Iran – Atrek valley

Archaeological surveys in the Atrek valley
Atrek valley — Khosaran
Antonio Invernizzi, Roberta Venco Ricciardi

The survey project in the upper Atrek valley is part of the programme for studying Parthian civilization – the object of research by the Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino at least since the 1970s – aiming at better defining the demarcation between the region’s strictly Parthian cultural aspects and those linked to pre-existing local traditions. The Atrek valley, a frontier area between the Iranian plateau and Central Asia – regions that are culturally diverse but geographically connected – is well suited to this purpose. The project, promoted by the Centre and subsequently implemented by the University of Turin, was based on a wide survey that allowed the reconstruction of the general aspects of the area’s settlement processes and of its transformations.

The upper Atrek is located in north-eastern Iran, in the Khorasan region south of the Kopet Dagh mountain range, whose main city, Quchan, is only 60 km away from the Parthian capital Nisa, in Turkmenistan. Through the centuries, thanks to its peculiar geographic position the area became a crossroads of cultural exchanges, from the Calcholithic Period (concentrated, around the middle of the 5th millennium B.C., in the transition phase from Neolithic to Calcholithic, in the eastern part of the valley), to the Islamic period, when the valley, especially during Islam’s first centuries, seemed to play the role of agricultural supply area to nearby Nishapur. Specifically, in Parthian times the region saw a considerable increase in the number of newly-founded settlements, also concentrated in the northern part of the valley, which was previously less populated.

The study consisted in a general survey, not aiming at reconstructing the analytical history of each identified site, but at reconstructing the settlement pattern of the area and its transformations over the centuries through the systematic collection of all information concerning the distribution of the discovered sites. On an area of approximately 1500 km2, approximately 180 tells – identifiable as archaeological sites – were discovered, whose distribution in the area is not uniform but is more concentrated in the widest area of the valley, near the modern city of Faruj.
The survey led to the identification of vertical multilayer sites, i.e. tells formed by the stratification of settlements of succeeding periods (which reach heights of even more than 20 m), and horizontal multilayer sites, characterized by growth in extension, due to an only partial overlapping of settlements of different periods (which, by contrast, tend to be juxtaposed on one another and therefore tend to form tells whose average height ranges from 2 to 7 m). The periods to which the identified sited belong go from the ancient Calcholithic down to modern times, without apparent interruptions. Special attention was given to the settlement transformations in Parthian times (one of the main goals of the research): in this period, a considerable increase in the number of sites took place, essentially on virgin ground but concentrated in relatively limited areas instead of spreading on an ampler region. Unlike the previous Achemenid period, when the instability of the historical situation led to the development of small, prevalently defensive settlements whose function was that of guarding the region, the Parthian period saw not only the profound “militarization” of cities but also the construction of actual fortresses, arranged in an eccentric position in the valley but still easily reachable. The region appears then closely connected to the areas north of the Kopet Dagh, and eventually established numerous links, including cultural ones, that presumably lasted into the Sasanian period.
In Islamic times the region became densely populated, although it had a distinctly agricultural connotation, as attested by ceramics found during the survey: in fact, out of 180 identified sites, approximately 39% displayed at least one Islamic phase and 24% is made up of sites that were established in the Islamic period. The most common type of settlement in this phase is the caravanserai, a small fortified structure surrounded by towered walls, generally built on tells that were formed in previous periods.

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