The Plundering of the Past: Its Affect on Iranian Archaeology

Some of the first archaeological expeditions to Iran began in the mid 19th century, when British and French archaeologists investigated the site of Susa in southwestern Iran. Over the following decades, excavations were predominantly conducted by American, British, French, German, and Iranian sponsored expeditions throughout Iran. Many of these early excavations proved successful in uncovering a wealth of artifacts, architecture, and information pertaining to the ancient civilizations of the region. However, because of the unsystematic techniques employed in these early excavations, several sites had to be reexamined using scientific methods (Hout 1965:11). By the late 1930s, archaeology took a back seat, as resources were allocated to the war effort in Europe during World War II. Yet, once political stability was attained, several foreign sponsored excavations continued unabated in Iran until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A year later, as war broke out between Iran and Iraq, archaeological fieldwork became stagnant until the early 1990s. In recent years, the pace of excavations has increased, in addition to the skill and precision of the researchers involved.

The relative success of any archaeological excavation depends heavily on both competency and the ability to acquire adequate financial support. Added to these necessities is the political stability in the region where research is being conducted. During times of armed conflict the role of archaeology is subsequently affected, due to safety concerns for fieldworkers and the difficulty in securing funding and permission to excavate. Like many countries around the world, Iran has been both directly and indirectly affected by war over the past century, which in several instances halted excavations. Consequently, it is typically during these periods of conflict that looting of archaeological sites is most prevalent. Looting of archaeological sites completely destroys the contextual information associated with the artifact and its relationship within the site as a whole. Once these artifacts are carelessly removed, all that is left is an old relic, stripped of its original identity and meaning. One way to combat this illicit practice is through education in the countries of origin that provides training for more archaeologists from that country. Another tactic is to increase internal or external governmental protection of these irreplaceable cultural heritage sites for future generations. Fortunately, in recent years, museum ethics have risen to the challenge of only accepting well-documented artifacts, particularly in response to the illicit trade of antiquities and the destruction of archaeological sites worldwide.

Archaeology in Iran Today

Despite the current political instability in the Middle East, The Iranian Archaeological Service is conducting many archaeological excavations throughout the country. The focus of these excavations ranges from Paleolithic to Islamic era sites. Unfortunately, because of the political tension between several western countries and the current Iranian government, international archaeological collaboration has subsequently decreased. Nevertheless, there is a great necessity for research, which has been spurred by increased looting and site destruction over the past few decades. Cultural preservation in Iran has therefore become an important governmental initiative. In September of 2006, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and the Cultural Heritage News Agency of Iran held a joint conference in Tehran, entitled "Globalization, Conflict and Cultural Heritage: The Role of the Media in Introducing and Protecting Cultural Heritage." This symposium was an effort to provide training in cultural heritage issues and its role in supporting sustainable tourism. Additionally, the conference facilitated a cooperative venture for media representation of cultural heritage in the eleven member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). For recent archaeological excavations and discoveries in Iran, click on the link to The Cultural Heritage News Agency