You are here

Ancient Iran from the Air

Ancient Iran from the Air

Edited by David Stronach and Ali Mousavi. Pp. 192, figs. 114. Philipp von Zabern, Darmstadt 2012. €39.90. ISBN 978-3-5053-4453-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The employment of remotely sensed imagery for archaeological research, ranging from photographs taken from kites or planes to recent commercial satellite products, has a long history. Just prior to World War I, pioneering Middle Eastern archaeologists began taking advantage of opportunistic flights to explore archaeological landscapes that were otherwise inaccessible on the ground. In addition to providing visual access, scholars quickly recognized the value of viewing landscapes from above as a way to rapidly record and interpret archaeological tell sites and other standing monuments over large geographic areas and to explore the conditions that contribute to the survival and destruction of the features in different regions and under diverse conditions. Through the use of these geospatial data sets, archaeologists focused on regional studies at multiple scales ranging from individual settlements and relict features to regional settlement pattern and landscape studies. Today, a multitude of new satellites, with increasingly higher resolution and producing multispectral images, are widely available, while aerial photographic programs are less common, and their data sets are often difficult to access.

This book, an English translation and revision of the German Irans Erbe: In Flugbildern von Georg Gerster (Mainz 2009), stands as an important reminder of the unique value of historic aerial photographs for archaeological research. Interwoven in the chapters, but never explicitly stated, is the concept that historic aerial photographs both stand apart from and complement recent satellite imagery in several key ways. For example, the data sets presented here were acquired from April 1976 to May 1978, capturing the Iranian landscape prior to recent heavy modification by human activity. The text is highlighted with color photographs of landforms that reveal extensive historic irrigation systems, which have since been completely reworked by modern mechanized technologies, almost entirely erasing their signature on recent satellite images. Second, historic aerial photographs, when compared with more recent satellite images, can be used to trace ongoing changes to archaeological landscapes over time. The photographs in this volume cover many of the same areas and sites photographed by Schmidt and presented in his volume Flights over Iran (Chicago 1940), and they can be used to compare changes over the 30 years between photographs. Third, high-resolution aerial photographs that cover the same areas in several different seasons can provide a unique view of features that are only apparent under certain conditions. A clear example of this is provided by Gerster in the afterword (183) regarding Tall-e Maylan. Finally, with ground access to many countries in the Middle East difficult for archaeologists, aerial photographs and other remote sensing data sets continue to provide valuable visual access. The photographs in this volume extend beyond Schmidt’s previous coverage and into areas that are currently difficult for archaeologists to access.

The book is organized chronologically by archaeological time period, and chapters are authored by a collection of well-known experts in Iranian archaeology. Each chapter is composed of a short historical introduction to contextualize the time period, followed by descriptions of key sites of the period and accompanying high-resolution color photographs. It is a volume that accomplishes the daunting task of integrating artistic and scientific perspectives, making it accessible to both experts and beginning students of Iranian archaeology.

An introductory chapter by Stronach and Mousavi provides a brief history of the tools of aerial photography in Iran and places these photographs in their regional context. The authors succinctly summarize the advantages and limits of aerial photography as a tool for archaeological interpretation. The authors spend much of the chapter discussing the legacy of Schmidt and his aerial flights over Iran in the late 1930s and contextualizing the photographs presented in the volume. Gerster photographed archaeological sites and standing monuments in 111 countries over 40 years, many of which are highlighted in his volume The Past from Above (Los Angeles 2005), and this book presents a subset of 114 unparalleled high-resolution color photographs of archaeological sites and landscapes of Iran.

Wilkinson (ch. 1) describes the physical geography and landscape of Iran, emphasizing the extensive remains of qanats, and gives an up-to-date description of the development and appearance of these features in Iran and beyond. The key strength of this volume is that the photographs enhance the text and provide the reader with stunning illustrations of the cultural and natural landscape. Extensive captions explain the features visible on the photographs. Since the photographs are not labeled, the reader is able to use the captions as a guide for understanding features but is not limited to the text. In other words, the reader is able to explore the photographs beyond the intended emphasis of the text.

Chapters 2–5 make up the bulk of the book and discuss chronological periods and select illustrative archaeological sites. In general, chapter authors make use of the photographs to illustrate not only the historical narrative and the morphology of early sites and their locations but also as means to provide an introduction to basic archaeological methods. For example, in chapter 2, Mousavi and Sumner explain the methodology behind the step-trench visible on the photograph of Tepe Yahyah (pl. 17). Throughout this chapter, the authors provide a discussion of the history of the site and its excavations and describe the features visible on the imagery and their interpretation. Overall, this chapter, perhaps the strongest, clearly illustrates the ways in which aerial photography can contribute to understanding both archaeological sites and landscapes. Chapter 6, by Harverson and Beazley, uses the photographs to demonstrate and interpret the spatial diversity in layout, material, and functions of different buildings and other built features. The book ends with an afterword by Gerster explaining his goals, methods, and perspectives on the tools of aerial photography and the landscapes of Iran.

This book is a fundamental contribution to Middle Eastern aerial photography and presents a useful introductory text to the archaeology of Iran. However, a few minor layout problems detract from the contribution. In several chapters, mismatching between text and photographs mean the reader has to flip back and forth to find the photograph; in one example, a photograph presented was not mentioned in the text (92, pl. 53); and a callout for the editor in the photograph caption was left in the print (68, fig. 3.3). Despite these minor errors, this book was well produced and organized, and the color images are of such high quality that they will surely be used in future research.

Department of Anthropology
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania 16801

Book Review of Ancient Iran from the Air, edited by David Stronach and Ali Mousavi

Reviewed by Carrie Hritz

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Hritz

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.