Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Underwater Archeology in Iran

March 12, 2008

As evidenced by archeological documents, the ancient city of Kish, the wall of the ancient city of Gorgan, Takht-e Suleiman and part of the Portuguese Castle are submerged in Iran's coastal waters. Although Iran's underwater archeological activities are over half a century old, this topic is yet to be treated in a suitable manner.

Two centuries have passed and archeology has yet to achieve its rightful position in Iran. This science needs full revision, as Iran has special importance in human civilization and its role in establishing other cultures inspired by its civilization is undisputed. For this reason, Iran Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO) is not able to take charge of many historical grounds. Dissemination of information is so poor that many in our society still consider archaeologists as treasure hunters! On the other hand, Iranian archaeologists are deprived of the most elementary facilities, with credits being allocated to field activities being grossly disproportionate with the vast expanse of historical sites, cited 'Iran International Magazine'.

Information obtained during 28 years of explorations has not yet been published and it seems they are going to become as ancient as the archeological relics themselves! Also, the wide gap between academic archeological centers and the executive bodies has damaged educational fundaments and prevented archeology from being divided into specialist subgroups. Therefore, after five decades of underwater archeological activities, Iran Cultural Heritage Organization has only recently decided to form such subgroups. These so called "subgroups" often have so few members that it brings into doubt whether they could be called a group at all. But all problems aside, the following is the result of a research on underwater archeology in Iran.

The necessity of establishing an underwater archeological group has been always felt due to Iran's long marine borders and presence of a powerful navy during various periods of Iran's history, especially during the rule of Achaemenids. Therefore, ICHO established an underwater archeology group in 1999 in line with conventions for preserving underwater cultural heritage as a research and field group supervised by the Archeology Research Institute.

The group has so far carried out three independent expeditions off the coasts of Siraf Port, Kish and Lahijan, but information about the results of their studies is largely lacking or scanty. Although 50 years have passed since initiation of underwater archeological activities, this topic has not been treated seriously in our country, so that although the above group was established four years ago, it only has three archaeologists as members. This trend can also affect underwater cultural heritage due to widespread destruction of underwater relics at national and transnational levels and this must sound the alarm for the concerned officials.

Results of Underwater Explorations

Dispatching an underwater archeology group to Siraf port in Bushehr province was a turning point in archeological studies. Another group of archaeologists were sent to Takab in 2002 to find answers to ambiguities with regard to submerged relics in Takht-e Suleiman Lake located 45 kilometers from the city, had obtained valuable information.

Identifying canals and outlets of the lake, discovering relics from Ilkhanid period at southwestern corner of the lake and observing small animals and plants grown at shallow waters were the most important achievements of the explorations.

A member of underwater archeological group said other results of the study were identifying outlets of the lake at the depths of 5 and 15 meters considering sediments formed on the outlets. Therefore, initiation of the new phase of archeological activities in Bushehr port will undoubtedly reveal valuable information about the historical Siraf port.

Underwater Archeology in Iran, Strategies and Challenges

Despite having potential grounds, vast seas, numerous islands and a long history of sailing in Iranian waters (the first documents on marine navigations were obtained in Choghamish). Iranian officials have not been able to establish a qualified group in the field. Therefore, the seas that were once a passageway for Achaemenid and Ashkani ships conducting trade or putting down invaders have been left unstudied. Historical sources, especially Western historians, have written a lot about the might of the Iranian navy under Darius, but it is not clear why our officials ignore the importance of strategic studies in this regard.

Even Arab countries spend a lot to prove their past civilization's identity, while our officials do nothing and are waiting for another part of our historical documents to be destroyed under waters. For years, the Foreign Ministry has been haggling with neighboring countries about the three Iranian islands, while those countries were satellites of Iran until several years ago and studies related to past civilizations around the Persian Gulf can refute their claims. But instead of accepting the reality, we are trying to make excuses, because basically we never think about the acme of our culture and civilization let alone recapturing those summits.

Rich in Marine Sites

Historical and artistic richness of archeological sites, especially historical coasts are such that according to available reports, historical objects have been washed ashore along Bushehr coasts during the ebb of the sea. For this reason, a 15-day study in this port city was launched in February 2002 and found historical pieces of pottery and a millstone along Bushehr coasts.

With regard to his activities, Mir-Eskandari said that "when we started our research in Bandar Rig, at the beginning of 2003 we noticed that nets cast into the sea by local residents hit pottery pieces. Our group was dispatched to the region. The region is about 10 hectares and we found a helmet, a suit of armor and pieces of pottery after exploring a small part of the region. Therefore, given the area of the region, we hope to resume our studies in summer. During our sessions about underwater archeology, we reached the conclusion that our finances were minimal and we were even risking our necks, but we started studies after passing theoretical and practical diving courses."

With regard to method of study or access to archeological sites, he added, "We refer to our texts in this regard. For example, we know that many ships sank during the Achaemenid period or that the city found in Egypt belongs to a historical period. In fact, underwater archeology must be based on studies and it cannot be done out of the blue. We went to found objects related to the Islamic era in Bandar Rig and we didn't think that we would find anything more ancient, like pottery used for carrying drinks, which belonged to Mesopotamia."

Referring to the fact that UNESCO is setting regulations for underwater archeology, Mir-Eskandari noted that the world body has drawn up sanctuaries and marine borders as well as laws related to discovered relics. The current year has been called the Year of Underwater Archeology by ICOMOS and UNESCO is trying to mark this occasion in Iran.

The prospects of marine archeology have a bright outlook, but organizational measures inside the country are few and two or three people cannot accomplish much. At present, limitations and factionism has weakened our efforts and we have to sign contracts with people outside the organization. The so-called societies favoring cultural heritage mainly pursue their own interests or cooperate with smugglers!

Underwater Heritage Endangered

Just at the time that our grandfathers were asleep or pretended to be asleep, the most precious of Iran�s artistic property was being amassed at large European museums. It is a bitter reality that a lot of cultural works of our country have been smuggled out, but there are no documented reports available. It should suffice to note that most large museums have a special section on Iran. Although no authentic reports have been presented on smuggling of underwater heritage, but the mere thought of those treasures is enough to tempt the cultural heritage mafia and guide them toward the Iranian waters. Intact areas can only be encroached upon through a collusion of power, economy and immunity from prosecution. An example was four years ago when a ship belonging to the Qajar period was taken out of waters in Lahijan, Gilan province, only to reveal that no historical relics remained inside.

Regret will not change anything and historical relics that have been there for centuries are being plundered due to our negligence. Therefore, it is necessary for Iran Cultural Heritage Organization to prepare documents for underwater historical sites and study them.

Necessity of Reviewing Programs

As evidenced by archeological documents, the ancient city of Kish, the wall of the ancient city of Gorgan, Takht-e Suleiman and part of Portuguese Castle are submerged. The ICHO has put studying Gorgan wall on its agenda for the current year, but nothing has been mentioned about inaugurating a marine museum or programs for repairing submarine cultural heritage. Whether the organization would be able to save this heritage by drawing up appropriate plans would be clarified in the course of time. But its officials should know that every leaf which is taken off this ancient book could not be repaired and they would be held responsible for the performance of the organization currently run by them.


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