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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

Gorgan Wall Project

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


In contrast to its Roman and Byzantine neighbours to the west, the Sasanian empire has been little studied archaeologically. For example until recently, virtually all we knew about the Sasanian army depended on passages in later sources, testimonies of authors living outside the Sasanian Empire, a few rock reliefs featuring royalty in heavy armour and some insights from excavations or surveys at a few Sasanian fortifications. Such sparse evidence has formed the basis for debatable theories, for example, that the Sasanian army in Late Antiquity was substantially smaller than that of the Eastern Roman Empire. Recent research is now painting a rather different picture: more evidence is emerging from archaeological fieldwork to suggest that the Late Antique Persian Empire built up a large army, which was an equal to its late Roman or Byzantine equivalents. Our new evidence from the military installations associated with the Gorgan Wall supplies evidence on the scale of military forces of Sasanian Persia which were apparently a match for those of the eastern Roman Empire and Byzantium.

The first stage of the project, now published (see below) demonstrated that the Gorgan Wall in NE Iran was built in the Sasanian period, rather than at some time during the last centuries of the first millennium BC. The Durham part of the Project was devoted to the investigation of the landscapes associated with the Wall. To do this we undertook a series of field seasons together with our Iranian colleagues from the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR) and used the results of these as ground control for satellite imagery of the region. One remarkable discovery was that the entire Wall project was based upon the construction of a framework of canals which supplied water to the defensive ditch on the north side of the Wall. The water supplied was probably used for the initial production of baked bricks in this otherwise rather arid terrain. These canals also supplied water for the forts alongside. Water was captured from a variety of sources, including the Gorgan River and its tributaries. In addition, the survey demonstrated that the Wall appears to have cut through an earlier landscape which comprised numerous large settlements, associated canals, route systems and agricultural areas.

The first stage of the Project (2005-2009), directed by Professor Eberhard Sauer (University of Edinburgh, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology), was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS), the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR) and the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handcraft and Tourism Organisation (ICHHTO). BIPS provided funding for the pilot season in 2005 and continued to support the project in subsequent seasons. The ICAR and the ICHHTO provided funding, facilities and unrivalled expertise throughout the duration of the project, and we must acknowledge the crucial help of director of ICAR, Dr Hassan Fazeli, and our colleagues in the field namely Hamid Omrani Rekavandi and Jebrael Nokandeh. Analysis of satellite imagery was undertaken by Nikolaos Galiatsatos and Kristen Hopper (Durham University).

Published Results

Edited book

  • Sauer,E. Rekavandi, H.O. Wilkinson, T.J. & Nokandeh, J. (2013). Persia’s Imperial Power In Late Antiquity: Sasanian Frontier Walls, Forts And Landscapes Of Northern Iran. Oxbow, Oxford.


From the Department of Archaeology

From other departments

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China