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Is Jiroft Site in Iran a True Cradle of Civilization?

Is Jiroft Site in Iran a True Cradle of Civilization?

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Archaeologists are preparing to launch  the third major excavation of an important site on the Jiroft plain , in the Halil River valley of southeastern  Iran. The Konar Sandal remains were exposed after flooding in 2001 near Jiroft in Iran. Sheltered by towering, rugged mountains on three sides, this hidden jewel was revealed to be a sprawling  Bronze Age  urban settlement, built by a magnificent kingdom whose existence had been previously excluded from the annals of history. The discovery led some experts to hypothesize that the long-lost Jiroft culture was actually the cradle of civilization, before the emergence of Sumer or Mesopotamia. 

The Konar Sandal site near Jiroft in Iran has revealed the remnants of an ancient culture some experts argue is the true cradle of civilization. (Discover Kerman)

The Konar Sandal site near Jiroft in Iran has revealed the remnants of an ancient culture some experts argue is the true cradle of civilization. ( Discover Kerman )

Discovery of Early Bronze Age Konar Sandal Site near Jiroft

The excavated area in Iran’s Kerman province has been named Konar Sandal. Its central feature is a pair of massive burial mounds separated by a distance of approximately one mile (1.6 kilometers), which have been designated as Konar Sandal A (North) and Konar Sandal B (South). The site is located near Jiroft in southeastern Iran.

Beneath mound A, archaeologists found a stone structure they believe was used for religious purposes. Under mound B, they found the remains of a two-story fortified citadel anchored to a base that covered more than 33 acres (13.5 hectares). At the foot of the mounds, deeper digs have revealed the presence of many smaller buildings, and it is believed that similar structures will eventually be unearthed in the space between the two mounds, and elsewhere in the subterranean surrounding environment.

In addition to the excavated structures, Konar Sandal has also yielded a plenitude of stunningly attractive and finely-crafted artifacts, revealing the existence of a culturally sophisticated people who created and resided in an indisputably advanced society. 

Unlike the first two explorations, which were carried out by international teams, this new excavation will be strictly an Iranian affair, sponsored by the country’s Research Institute of Cultural Heritage and Tourism. “The demarcation project is aimed to determine the legal boundaries of the prehistorical site,” explained Fereidoun Fa’ali, the Kerman provincial tourism chief, who referred to the Konar Sandal site as “one of the most important Bronze Age cities in Southwest Asia.” This is a strong contention. But in fact this assessment may be unduly modest.

Artwork depicting how the Jiroft Ziggurat may have looked. The ancient monument discovered near Jiroft in southeastern Iran, is believed by some experts to be the original cradle of civilization. The excavations there revealed a two-storey citadel covering 33 acres (13.5 hectares). (David Revoy - Blender Foundation / CC BY 3.0)

Artwork depicting how the Jiroft Ziggurat may have looked. The ancient monument discovered near Jiroft in southeastern Iran, is believed by some experts to be the original cradle of civilization. The excavations there revealed a two-storey citadel covering 33 acres (13.5 hectares). (David Revoy - Blender Foundation /  CC BY 3.0 )

Could Jiroft Site Be True Cradle of Civilization?

The first section of the Jiroft plains site (a necropolis) was discovered in 2001. Heavy flooding of the Halil River washed away tons of topsoil that had previously covered it, exposing a complex of ancient tombs no one had ever expected to find. Impressive hauls of Bronze Age jewelry, ceramics, tools, drinking cups, board games, and a variety of decorative items inlayed with semi-precious stones were recovered from the unearthed cemetery. 

Unfortunately, the initial discoverers were looters and antiquities black marketers, who stole and sold many valuable artifacts before law enforcement and the military finally arrived to secure the site. After this initial discovery, the first official excavation at Jiroft began in 2003, under the leadership of Iranian archaeologist Dr. Yousef Majidzadeh. It ended in 2007, and Dr. Majidzadeh published his team’s findings shortly thereafter. 

Based on radiocarbon dating, the archaeologists concluded that the Jiroft civilization that built the integrated urban complex had reached the peak of its power and prosperity around the year 2500 BC. However, signs indicated that initial construction on the complex may have begun as long ago as the fifth millennium BC. 

“The region of Jiroft… was a major occupation of urban character in the region during the third millennium B.C.,” Dr. Majidzadeh stated. “Its center was in the valley of the Halil River where large sites with monumental architecture, sizable craft production areas, domestic quarters, and extensive extramural cemeteries dominated the landscape.” 

During this excavation, and during another that was launched in 2014, archaeologists continued to find many valuable and intriguing artifacts inside the mounds and beneath the surrounding landscape. Most notably, they also found four tablets inscribed in two different  languages, one of which was composed entirely of geometrical figures and could not be compared to anything that had been found before. 

During past excavations at Konar Sandal, near Jiroft, archaeologists have found artifacts with remains of ancient inscriptions thought to be vestiges of previously unknown languages. (Uuyyyy / CC BY-SA 3.0)

During past excavations at Konar Sandal, near Jiroft, archaeologists have found artifacts with remains of ancient inscriptions thought to be vestiges of previously unknown languages. (Uuyyyy /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

So just how significant was the discovery of this long-lost, literate kingdom in a bleak, desolate area of Iranian desert? Significant enough to throw the identification of  Mesopotamia as the  cradle of civilization  into question, according to some sources. Jean Perrot, a French archaeologist with previous excavation experience in  Iran, was invited to inspect the site and its contents during the earliest stages of the first excavation. When asked to share his impressions, he stated the following:

“An area we formerly regarded as resided only by nomads and their cattle, was the heart of an incredibly advanced civilization. In this area, people lived with a social hierarchy. These people had an explicit view of the world which distinguishes them from the Sumerians. Henceforth, we must consider Jiroft as the origin of civilizations and refer to all other civilizations as pre or post-Jiroft civilization.”

There may be a bit of hyperbole in this statement, since  Sumerian civilization  can be traced back at least as far if not farther than the Jiroft civilization (to the fifth and sixth millenniums BC). But given that  Mesopotamia and southern  Iranare separated by only 600 miles (1,000 kilometers), there exists the possibility that the Jiroft civilization shared a common ancestor with the  Sumerians, and that perhaps the two split following the chaos, confusion, and destruction caused by the great floods that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. 

At the very least, it is reasonable to assume that the peoples of Mesopotamia would have interacted with their Jiroftian neighbors to the east, perhaps to a significant enough extent that each culture was influencing the development of the other. In fact, many of the artifacts discovered at Konar Sandal are decorated with mythological imagery that seems to link its culture with that of Mesopotamia. 

The Jiroft civilization specialized in the creation of pottery using a semiprecious mineral known as chlorite, and  examples of this pottery  containing strikingly similar iconography have been found at various archaeological sites throughout the Middle East and Asia, including sites identified with Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

The Jiroft Civilization: Sharing the Stage of History

Different interpretations of  the exact identity of the lost Jiroft civilization  have been offered. Dr. Majidzadeh believes that he and his colleagues may have discovered the site of the legendary land of  Aratta, a glorious Atlantis-like kingdom from the Bronze Age that mysteriously disappeared from the pages of history in the far distant past.

However, knowledge of  Aratta comes primarily from Sumerian poems, which has led some to question whether such a place ever existed at all. An alternative theory suggests that the newly discovered  Iranian civilization  may be the ancient kingdom of Marhasi, which was located in southern  Iran and is known to have been involved in conflicts with the Mesopotamian kingdom of Akkad in the third millennium BC.

A final answer to the riddle of the  Jiroft civilization  may never be found. But the fact that it existed at all is forcing archaeologists and historians to reassess everything they thought they knew about the primacy and importance of  Mesopotamia to world history. Mesopotamia has not been diminished, but going forward it may have to share the title “ cradle of civilization ” with its cousin from the east.  

Top image: Aerial image of the Konar Sandal archaeological site south of Jiroft city, thought to be the remains of a long-lost Jiroft culture. Source:  Destination Iran

By Nathan Falde

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