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Planet Earth

75: Archaeologists Swap Swords for Pickaxes

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Amid larger concerns over state-sponsored terrorism and nuclear arms development, Iranian and Western archaeologists set aside their nations’ political differences to achieve a breakthrough in research cooperation. Through a dialogue encouraged by Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, this year large numbers of Western archaeologists began to excavate Iranian sites for the first time since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Iranian cities once belonged to a trade network that connected cities in Central Asia with Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. With excavations also reopening in Afghanistan, archaeologists are poised to gain insights into how cities started, the origins of social complexity, the rise of the state, the development of the first writing systems, and how trade systems worked.

“There is an entire sequence of civilizations that we only understand in the vaguest chronological sense, and we finally have a chance to investigate them more fully,” says Stein. “In almost every period we have major questions.”

The opportunities stem from Iranian president Muhammad Khatami’s call for a “dialogue of civilizations,” a policy designed to end 25 years of cultural isolation from Western nations. Three years ago, a team from the Oriental Institute began excavating a site in Iran’s Khuzestan region. Stein furthered relations by giving the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization 300 clay tablets that recorded the daily economic life in Persepolis, a capital of the ancient Persian Empire. The tablets were lent to the Oriental Institute by the Iranian government in 1936, with the understanding that they would be translated and returned.

Honoring the agreement has helped build trust with moderates in the Iranian government. Americans have now formed partnerships with Iranian archaeologists to work on three sites, and archaeologists from Japan, Germany, France, Britain, and Australia are opening new excavations.

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