Campus & Community

First U.S.-led Iran dig in decades

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Unexplored region thought to be critical way station on Silk Road

A team of Harvard archaeologists is hoping to uncover new evidence of settlements along the ancient Silk Road. It will be the first American-led expedition to Iran since the shah was ousted by religious revolutionaries in the late 1970s.
The project aims to explore a region of northeast Iran near the Caspian Sea that Harvard archaeologist C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky believes may have been an important way station on the famed Silk Road, the overland trade route that linked China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Lamberg-Karlovsky, the Stephen Phillips Professor of Archaeology and Ethnology, is familiar with Iran, having worked there from 1967 through 1976. He recently signed an agreement with the Iranian government for a six-year project in the 125-mile-long Atrek River valley, which he believes held a significant urban population between 2500 and 1500 B.C.E.

The Atrek River flows along the border of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. This location close to the border of the Soviet Union kept the area closed throughout the Cold War years. Unfortunately for archaeologists interested in exploring the region, by the time the Soviet Union fell, the Iranian revolution had occurred, closing the country to foreign scientists.

Iran’s view toward foreign archaeologists softened in recent years as reform-minded politicians came to power. The government invited foreign archaeologists to apply to work in the country and joint Iranian-German and Iranian-Australian digs are already under way.

The Harvard project would be a joint effort with Iranian archaeologists. The agreement calls for an initial survey of the Atrek valley this year, probably in the fall, with test digs and other information gathering that would determine where more thorough excavations would take place.