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Persia and its Neighbours: the Archaeology of Late Antique Imperial Power in Iran (Persia Project)

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


The history and archaeology of the Ancient and Late Antique World has long been dominated by Eurocentric perspectives. The Roman Empire and its European and Levantine successor states are frequently considered to be the major players, while little prominence is given to those outside Europe and the Mediterranean. This is in part because most primary sources represent a western perspective and in part due to more resources having been invested in Roman and, to a lesser extent, early Byzantine archaeology than the archaeology of Rome’s eastern neighbours.
The interdisciplinary Persia and its Neighbours project considers the Sasanian Empire (3rd-7th centuries AD), which stretched from Mesopotamia to the west of the Indian subcontinent and at times stretched into Anatolia and Egypt. The project aims to provide insights into the empire, but more specifically to understand the variability of its frontier zones. Study areas in Iraq, Syria, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, as well as other regions, are currently being investigated using a broad range of complementary methods. Satellite images are being analysed to examine the Empire’s frontier regions. Key sites are being selected for geophysical survey, targeted excavation, scientific dating and systematic analysis of artefacts, faunal and botanical remains. Our initial pilot study, The Gorgan Wall Project (Sauer et al. 2013) in NE Iran showed that major frontier walls and geometrical fortifications, whose scale and sophistication surpasses those in contemporary Europe, date to the Sasanian era, as do grand urban foundations and canal systems.
By combining large-scale survey with small-scale case studies the Project hopes to provide unrivalled insights into military installations, urbanisation and rural settlement as well as their associated infrastructure. Inevitably, these are intertwined phenomena, because military power required economic support from agricultural surplus production and the surpluses generated enabled large-scale construction projects to take place. Our in-depth study of Sasanian frontier territories promises to fill a major gap in our understanding of Late Antiquity and shed light on the reasons behind the longevity, economic and military dominance and dynamism of the Sasanian Empire, one of the largest empires of the ancient world at that time.
The project has benefitted from an ERC (FP7) grant awarded to Prof Eberhard Sauer and Prof Tony Wilkinson 
(see memorial page: to a consortium of European Universities: Edinburgh, Durham, St Andrews, Bradford, Centre National de Recherche, Paris, and Université Paul Cézanne Aix Marseille iii.

The Sasanian Landscape

The Durham University component of the project is investigating the landscape of the Sasanian Empire through a range of methods. Satellite imagery is providing one of the main tools, as one of the great advantage of remote sensing technologies now available is that they allow us to visualize and map vast areas of terrain and draw conclusions about the relationship of frontiers and route networks to topography which would otherwise be difficult. This work is being carried out alongside a range of fieldwork and investigation of historical sources, which demonstrate the range of frontier landscapes. These include deserts, densely populated lowlands, lofty mountain ranges, and broad regions of episodically occupied steppe.
Project members in Durham comprise: Graham Philip (co Principle Investigator), Dan Lawrence (Consultant and former post-doctoral fellow), Nadia Khalaf (Project post-doctoral fellow), Kristen Hopper (PhD researcher), Ian Bailiff (Luminescence dating), and Lisa Snape-Kennedy (PhD researcher).
Contributions to the project have also been made by Nikolaos Galiatsatos, Ed East, Marco Nebbia, Jaafar Jotheri, Hannah Hunt and Brian Buchanan.

Remote Sensing

Analysis of remote sensing images is being used in the project to identify, map and interpret archaeological sites within the targeted study regions. Datasets include legacy data from declassified Corona spy photography, following on from the work of the Fragile Crescent Project ( We now have coverage over much of Syria, Iraq and the Caucasus, as well as selected areas of Northern Iran, Turkmenistan and Southern Arabia. Current satellite data is being processed from Landsat and SRTM sensors to build a picture of the landscape. Multispectral high resolution satellite imagery is also being incorporated to investigate sites. These datasets are particular useful in Iraq and Syria where we are unable to conduct a fieldwork visit.


A range of surveys and excavations are being carried out as part of the Project in Georgia, Iran, Oman and Azerbaijan.
In Georgia, fieldwork has centred on the Darialia Gorge in the Central Caucasus, which for the past 2,000 years has formed a strategic border in the landscape. Excavations and survey so far have revealed that there has been control of this region from the Early Middle Ages, sustained in this harsh environment through military effort and long distance food supplies.
Fieldwork in Iran focuses on the forts and military installations associated with the Gorgan Wall, a 185km long mud brock installation which is dated to the Sasasian period (link to Gorgan Wall Project). This feature, and associated military and civilian settlements, represents one of the most significant frontier installations anywhere in the ancient world. Excavations suggest that the Late Antique Persian Empire built up a large army, which was an equal to its late Roman or Byzantine equivalents.
Fieldwork in Azerbaijan has been undertaken as part of the Mil Steppe project, directed by Barbara Helwing (Sydney) and Andrea Ricci (German Archaeological Institute). Survey in the region has recovered almost two hundred sites from the Neolithic to the Islamic periods, with a peak during the Sasanian period. We have also conducted targeted survey and excavations at the Sasanian/Islamic site of Oren Qala (ancient Beylaqan) and its associated canal system.
In Oman we have been working at the Fulaij fort site, currently being excavated by Dr Seth Priestman from the Edinburgh side of the project. This small fort represents one of the only unequivocally Sasanian sites on the Batinah plain. It is hoped that ongoing survey in the region will allow us to contextualise the site within its landscape and understand its military purpose.

Luminescence Dating and Geoarchaeology

Numerous water-control features such as relic canals, channels, and qanāts in the Gorgān Plain (Iran), Mil Steppe (Azerbaijan) and the Batinah Plain (Oman) were identified using remote sensing data and ground based survey. Excavation and sampling of these large-scale systems for luminescence dating has shown that canals were maintained over many centuries during their use prior to abandonment in the 10th Century AD (approximate time of the Hunnic Invasion). Further work is currently being undertaken to explore other nearby irrigation systems such as qanāts and their potential for dating using luminescence.
An alternative story of Late Antique landscape investment is emerging in the upland areas of the Central Caucasus (Darial Gorge, Georgia), where abundant agricultural terraces and fields systems have been mapped. Interestingly no traces of ancient systems have survived, and most date to the time of the Late Medieval Period, suggesting that any earlier relic soil systems have been reused and significantly altered through time. The dating work is combined with an assessment of geomorphological factors and site formation processes to better understand the deposits and the implications for applying luminescence dating to landscape features in the areas studied.
Further luminescence dating work is currently being applied to heated materials such as bricks, hearths and heated sediments from Tamara’s Fort in Darial Gorge (Georgia). Due to the complex site-formation processes and long occupation history of the site, a combination of dating methods such as radiocarbon, luminescence (Prof Ian Bailiff) and archaeomagnetic dating (Carried out by Dr Cathy Batt and David Greenwood and Bradford University) are being applied to key contexts, we aim to improve the chronological resolution of the site using a Bayesian sequencing framework.


From the Department of Archaeology

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