The Bronze artefact deposits from the Iron Age site of Sangtarashan (Luristan, Iran)
The study of the Iron Age site of Sangtarashan (end of the IInd millennium – first half of the 1st millennium BCE) was the focus of my PhD thesis entitled “The Luristan Culture During the Iron Age, Case Study of Sangtarashan” which I submitted in January 2018. I was an excavation team member at this exceptional site. The field directors, M. Malekzadeh and A. Hasanpour generously provided me access to archaeological data and objects today stored in the Falakolaflak Museum (Khorramabad).
It was clear right from the first archaeological investigations that the site had exceptional characteristics, such as several packages of metallic objects, mostly weapons and vessels related to some architectural structures, which manifest clearly not a funerary context. Such a metallic objects are known from 1930 as “Bronzes of Luristan”. The function and meaning of these well-known objects are still an enigma. The particular context of these finds at Sangtarashan led me to focus my PhD research on this fascinating group of objects. While the investigations carried out at this site in conjunction with my research brought new insights into Luristan’s culture during the Iron Age, there are aspects such as technology and functionality of metallic objects, still in need of further research.
The Bronzes of Luristan are well-known artefacts as a result of their appearance in the world art market, which became popular during the 1930s. The majority of the objects originate from illicit excavations and belong today to numerous museums or private collections. However, the Holmes expedition to Luristan in 1938 (Schmidt, Van Loon, Curvers 1989) and the Belgian Archaeological Mission in Iran from 1968 till 1979 (BAMI) are two major scientific programs that have brought to light thousands of these objects in their archaeological contexts. Belgian excavations reports are almost completely published in eight volumes of Acta Iranica (Haerinck & Overlaet 1998 – 2010). All Bronzes of Luristan from these excavations came from funeral contexts. Sorkhdom-i Lori, excavated by the Holmes expedition, was until recently the only site in Luristan where these types of objects were uncovered in a non-funeral, and likely a ritual context. Unfortunately a more detailed investigation was hampered due to the short excavation season. In light of the research history of Bronzes of Luristan, Sangtarashan is a highly promising site where, for the first time, these objects were found in a non-funeral context in the course of a modern, long-term excavation project.
Sangtarashan (48/33/748E and 33/14/55N) is an archaeological site located in the heart of the Zagros Mountains, in the southern part of Pish Kuh (part of cultural Luristan, un area covering actual Luristan province as well as southern parts of Kermanshah and Hamedan province) in the Luristan province in western Iran (Fig. 1-2). It was discovered accidentally in 2002 during the restoration of water pipes in the region. The excavation extended over six campaigns, between 2004 and 2011, supported by the Iranian Culture, Heritage and Handicrafts Organization (ICHTO) and directed by Mehrdad Malekzadeh and his assistant Ata Hasanpour.
These archaeological excavations led to the discovery of several architectural structures in which more than two thousand different objects have been uncovered, including weapons, vessels, jewellery, figurines and cylinder seals, all made of various materials like bronze, iron, stone, terracotta, bone and ivory. Some of them were found as assemblages of several objects (Fig. 3), while others were found isolated among the stone or scattered over the entire surface of the site. Several hundred objects known today as the Bronzes of Luristan related to the Iron Age (end of the IInd millennium – first half of the 1st millennium BCE) (Haerinck, Overlaet 2004) are among theses objects.
Architectural and artefact distribution analysis
The study of the architecture as well as the spatial distribution of the objects led us to suggest that Sangtarashan was probably a ritual site with two consecutive phases, during which the deposition of objects was performed according to religious beliefs.
During the phase 1 (oldest phase) (Fig. 3), some poorly preserved architectural structures made of stone were found (inner structures). These were surrounded by a large circular stone structure with a diameter of 55m. In the northern part of the site, the architectural remains were preserved up to a height of 1 meter, while in the south only the lower course of the wall was found. In the east no remains of the wall of could be observed. Sixteen assemblages of metal objects, consisting of two to thirty items each, were deposited in the northern part of the site, in a space between the inner structures and the circular structure (Fig. 3). These assemblages of objects included exclusively weapons and vessels (Malekzadeh, Hasanpour, Hashemi 2017: Pl. 5-35). The only exception is a unique bronze standard (particular object with a hollow socket or open ring tube decorated generally by confronting animals or master of animal figures. It supposed to be fixed on a support. The function of this type of object is still unknown) at the center of the largest assemblage of objects (Fig. 4). Twelve assemblages were found in a reddish soil layer and seem were deposited under ground of the floor of this space; while two of them were discovered in a dark brown layer, on the top of last layer and seemingly exposed on the floor of this space. The latter two assemblages were strongly damaged because of the collapse of the northern part of the circular structure (Malekzadeh, Hasanpour, Hashemi 2017: Pl. 30-31). We suspect that during this phase, the votive deposits, as packages of objects, offered by a person, a family or a tribe, were exposed in this special space for some time before being buried at the same area.
During the phase 2 (earliest phase), we see significant changes (Fig. 5): several other structures were erected and straddled older structures. Contrary to the first phase, the new structures seem to be rectangular: The central structure was oriented NE-SW and was surrounded by another, probably also rectangular, outer wall. A pebbles surface seems to cover the space between these two architectural units. The practice of deposit appears to have changed between the first and the second phase. In the younger phase more isolated objects, smaller in size and more varied in nature were buried. Figurines, jewellery and tools were added to weapons and vessels (Malekzadeh, Hasanpour, Hashemi 2018: Fig. 4).
Concerning this second phase, we cannot ignore that the scattered objects can also be because of farming activities, which could disturb the site. The other hypothesis for this latest phase is a non-ritual (settlement or annex of a sanctuary) function considering the presence of pottery and the extension of architectural structures towards the west. We await future archaeological excavations to confirm the function of the site for this second phase.
In its present state, the dating of the site is mainly based on typo-chronologies. The typo-chronological studies of objects allowed us to date the occupation period of the first phase to the Iron Age I- II (c. 1300/1250-800/750 BCE) and that of the second phase to the Iron Age II-III (c. 1000-600 BCE).
Concerning the first phase, the presence of some characteristic daggers, spiked axes, whetstones as well as special forms of metal vases in the assemblages (Malekzadeh, Hasanpour, Hashemi 2018: Fig. 3) could be compared to Posht Kuh (part of cultural Luristan located at the west of the Pish Kuh, covering actual Ilam province) graveyard’s materials from Belgian excavations.
Based on Overlaet’s typo-chronology (Overlaet 2003: 184), we can date the first occupation phase to the Iron Age-I-II. The chronology of all objects, which belong to this phase, matches with previous chronological studies.
Concerning the second phase, the situation is more complicated. Compared to the Posht Kuh graveyard materials of BAMI, the majority of objects can be dated to the Iron Age II-III (Malekzadeh Hasanpour, Hashemi 2018: Fig. 4). However, some rare objects such as a cylinder seal can clearly be dated to the Bronze Age (end of IIIrd millennium BCE).
Concerning this Bronze Age cylindrical seal, the dedication of antique objects in a ritual place is not surprising. But we have also several Iron Age objects of the second phase, which shows some chronological differences with the materials from Posht Kuh. For instance, the presence of bronze spiked axe heads, whetstone sockets and standards with confronting animals figures, as well as a large quantity of bronze arrowheads dated to the Iron Age I-II and supposedly mainly absent during the Iron Age III (Overlaet 2003: 184) are found here in the same layer as materials characteristic of the Iron Age III period, such as iron arrowheads and tools.
Three hypotheses can be established regarding theses differences:
- Compared to Posht Kuh (where BAMI excavated several graveyards), some kinds of objects of Iron Age appear slightly earlier in Pish Kuh (where Sangtarashan is located).
- Or, the dating of the concerned objects at the sites of Posht Kuh needs to be revisited
- Or, differences in the objects and materials may be a result of differing find contexts (presumably a ritual context at Sangtarashan, versus a funeral context at Posht-Kuh).
In addition to theses comparative typo-chronological studies, Sangtarashan objects also allowed us to propose dates for objects that until recently originated exclusively from illicit excavations. For example, a particular type of axe, known as halberd, had never been discovered before in an archaeological context in Luristan, and can now be dated to the Iron Age I-II because of the study carried out on the Sangtarashan’s 1st phase’s object assemblages.
After Nush-I Jan and Sorkhdom-i Lori, the site of Sangtarashan is now only the third known Iron Age ritual place in the central Zagros region. Each of these sites presents particular architectural characteristics. Nusi Jan, located near Malayer in Hamedan province, is a fortified site which houses a cruciform mudbrick building suggested to be a temple (Stronach 1977). Sorkhdom-i Lori the other site, located in Kuhdasht plain, in Luristan province is an irregular stone architecture building consists of several rectangular rooms arranged around a central room containing an altar. Near two thousand objects including numerous Bronzes of Luristan are found buried under the floor and also in the masonry of this building assumed to be votive deposits (Schmidt, Curvers, van Loon 1989).
Sangtarashan’s architecture presents different characteristics. Even if irregular stone architecture is already known in the region, such a large circular structure with a diameter of 55 m had never been excavated before in this region.
Concerning votive deposits, Sangtarashan present the similarity with Sorkhdom-i Lori and these two sites are the only archaeological sites in Luristan attesting to the custom of votive deposits of objects associated with architectural structures.
In addition to special architectural characteristics, especially noteworthy in this rich collection of objects is the high percentage of Luristan Bronzes. While the majority of the examples known today originate from illicit excavations or cemetery contexts (Belgian excavation in Posht Kuh), Sangtarashan is among the rare sites where Luristan Bronzes are found in a non-funeral archaeological context.
Furthermore the detailed analysis of more than two thousand objects issued from stratified contexts during the archaeological investigation at Sangtarashan allowed us to review their typo-chronological study based until recently almost exclusively on funeral excavation materials. By comparison with other sites, questions of differences or homogeneity between two geographic regions (Posht Kuh and Pish Kuh) as well as funeral and non-funeral contexts have been addressed. Although some other questions such as functionality of these objects need to be studied in greater detail.
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Malekzadeh M., Hasanpour A., Hashemi Z. 2017. Fouilles (2005-2006) à Sangtarashan, Luristan, Iran, Iranica Antiqua 52, 61-158.
Malekzadeh M., Hasanpour A., Hashemi Z. 2018. Bronzes of Luristan in a Non-funerary Context: Sangtarashan, an Iron Age Site in Luristan (Iran), Proceedings 10th ICAANE, Vienna (sous press).
Schmidt E. F., Van Loon M. N., Curvers H. H. 1989. The Holmes Expeditions to the Luristan, Chicago, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Stronach D. 1977. La découverte du premier temple mède dans la région d’Ecbatane (Hamadan, Iran), Paris, Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 4, 688-700.
Zahra Hashemi est Docteur en archéologie orientale, Spécialiste de l’archéologie iranienne, chercheuse associée à l’équipe VEPMO (Du Village à l’Etat au Proche et Moyen Orient), laboratoire UMR 7041, ArScAn, Maison de l’Archéologie et de l’Ethnologie.