Online Review: Book

Early Mining and Metallurgy on the Western Central Iranian Plateau: The First Five Years of Work

Abdolrasool Vatandoust, Hermann Parzinger, and Barbara Helwing, eds.


Reviewed by Katherine Harrell

Pp. viii + 728, figs. 731, tables 100. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2011. €94.90. ISBN 978-3-8053-4342-8 (cloth).

This volume presages a reawakening of archaeology in Iran, an area of the world that, despite having some of the earliest and most complex Early Bronze Age settlements, has been relatively closed to modern excavation and field research. The remit of the project is focused on the site of Arismān and its surroundings, located in the arid foothills of the Karkas Mountains, a marginalized ecological area that is rich in metal ore. The authors explain that Arismān is unusual because it is not a mound but a flat site that hosted a relatively short inhabitation period (late Sialk III), which subsequently shifted to the north (proto-Elamite), a practice that stands in contrast to contemporary mound sites and even modern habitation practices, in which buildings are rebuilt on the same plot to conserve arable land. This unusual tendency to drift is the first indication that the site of Arismān is not a typical Iranian Bronze Age settlement.

The text is organized into three sections: "The Archaeological Excavations at Arismān," "Mining Archaeology in Iran: Investigations at Vešnāve and a Survey on the Western Central Iranian Plateau," and "Archaeometallurgical Research on the Western Central Iranian Plateau." The first section, at more than 500 pages in length, represents the majority of this volume and consists of an extensive excavation report of the site of Arismān, including a description of the main areas of excavation, the pottery, slag heaps, small finds, lithics, radiocarbon study, faunal and floral remains, results of surveys in the wider region, and conclusions. This volume will be of particular use to scholars who are working at other marginal archaeological sites, especially those sites that are centered on craft production rather than agriculture. The reports embed the figures and drawings within the text or place them at the end of the report, instead of resigning them to the back of the book or to a supplementary volume, an editorial decision that I found extremely helpful and engaging.

In the earlier part of the late Sialk III phase, Arismān was one of a handful of production sites along the marginal land of the northern Karkas foothills. The site produced pottery in a number of kilns positioned in abandoned houses, as well as copper, for which there is waste detritus. Both the pottery and the metalworking debris indicate that the site had a wide network of connections for importing raw materials as well as culturally preferred styles, as the pottery reflects what the authors call the "painted pottery koiné of the 4th millennium BC" (526), and the lead isotope analysis concludes that the ore used at Arismān came from a number of different sources. In the subsequent proto-Elamite period, the settlement drifts 500 m to the north and takes a more orderly and compact architectural layout, which the authors hypothesize to reflect a more tightly controlled central authority that oversees land usage (527). At this time, life in Arismān was isolated, with the other nearby sites having disappeared and the domestic architecture evolving into an insular style, with domestic spaces and workshops within household units. Public spaces had also almost wholly disappeared. The copper industry transformed in this period to an industrial level. From the deposits of slag and metalworking debris, the authors suggest that smelting was conducted on a large-scale, or community, level, whereas refining and casting took place within the individual households.

The authors do not spend a great deal of time speculating on why the site changes so fundamentally in nature from a small-scale production site, one of many in the desert fringe, to a large and isolated production site with a more controlling central authority. They point to other examples of such consolidation in the proto-Elamite culture and suggest that, under the influence of emerging centers, the social structure of Arismān was organized to exploit a craft monopoly. Nevertheless, the social trajectories of Arismān from late Sialk III to the proto-Elamite period deserves further discussion.

The second section publishes the results of a field survey of the Early Bronze Age mines of the western central Iranian plateau, with extensive research on the site of Vešnāve. Stöllner et al. explain the remit of the "ancient mining and metallurgy in Western Central Iran" project in the region (538): who were the miners and where did they come from? How were the raw materials of the region exploited? Can the chaîne opératoire of copper working in this region be reconstructed? Through excavation and survey, an exceptional amount of activity can be documented from the Early Bronze to the Early Iron Age, with extensive supplemental data provided on the environment. Although the authors assert in the opening pages of this section that a fundamental research question they seek to answer is who the miners were and where they came from, this question is never satisfactorily contended with. Instead, scientific analyses and mathematical calculations form the meat of this section, with descriptions and plans of the mines and examinations of the mining tools (598–600), radiocarbon dating of different areas of the mines (600–2), descriptions of the physical environment based on the species of flora and fauna in archaeological deposits (602–6), and calculations of the amount of raw material extracted from the mines during prehistory as compared with contemporary sites elsewhere, such as in Austria (Mitterberg) (607–8). The authors posit that the scale of mining—minimal, but sustained—may reflect small enterprising nomadic groups who visit seasonally. While the excavations make clear that various groups came to the mines for a range of purposes throughout history—the team found a ritual deposit from the Parthian and Sassanian periods including gold jewelry, coins, pottery, and offerings in the Čale Ḡar mine 1—and while it is also evident that the team had a Bronze Age focus, the lack of attention to the social identities and cultural lifeways of the people who mined the region is a significant oversight, especially in light of the authors’ declaration that this was a primary research question.

The final section, which is also the briefest, is the publication of the archaeometallurgical analysis of the debris from Arismān, specifically the metal ores, metal slag, litharge, and archaeological artifacts (633). The team analyzed 46 ore deposits, each of which is outlined in this publication in terms of site description, geology, mineralogy, evidence for ancient activity, and chemical characterization. Nevertheless, they were not able to clearly identify which of the mines were supplying the site of Arismān, although two sites, Talmessi and Meskāni, were excluded as possible sources for the metallurgical activity in Arismān because of the "exceedingly high arsenic and nickel concentrations" of their ore (643). The team then chemically examined slags from four different areas around Arismān, corresponding to the four zones of excavation, which were noted to reflect different periods of usage. The results of the geochemical and mineralogical investigation, as well as the lead isotope ratios, are mixed, but they suggest that the sources for the metallurgical activity at Arismān shift over time. The authors also survey the evidence for silver extraction at Arismān, which they are able to reconstruct in detail, and which makes for extremely interesting reading for archaeometallurgists. The archaeological debris for silver production suggests that the process was highly organized, especially noteworthy at this early date; the people of Arismān did not do the initial smelting of the argentiferous lead ore themselves, but imported this semiprocessed material to the site and then separated the silver and lead through cupellation. Depressions in hearth linings indicate that several batches of lead were processed at the same time, reflecting the skills and experience of the Arismān smiths. Using lead isotope analysis, the authors suggest that the source of argentiferous lead ore is the site of Naḵlak. The section on the silver extraction at Arismān would make good teaching material for students learning about cupellation, as the writing clearly and illustratively explains a complex process, and the photographs supplement the text well.

Alongside the traditional components of an excavation report, such as the pottery, small finds, and lithic assemblages, this text also includes some new items. The "Review of Post-Excavation Protection Work in Arismān" (400–9) documents in print what excavations usually do in practice but do not record at the end of the season, and this section is one of the strengths of the volume; it can be considered as the counterpart to the conservation report. The authors are forthcoming about what successfully protected the site from one season to the next and what did not. Indeed, they record practices that harmed the site, such as the use of hemp gunny coverings, which attracted termites (the insects proceeded to burrow into the mudbrick walls and consume the organic archaeological remains). While many excavations are limited at the end of the season by time and the materials they have on hand to protect a site, this volume underscores the need to record all archaeological activity in the excavation report, from the opening of trenches to their refilling. Such documentation will form a corpus of best practices, which will certainly be of use to subsequent scholars working in the area and to students learning the fundamentals of archaeology or heading to the site for the first time.

The "Report on the Restoration and Protection of the Archaeological Artifacts from Arismān (Fourth Season, Fall 2004)" (411–20) is also a clearly written statement outlining the remit of the restoration team, supplemented with photographs that document not just the objects at the time at which they are ready for display but also the laboratory and field practices used by the conservators to stabilize or restore artifacts. Overall, these sections are a refreshing reminder that archaeological fieldwork does not begin and end with spades digging in already opened trenches. Moreover, there is a real emphasis that the research on the site of Arismān is a work in progress and that practices were adopted or modified as circumstances on the ground warranted; such an approach makes an excellent model for future excavations in Iran.

There are a number of weaknesses in this publication, which can be generally characterized as an under­development in the interpretations offered about the site, in spite of the text being so data rich. For example, this volume offers more substantive information on what is coming into the site of Arismān, rather than on how Arismān made an impact on the wider region, especially as part of exchange networks. In part, this is a natural outcome of the limited extent of the archaeology of Iran rather than an oversight of the editors; the excavators simply do not have the comparanda from other sites to begin offering substantive theories on how Arismān operated within trade networks. Nevertheless, by not discussing the role that Arismān played in the region and how this role changed through time, there is a danger that readers may interpret the site as being wholly controlled by outside forces, a Bronze Age colonialist model that may not, in fact, be an apt portrait of the site.

There is a similar deficiency in how the archaeologists interpret the occupation of the site. The project successfully constructs the prehistoric environment of the site of Arismān. From floral and faunal analyses, the authors paint a picture of how this environment had an impact on the craft activities at the site, for example, by identifying the wood species used as fuel in the furnaces/kilns and the adoption of asses as pack animals. What is made less clear is the extent to which the whole site is either settled permanently or used seasonally. While the text often mentions the possibility of nomadism or periodic metalworking that took advantage of seasonal winds, the excavators never conclusively settle this issue, and indeed, the text suggests two different standpoints. While the settlement in the late Sialk III period may be one of a number of sites in the region utilized by transhumants for metalworking, proto-Elamite Arismān is presented as much more tightly controlled, suggesting that inhabitation at the site was continuous. Fundamentally, by circumventing the question of how this site was occupied, the archaeologists decline to offer any interpretations about who these people were, which, in turn, prevents any discussion of how social and cultural identity affected the usage of the site.

There are some omissions from the text that will hopefully be rectified in subsequent volumes. The authors do mention further research to be undertaken in the next phase on various occasions, but there is no coherent discussion of what the next phase entails or how the current research questions will be amended. The introduction references an ethnographic component to the fieldwork, but the ethnography is not included in this volume, an opportunity that is truly missed. Archaeometallurgists understand that ethnographies of communities that perform small-scale metallurgy are almost wholly relegated to the early 20th century; our globalized world has simply made metallurgy on the community level an extinct practice. If contemporary peoples are still doing local metalworking in Iran, then this reviewer, for one, would be enthusiastic to learn more. Moreover, future publications about this field project should describe the local reception to the remit of the project, the excavation, and the findings, as the authors mention television specials about the site that appear to have aired only in Germany or Europe, rather than in Iran. In this volume, there are passing references to looting of the site and modern activity in areas of the field survey. How responsive are local Iranians to archaeological research being conducted in their area? What do they know about their history, and how do they interact with their heritage?

For all of its weaknesses, however, this volume is—perhaps surprisingly—modern in its approach. There is no attempt to make up for decades of archaeological undernourishment in the region, and the excavators should be praised for having a clearly defined scope to their project, which must have been difficult not to broaden once on the ground. Moreover, there must have been extreme difficulties at all bureaucratic levels in conducting the fieldwork, but these are handled gracefully within the text, without a hint that the fieldwork was impeded or stalled in any way. Overall, this volume conveys the sincere wish of the excavators to bring together modern archaeological inquiry, perspectives, and fieldwork methods to a marginal area of the world, in hopes that the results would set a new standard for future research in the region.

Katherine Harrell
Catholic University of Leuven
Department of Archaeology
Place B Pascal 1
1348 Leuven


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