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Ziggurat--or Not?

18 May 2004 (All day)
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Mound of evidence. This site near the Iranian city of Jiroft recently yielded the impression of a seal engraved with images of a hero and a god.

BERLIN--The third millennium B.C.E. is known for the rise of complex cultures that produced the pyramids in Egypt, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, and the large cities of the Indus River valley. At a meeting here last month, archaeologists presented evidence for another sophisticated civilization at this time, from an obscure valley in southeastern Iran. The finds--including a massive stepped structure, signs of contact with distant societies, and possible examples of writing--are sparking both excitement and controversy among archaeologists.

The site near the Iranian city of Jiroft came to the attention of researchers only in the past 4 years, after looters stripped ancient cemeteries and hundreds of carved stone vessels began to appear on the art market (Science, 7 November 2003, p. 973). Excavations began in January, when an Iranian team led by archaeologist Yousef Majidzadeh, a former professor at the University of Tehran who now lives in France, dug into two large mounds not far from the devastated graveyards.

One mound was a huge mud-brick platform extending 400 meters by 400 meters, with a second level of 250 meters by 250 meters and evidence of a third story, says Majidzadeh. The structure resembles the famous stepped ziggurats used as temples more than 1000 kilometers away in Mesopotamia. "If it's a ziggurat, then it's the largest ever known ... and the earliest," he says, estimating the date at around 2300 B.C.E.

Archaeologists also found a wealth of seals and seal impressions on clay at a second mound that likely served as an administrative center. Seals were typically used as signatures by businessmen and scribes. The variety, says co-presenter Holly Pittman of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, shows extensive contact with a host of other civilizations. Most intriguing, however, are two small shards which could be inscriptions. "They are so fragmentary, they just offer hints," she says.

Majidzadeh has made claims in the Iranian press that Jiroft predates Mesopotamian civilization, and he's expressed confidence that the two fragments are indeed written inscriptions. Some scholars worry that such overreaching could damage the credibility of the digs. "There are some rather extravagant allegations," says Harvard University's Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky. Majidzadeh hopes to nail down the age by finding undisturbed material for radiocarbon dating.

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