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Ruins of Shahr-i Sokhta, the “Burnt City,” in Iran.

Shahr-i Sokhta, Mysteries of the Burnt City of Iran

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Located near Zabol in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, the ancient site of Shahr-i Sokhta (“Burnt City”) is one of the largest and richest Bronze Age sites in Iran and the Middle East. It is believed by some to have been the capital of an ancient civilization that flourished on the banks of the Helmand River around 3,200 BC.

However, the latest excavations have provided a different story. Carbon 14 dating of charcoal collected from kilns and hearths at the site now suggest that Shahr-i Sokhta is about three to four centuries older than previously believed.

The History of the Burnt City

Shahr-i Sokhta is also known as the Burnt City and “Pompeii of the East.” Spanning approximately 200 hectares, archaeological literature has linked it with the legendary city of Aratta – “where the sun rises” according to Mesopotamian texts. Aratta appears in Sumerian poems such as 'Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta', 'Enmerkar and Ensuhkeshdanna', 'Lugalbanda and the bird Anzu', and in the famous Gilgamesh epic. It was said to be a “far away place” that was “difficult to reach” and immensely rich. Gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and other luxurious materials were prevalent. Allegedly it had a temple entirely built out of lapis lazuli in honor of the goddess Inanna.

Ruins of Shahr-i Sokhta in Iran. ( sghiaseddin /Adobe Stock)

Archaeologists have found that Shahr-i Sokhta was in fact a trade center for merchants from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Central Asia. It represents the emergence of the first complex societies in eastern Iran. Shahr-I Sokhta was burnt down three times and not rebuilt after the last fire in around 1800 BC. Despite the numerous excavations and studies carried out at the site, the reasons for the unexpected rise and fall of the Burnt City still remain a mystery.

Mysterious Graves at Shahr-i Sokhta

In the last 40 years, archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,200 graves, some of which have revealed amazing finds, such as the well-preserved remains of a woman in her late 20s who died between 2900 and 2800 BC. She was buried with an ornate bronze mirror and what researchers believe is an artificial eyeball made of bitumen paste and gold that was once held in place with fine thread. Microscopic examination showed that the artificial eyeball left an imprint in her eye socket, a sign that it was there for a long period of time before her death.

Remains of a woman found in the Burnt City with what is believed to be an artificial eye. (Credit: The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies )

More mysterious graves were discovered by researchers in 2014, including the remains of a middle-aged man in the center of a circle-shaped grave with the skulls of two dogs placed above his head. In addition, 12 human skulls were located on the north side of the grave.

Due to the structure of the grave, and the fact that no other similar burials have been found like it, Team Director Seyyed Mansur Sajjadi believes the grave belongs to the people who migrated from Central Asia to the Iranian Plateau. “This kind of burial indicates strong relations between the people of the region and Central Asia,” he said.

Cemetery at Shahr-i Sokhta. ( sghiaseddin /Adobe Stock)

Another unique burial contained the remains of a young man whose head was separated from his body and placed at his lower right side, along with two daggers. The archaeologists surmise that the man was beheaded with the cutting tools. Finally, a grave was found to contain six skulls with a large number of long human bones. Reflecting on these burials, Sajjadi pondered:

“All these burials raise a number of questions: Why were the men buried in such styles during the third millennium? Were the men buried in these styles by accident or on purpose? Were the men buried in such ways to save ground in the graveyard? Or are there other reasons behind these burial styles and we are unaware of them?”

Other Major Finds at the Pompeii of the East

Thousands of artifacts have been discovered among the ruins of the Pompeii of the East in the course of 23 seasons of archaeological excavations by Mansur Sajjadi's Iranian mission and the new project by Enrico Ascalone.

Archaeology News Network reports that the most recent excavations have also revealed that the site was inhabited by various tribal groups, who “coexisted in a state of social equilibrium without dominating one another in a regime of economic balance likely dictated by the prosperity that the centre must have enjoyed during the first half of the 3rd millennium BC.” Evidence for a non-hierarchical and diverse society appears in the lack of defensive walls and the uniformity of tomb types.

Over the years, researchers have also discovered more about the ancient houses. They were rectangular and measured up to two meters (6.56 feet) tall. People decorated their homes, specifically doors, with geometric motifs. The same designs have also been found on pottery and seal stones.

Bronze Age ceramic beaker from Shahr-i Sokhta, Iran. ( Jerónimo Roure Pérez/ CC BY SA-4.0 )

Finally, another fascinating set of artifacts at Shahr-i Sokhta is the collection of hundreds of clay ‘proto-tablets.’ Experts believe the “numerical annotations with lines and dots” were used in accounting systems to serve individual families as they calculated and managed any surpluses they produced.

All of these finds have led to Shahr-i Sokhta being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is hoped that further research will continue to shed light on the life and customs of the inhabitants of this ancient city.

Top Image: Ruins of Shahr-i Sokhta, the “Burnt City,” in Iran. Source: Ahmad.abbasi.m/ CC BY SA 4.0

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on April 7, 2021.

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