavated and recorded by the end of Oriental Institute work at the site.

Persepolis was founded as a royal administrative center by the Achaemenid king Darius I between 520 and 510 B.C. and was destroyed by the troops of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. The Oriental Institute cleared and investigated most of the buildings that stand on the Achaemenid terrace, including the gatehouse of King Xerxes (K), the great audience hall (Apadana) with its monumental eastern stairway begun by Darius and finished by Xerxes (J); the treasury of the Persian kings (B); the residential areas (C, D, F, G, H, I); and fortifications including garrison quarters along the eastern edge of the terrace (A, O).

Vertical air view of Persepolis and the "Mountain of Mercy." Erich Schmidt was one of the first archaeologists to use aerial photography to investigate and document archaeological sites. This photograph, taken from the biplane "Friend of Iran," records through light and shadows the remains of the outer eastern fortification wall of Persepolis, which follows the crest of the "Mountain of Mercy," as well as the emplacements of the Achaemenid royal tombs cut into that mountain.

Panoramic view of the terrace of Persepolis. The remains of the Hundred-Column Hall are visible in the immediate foreground. To the left is the reconstructed "Harem," which served as the expedition headquarters and museum.

NAQSH-I RUSTAM

Over the course of several seasons, the Persian Expedition conducted archaeological excavations at Naqsh-i Rustam and recorded the major monuments on the site.

Darius the Great and his three successors chose the imposing cliff face at Naqsh-i Rustam, north of Persepolis, as the site of their rock-cut tombs. Near these tombs stands a square tower, which may have been built by Darius I to shelter the royal fire of the Achaemenid monarchs. Both the tower and the royal tombs were inclosed in a sacred precinct, whose outer wall, with rounded towers, was traced by Herzfeld. Further Oriental Institute excavations within the precinct revealed occupation extending from the Achaemenid into the Early Islamic period (ca. 500 B.C.-A.D. 800).

During the early Sasanian period (third-fourth centuries A.D.), numerous reliefs were carved into the foot of the rock-cut tombs, indicating that the site continued to play a significant role during the reigns of later rulers.

TALL-I BAKUN

The Oriental Institute excavated the two low mounds of Tall-i-Bakun, southeast of Persepolis, in 1932 and 1937. Mound A was found to contain at least four levels of prehistoric houses dating roughly to 4000 B.C. The main level was surprisingly well preserved, suggesting a sudden abandonment of the settlement. The walls of some of the houses were preserved to a height of 6-7 feet and bore the remains of geometric wall paintings in red and yellow. Resting on the floors, as though still in use, were knives and other household utensils, including cooking pots that still contained the bones of the meat that was being prepared in them. Much of the pottery found on Mound A bore elaborate painted designs of extraordinary beauty and sophistication.

Mound B was comprised of earlier remains (ca. 4600 B.C.) of a culture that used only unpainted wares.

FLIGHTS OVER ANCIENT IRANIAN CITIES AND THE HOLMES EXPEDITIONS TO LURISTAN

On August 7, 1935, a Waco biplane, donated by Erich Schmidt's wife, Mary-Helen Warden Schmidt, arrived in Teheran. Over the next two years, Schmidt used the plane, which he christened "Friend of Iran," to photographically document the sites he was excavating and to make aerial explorations of other parts of the country.

In 1935-36 and 1937, Erich Schmidt led two expeditions into the rugged mountains of Luristan. Both endeavors combined aerial surveys from the plane with archaeological excavations in an attempt to learn as much as possible about this little explored region of Iran. In addition, the group prepared maps and compiled data concerning temperature, altitude, landscape, and the local population. They conducted brief excavations at more than a dozen sites, one of the most interesting of which was Surkh Dum-i-Luri in the Kuhdasht plain. Here they cleared several levels of a sanctuary dating to the first half of the first millennium B.C. The shrine contained quantities of votive offerings to the goddess Ninlil, including cylinder and stamp seals and quantities of bronze pins with elaborately decorated heads.

The Oriental Institute's collection of bronzes from Surkh Dum-i-Luri is a unique corpus. It is the only large collection of excavated Luristan bronzes in the world. The vast majority of "Luristan Bronzes" are of unknown origin, and forgeries are common among them. The Oriental Institute's collection plays a pivotal role in all efforts to define the characteristics - both stylistic and scientific - of excavated Luristan bronzes against which those purchased on the art-market can be evaluated.

Revised: June 17, 2010

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