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Persepolis West (Fars, Iran): Report on the Field Work Carried Out by the Iranian-Italian Joint Archaeological Mission in 2008–2009

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Persepolis West (Fars, Iran): Report on the Field Work Carried Out by the Iranian-Italian Joint Archaeological Mission in 2008–2009

By Alireza Askari Chaverdi and Pierfrancesco Callieri (BAR-IS 2870). Pp. 310. British Archaeological Reports, Oxford 2017. £56. ISBN 9781407316086 (paper). 

Reviewed by

Archaeological fieldwork in Fars, the homeland of the Achaemenids, has considerably intensified since 1999, when the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization invited a French mission (led by Rémy Boucharlat) to carry out a series of geomagnetic surveys. By the fall of 2003, the French team had moved to the region of Persepolis with the aim of studying the plain of Marvdasht near the Persepolis terrace. The project was interrupted in 2009 due to political circumstances, and an Iranian-Italian team led by the principal authors of the present book took over the entire archaeological exploration of the area.

The research published in this report rightly considers the Persepolis site as a city, as did ancient Greeks and classical authors. Persepolis was the symbolic capital of the Persian Empire. Greek authors such as Diodorus of Sicily in the first century B.C.E. refer to the site as a fortified city with three walls, and European travelers during the Age of Enlightenment mention the scattered, visible ruins in the vicinity of the stone terrace. In 1893, Herbert Weld carried out the first survey of those structures in the plain along the western foot of the terrace. His plans and reconstruction sketches, though schematic and conjectural, represent the first documentation of the architectural complexes of the plain adjacent to the terrace. Ernst Herzfeld and Erich Schmidt, the two pioneer excavators of the site in the 20th century, concentrated their efforts essentially on excavation of structures on the terrace, though they were well aware of the existence of other ruins. Later work by Ali Sami in the 1950s revealed fragments of structures, including a long mudbrick wall that might have been the city’s second wall as mentioned by Diodorus (A. Sami, Gozāreshhāy-e Bāstānshenāsi [Tehran 1951] 2:57). It was in 1968 that the city’s ruins received the full attention of archaeologists in the context of Ali Tadjvidi’s overarching research plan for Achaemenid sites in the plain of Marvdasht (Danestanihay-e novin darbārey-e honar va bāstānshenāsiy-e asr-e hakhāmaneshi bar bonyād-e kavoshhāy-e panjsāley-e Takht-e Jamshid [Tehran 1976] 6–38). Both Sami's and Tadjvidi's studies have, surprisingly, been dismissed in the present book. In fact, the motivation behind the geomagnetic surveys and excavations was William Sumner’s work in the Marvdasht plain in the 1970s, which noted a group of low mounds west of the Persepolis terrace with a high concentration of archaeological materials. The authors follow Sumner and compare the site with “ordinary Near Eastern town sites” (1). The authors follow Sumner and compare the site with “ordinary Near Eastern town sites,” describing Persepolis West as “a single mound or dense cluster of contiguous mounds” (1). On the contrary, however, the whole area is too disturbed to be considered a single site. Persepolis West, a vast area of hundreds of hectares, consists of a series of scattered monumental structures, as shown by the presence of palatial buildings and their adjacent structures, such as the columned hall at Bagh-e Firuzi, the so-called Fratadara Temple, and the recently discovered gate at Tol-e Ajori.

Persepolis West is a detailed report of two seasons of fieldwork in 2008–2009 conducted in areas west and northwest of the terrace of Persepolis. The report includes four main chapters: results of geophysical surveys (4–10); excavations of five areas (marked A to E, 26–106); study of excavated finds (107–273); and results of radiometric readings (274–85).

As presented in chapter 1, geomagnetic surveys investigated a total of 50 hectares over 23 areas. The surveys revealed at least two groups of major structures. The plan of a large building, possibly of Achaemenid date but still in use in post-Achaemenid times, was revealed north of the Fratadara Temple complex. The other major structure was Tol-e Ajori, which is not mentioned in the present book and not yet fully published. Due to the presence of modern metal and other disturbances in the soil, geomagnetic surveys were less successful on the east side of the asphalt road at the foot of the Persepolis terrace and south of the Persepolis-Marvdasht road.

Chapter 2 opens with an introduction by the main authors discussing the excavation strategy and method, which mainly consists of following the results of the geomagnetic surveys. The area to the west of the terrace of Persepolis has undergone phases of destruction and change following the fall of the Achaemenids. Agricultural activities in the plain have been dense, and the collected materials from topsoil mostly come from repeated leveling and plowing, a fact that is also indicated in the geomagnetic results. In contrast to relatively clear maps presented with the geomagnetic surveys, the chapter on archaeological excavations lacks a general map of the excavated areas. The total number of trenches dug at the site is not given, but it seems that the excavators decided to probe some 11 trenches of generally 5 x 5 m size (27). Two principal areas were selected: Area A, west of the Persepolis parking lot, “where the geomagnetic surveys had shown the existence of considerable anomalies” (26), and Area B, 500 m west of Area A, where “pits excavated for agricultural needs” showed the presence of “several superimposed archaeological layers with ceramics, charcoal, and other materials” (26). The individual trench reports include a stratigraphic matrix with sections and top plans accompanied by color photographs. Most of the reports are clear, except for those that rely on the results of geomagnetic surveys. For example, the authors state the excavation of Trench 3 was based on the geophysical survey that “had evidenced that here one of the long and regular anomalies detected meet, in its southeastern limit, a canal” (37), but they do not include an image of the geophysical survey in their report. Another unclear element is the stratigraphic tables showing types of deposits and chronological periods: here destruction or abandonment layers (as far as I can understand) are named “accumulation layers,” some of which are preceded by what is called “negative interface” (e.g., 39). One of the most interesting finds in Area B was the excavation of a kiln and a series of industrial remains of possible Achaemenid date (48–67), in which “a series of pits discovered in the nearby Trench Tr. 6 contain many bone fragments, . . . [a] main ingredient for the production of fluorapatite, a substance used for whitening the greyish limestone surface of the monuments of Persepolis Terrace” (52). The authors suggest that a belt of gardens more than a kilometer wide lay in the eastern sector of Area B where geomagnetic surveys were unsuccessful in tracing any built-up areas. The report would have been more complete and of greater interest if it had included more illustrations showing the combustion chamber and bones in situ. 

Chapter 3 is a quantitative study of excavated ceramics and their physical features, including seriation charts and drawings. The reports are extremely useful for further studies of Achaemenid pottery, but the authors’ meticulous discussion of ceramic finds would have been enriched had they made use of Atayee’s major contribution, albeit unpublished, to the study of Achaemenid pottery from Persepolis (Moarrefi sofāl-e hakhāmaneshi-ye howzehe-ye Fārs [Ph.D. diss., Tarbiyat Modares University, Tehran 2004]). A full inventory of other finds such as objects in stone, metal, terracotta, glass, and bones, as well as a few coins follow the study of ceramics. Radiocarbon dating of samples is published in chapter 4. The book ends with a useful summary of the excavation results by the main authors (286–88).

Persepolis West is a technical report addressing some key issues concerning the archaeology of Fars in the Achaemenid period. Regardless of its shortcomings and sometimes idiosyncratic text, this is an indispensable source of information for further fieldwork in the region.

Ali Mousavi
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures
University of California, Los Angeles


Book Review of Persepolis West (Fars, Iran): Report on the Field Work Carried Out by the Iranian-Italian Joint Archaeological Mission in 2008–2009, by Alireza Askari Chaverdi and Pierfrancesco Callieri

Reviewed by Ali Mousavi

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.mousavi

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