An ancient seal unearthed at the Burnt City
Located near the city of Zabol the Burnt City spans an area of more than 300,000 hectares. The ancient site has been attracting Iranian and international archeologists for nearly a century.
Founded in 3200 BCE, the city fell into ruins in 2100 BCE after being burnt down three times and not being rebuilt after the last fire.
Four civilizations have lived in the city and its ruins show that it was once composed of residential districts in the northeastern part, an industrial area, and a large cemetery along with memorial buildings.
The city is believed by some to have been the capital of an ancient civilization that flourished on the banks of the Helmand River for more than 1,000 years and had extensive commercial, political, and social relations with other important cities in the region’s northeastern and western areas.
The first generation to live in the Burnt City had established relations with the inhabitants of the eastern and northeastern parts of ancient Persia, Central Asia and Quetta which is now the largest city and the provincial capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.
Seals, discovered in the Burnt City, the Mishmahig Island (Bahrain), Kuwait and southern Khvarvaran in modern Iraq, suggest that the second generation continued relations with Central Asia.
The third and fourth generations of Burnt City inhabitants kept relations with northern and eastern regions alive before they were gradually broken off.
British scholar Orwell Stein was the first to spot the Burnt City archeological site in 1915. A team of archeologists from the Italian institute for the Middle East and Oriental studies began excavating the area in the 1960s. The Italian team found more than 200 graves before their project was halted in the late 1970s.
In 1997, Iranian cultural heritage experts resumed excavations at the ancient site after an 18-year hiatus. The Iranian team initially focused on the burial sites and later in 1999 extended their excavations to the residential areas.
Most of the excavated areas date back to 2700-2300 BCE and have yielded hundreds of objects and relics, which are currently being studied by experts at Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organization (ICHTO).
One of the most significant findings of the Burnt City is a cream-colored clay goblet that was discovered in 1983 by Italian archeologists while excavating a 5,000-year-old tomb.
Five consecutive images drawn around the rare chalice portray a goat moving towards a tree and eating its leaves. The combined images are considered to be the oldest known piece of ‘animated’ art.
Iranian director Mohsen Ramezani filmed an 11-minute documentary, calledThe Tree of Life, for which he used the illustrations on the goblet to show the movement of the wild goat toward a tree in five consecutive images. This wild goat image was later adopted as the symbol of ASIFA, the Association of Iranian Animation Films.
Other excavations at the Burnt City have revealed fishing nets and hooks, which suggest that fishing was one means of livelihood for the inhabitants of the ancient city – this is also evident in the recurrent use of fish patterns on the earthenware found at the site.
In December 2006, archaeologists stumbled upon another piece of utmost significance, an artificial eyeball which subsequent research revealed was the first prosthesis to have been used by man.
The eyeball was found on a 1.82-meter tall female skeleton, much taller than ordinary women of her time, and dated back to between 2900 and 2800 BCE.
The eyeball had a hemispherical form with a diameter of just over 2.5 cm and was made of very light material. The surface was covered with a thin golden layer, engraved with a central circle to represent the iris.
The eye was held in place with a golden thread, which went through tiny holes drilled on both sides of the eye.
Microscopic studies showed that the eye socket bore imprints of the golden thread, which suggest that the eyeball had been worn during its owner’s lifetime.
Another medical find was the oldest sample of brain surgery, conducted on a 13-year-old girl suffering from hydrocephalic.
Among the other valuable archeological items that the site has yielded are the oldest known backgammon set, dice and caraway seeds as well as numerous metallurgical finds such as slag and crucible pieces.
One of the major finds in the Burnt City were the ruins of a large building with 17 rooms in 1999, which contained various objects such as seals, fabrics, wooden and stone tools, and earthenware.
The structure, which seems to have been a public monument, also had two staircases one of which was composed of eight mudbrick steps and the first of its kind dating to the third millennium BCE.
More than 100 mounds were also discovered in the area, which are believed to have been villages surrounding the Burnt City.
Despite the current dry weather conditions of the area, experts say it used to enjoy a moderate climate in ancient times with various floras, and different types of trees such as the weeping willow, maple, and white poplar.
The first phase of excavations revealed clay water pipes running through the whole city and studies showed that the Helmand River and its many branches irrigated Burnt City farms.
Experts say around 20,000 graves exist in the city’s cemetery, which was first uncovered in 1972. The graves provided scientists with skeletal remains of Burnt City inhabitants, which in turn yielded valuable information about their lifestyle.
Many of the inhabitants were found with signs of Arthritis and the oldest individual living in the city was a woman who had died at the age of 60.
Recent studies showed that female inhabitants of the Burnt City outlived the male members of their community.
In June 2009, Iranian archeologists announced that the city’s men died between the ages of 35 to 45, while women lived well into their 80s.
They also found that the area witnessed considerable population drops and that the number of the female inhabitants of the area was more than the male
Despite previous research, which estimated the number of people to have lived in the Burnt City to have been 5,000, the most recent demographical studies assessed the figure to have been more than 6,000.
Based on archeological findings, the city was an industrial and artistic center and its inhabitants were a race of civilized people who were both farmers and artisans.
Unique forms of jewelry and accessories found at the site prove the artistry and creativity of these people and reveal the methods they used in making such products.
Golden and azure necklaces, which were discovered in a grave, helped archeologists to find out the way people of the Burnt City used primitive tools to create such unique pieces.
Upon closer examination of the necklace experts discovered that the artisans used to cut sheets of gold less than a millimeter thin, turn them into cylindrical shapes and adorned them by placing the azure stone in the middle.
A number of pots were unearthed with traces of paint, suggesting that people of the Burnt City also had a hand in painting clay pots.
The discovered earthenware mostly includes simple bowls, drinking cups and water bottles.
Given the fact that many clay pots and earthenware were found inside graves, archaeologists say that most of the Burnt City inhabitants believed in life after death and therefore buried dishes, water and other living requirements with the deceased so that they could use them in their other life.
Some graves even had garlic cloves, which according to some archeologists, originates from the traditional belief that garlic can expel wicked spirits out of the home.
The whole area was also covered with pottery shards most of which seem to have been pieces broken in the process of pottery. The shards were believed to have been used as a kind of pavement.
Traces of pottery kilns were discovered at the city, which can be a reason for the destruction of the city’s natural resources as for example trees were cut to be used in kilns.
Different types of earthenware, stone utensils, mosaic works, fabric and straw mats discovered at the site show the diverse industrial activities in which the people of the Burnt City were engaged.
Some 12 plain and colorful fabrics have been found at the ancient site so far, testifying to the advanced fabric industry in the city.
Studies conducted on 40 teeth unearthed in the Burnt City necropolis showed people used their teeth to weave baskets and other handmade products with reeds from the Lake Hamoun.
In the Burnt City, using teeth as a tool was common among the men and women of different age groups.
A grave even provided anthropologists with evidence of a murder as the head of the victim was buried with the murder weapon placed under its feet.
Among other findings are stone beads, a clay Elamite inscription, small clay figurines in the form of animals, and different metal and wooden tools.
In one of the most recent discoveries, a team of Iranian and British anthropologists identified a male camel rider while doing research on human remains from the 3rd millennium BCE.
Further studies revealed bone trauma in the skeleton, which suggested that the man had most probably been a messenger spending most of his life on camel back.
Close examinations showed that the rider used to gather up a leg while riding, which is something that one usually does while riding a camel over long distances.
Archeological findings and anthropological studies have also provided scientists with interesting information about the social status and situation of women in the ancient Burnt City.
A number of 5,000-year-old insignias, which were found in the graves of some female inhabitants, suggest that the women of the city enjoyed social and financial prominence.
The insignias were made of river pebbles and believed to have belonged to the distinguished and privileged members of society.
Some experts believe that the female owners of the insignias used them to place their seal on valuable documents, while others say they only kept them as evidence of their high social status.
As no weapon or defensive fortress and walls have ever been discovered in the Burnt City, many experts believe that the inhabitants of the city were a peaceful people, who did not get involved in war or seek confrontation.
Despite the excavations and studies carried out at the site, the reasons for the unexpected rise and fall of the Burnt City still seem to remain a mystery.
Archeologists, however, continue to hope that one day they will stumble upon historical records that will help them find the original name of the city and what happened to its inhabitants after it was razed to the ground by the final fire.