Glimpses of an Iron Age Landscape

Plants at Hasanlu

By: Mary Virginia Harris

Originally Published in 1989

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On an August evening in 1970 A.D., standing on the top of Hasanlu Tepe, I could see the headlights of the reapers moving back and forth across the wheat fields. Few in­dividual farmers or even villages in Iranian Azerbaijan could afford to buy such a machine. Instead, a family or community would ar­range to rent one, and this meant that maximum use had to be ex­tracted. So day and night the reapers moved over the ripe grain.

What would I have seen had I stood on the flat mud roofs of the buildings on the same mound 2800 years ago? The creators of the handsome Iron Age enclave—old by 4000 years or more in 800 B.C. when the city was destroyed—left no written records, no painted pictures, no sculpted reliefs. We do not know their name or the name they gave to this man-made hill now called Hasanlu. We can, how­ever, make some inferences about the landscape that surrounded them based on information pro­vided by botanists and by archae­ologists.

The Modern Landscape

Iran is a plateau, forming a watershed between the Arctic and Indian Oceans. The outer edge of the plateau is encircled by moun­tains, while the interior contains vast deserts. The northwestern part of the plateau, modern Azerbaijan, is broken, mountainous terrain with relatively recent volcanos (Fig. 1). The rivers within this region drain east into the Caspian Sea or into a central depression, covering an area of about 50,000 square km, that contains Lake Urmia. This large lake (140 km long, 15-50 km wide) has no outlet, and is fed by streams that flow through gypsum and volcanic deposits with soluble salts. As a result, the highland Urmia at 1200 m above sea level is saltier than the Dead Sea, lying at 392 m below sea level. Because of its salt content, Urmia has never been known to freeze, although the air temperature has been known to drop well below zero Centigrade.

Just to the south of Lake Urmia, separated from it by a low ridge, lies the Solduz valley (Fig. 2). To the west lies the Kelishin pass that leads through the Zagros mountains into ancient Assyria (modern Iraq). Flowing down from these high ranges is the Gadar river, which provides abundant water within the Ushnu and Solduz valleys, then eventually subsides into salt flats along the shore of Lake Urmia (Fig. 3). The Solduz valley is much richer in water sources than the surrounding plains. In addition to the Gadar, it has three small fresh­water lakes located to the north and east of Hasanlu Tepe, and large marshy areas that are flooded in the winter and spring (Fig. 5). The seasonally flooded land, as well as the lake shores, support grasses and plants even during the hot dry summer months (Fig. 4).

Climatic information has not been systematically collected in the Solduz valley itself, but tempera­ture and rainfall should be similar to that of the town of Urmia to the north, which receives an average of 270 mm (over 14 inches) of pre­cipitation per year. Maximum tem­peratures in July and August are around 32″ C, while a minimum of -4″ C is normal in January. During the winter, snow falls in the sur­rounding mountains, but the valley floor usually remains snow free (Voigt 1983 with refs.).

Information on the modern flora of northwest Iran was initially gathered by tourists and diplomats. Beginning in the 17th century, French (Olivier and Bruguiere 1786-87), Swiss (Belanger 1825-29), and Russian (Szowile 1928) trav­elers sent back plant collections to their respective countries and some­times sent small samples to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England. In 1930, R. Gilliat-Smith and WEB. Turin published “On the Flora of the Nearer East,” which includes a section on Azerbaijan. Gilliat-Smith had been stationed at the British consulate in Tabriz for several years, and his collections from this region are very compre­hensive. Information on modern plants from the Solduz valley was collected from 1956 to 1977 by members of the Hasanlu Project in the form of photographs and specimens.

The Ancient Landscape

Modern vegetation patterns throughout the world are the pro­duct of thousands of years of hu­man use and abuse. To reconstruct plant types and their distribution in the distant past, we rely on modern botanical observations coupled with evidence gathered by paleo­botanists and archaeologists (see box). These sources have provided information on both the wild and cultivated plants of Solduz valley during prehistoric times.

Iron Age Wildflowers

If I had walked across the country­side surrounding Hasanlu in 800 B.C. I would probably have seen many of the same wild plants that I found in the 1970s, or at least their close relatives. Some groups of hardy wildflowers that require little water have been present in the region continuously since glacial times. This conclusion is based on a study of fossil pollens taken from sediments at the bottom of Lake Urmia that date from 9000 to 3000 years ago, the time of Hasanlu occupation (Bottema 1986).

Among these persistent plants are early blooming, colorful field flowers. Most of them are con­sidered scrubby and uninteresting today, and the wild forms are rarely grown in modern gardens. In Solduz they are found as weeds in cultivated plots or in areas neglected by farmers, such as road­sides and rocky slopes (Fig. 8). Many of these plants belong to the Composite family, a vast group found worldwide. It includes daisy, chicory, thistles, asters, and 12,000 other varieties, all characterized by blossoms that are composed of many small flowers melded into one head (Fig. 7). I have seen members of three Compositae genuses in Solduz: Achilles, Cen­taurea, and Senecto.

The best known member of the genus Achillea is the yarrow (AchilIea miiefoliurn). At least six species of Achillea (Fig. 9) have been reported from the Zagros moun­tains to the west of the Solduz valley in modern times (Guest et al. 1968-85). A. ageratum, which I found in Solduz, has convex-top clusters of yellow heads with few rays.

The genus Centaurea, the knap­weeds, encompasses many of our favorite flowers: bachelor’s button, dusty miller, and cornflower. A common plant in the Solduz area today is C. solstitialis, better known as St. Barnabys thistle. It has a yellow inflorescence with yellow spines protruding from the bracts (Fig. 13).

The groundsels or ragworts (genus Senecto) are one of the largest of the Composite genera, with about 1200 different species in many colors. In Solduz I found Senicio vuigaris (Fig. 10). A daisy-like flower with three or four yellow heads branching off the main stem, it is often mistaken for a dandelion (Taraxaceurn). The most refined and cultivated member of this genus today is probably the cineraria.

In the Iron Age as now, members of the mallow family (Malvacea) would have stood tall on the land­scape and attracted the eye (Figs. 8, 11). These flowers occur in many colors: pink, lavender to purple, pale yellow, and white. The color of a particular plant is determined by soil conditions, so that in Iran I could photograph lavender mal­lows on one side of a hill, but across the crest I would see only white flowered ones.

Ubiquitous along every roadside in Azerbaijan today is Cichorium intybus, chicory (Fig. 14). Its lovely blue flower closes by noon, but brightens the landscape wherever it appears. This plant tends to grow on the same disturbed soils favored by the cereals, but it requires even less moisture. Its deep stout roots are hard to eradicate, so its seeds have mixed with harvested grains and in this way traveled world­wide.

Sedges and Grasses

Sturdy sedges and grasses from wetlands are used in many ways in modern villages in the Middle East. For example, they serve as an essential building material, a raw material for the manufacture of moats and baskets, bedding for people and animals, and fuel for quick, hot fires. It is therefore hardly surprising to find that seeds from these plants have been iden­tified in a preliminary study of the Hasanlu Iron Age flotation samples (Toni 1975).

Scerpus is the family name used for the rushes or sedges. They may be thick stemmed when grown in damp soil, or wire thin under drier conditions, and will tolerate saline soils (Fig. 12). They are found today along the edges of the small freshwater lakes in the Solduz valley, as well as in dense stands along the southeastern end of the valley. These plants can be cut, interlaced, and massed to form a base for a mud roof, but where stout reeds are available, sedges are unlikely to be preferred for this purpose.

Phragmites communes, the com­mon reed, is ubiquitous worldwide. Great plots of it with its feathery heads are found today near Ha­sanlu, and in uncultivated areas in eastern Solduz (Fig. 4). These plants are gathered, woven into matting, and used as screens or in roofing. Impressions in mud or clay of round stems that are almost certainly reeds of some variety have been frequently recovered in collapse found at Hasanlu. Samples of charred reed found in Burned Building III could have fallen from the burning roof or been used as a floor covering, or as bedding for domesticated animals.


Palynological (pollen) evidence indicates that under present cli­matic conditions the Urmia basin would be classified as a forest-steppe, with most of the land covered by grasses and only a few isolated trees. Trees represented in the Uremia core include pistachio, oak, juniper, and maple (Bottema 1986). The oaks probably grew at some distance from Solduz, in the high mountainous areas to the south and west. In the foothills and plains surrounding Lake Urmia, there were probably scattered pistachios, but most trees would have been located near water sources such as springs and streams.

In the Solduz valley today, only scattered remnants of this natural arboreal vegetation can be found. Most trees have been planted, and are grown under irrigation. Villages are surrounded by orchards of apricot and peach trees, and dense rows of poplar grown as a cash crop (Fig. 16). Over the centuries, irrigation channels have been dug across the valley floor to direct the flow of water from the Gwadar river to settlements and cultivated fields. Sometimes these channels can be recognized from a distance by a line of trees, usually uncultivated stands of poplar (Popuius) or wil­low (Salix, Fig. 22).

Poplars are among the easiest of all trees to propagate, are fast growing and very hardy, thriving even in poor soils. They also pro­duce tall, straight poles, so they are grown for use as house beams and trimmed for firewood. Populus alba, a tall, narrow-topped tree with cottony leaves that are deeply lobed, is so common around Azer­baijan today that it is called the “Tabrizi” after the capital of the province. Apparently some form of poplar was equally abundant in the 1st millennium B.C. This wood was used for the great columns in Burned Building II (Fig. 17), for handles or canes, and as a base for metal decorative items such as tacks and bosses.

Elm (Ulmus) was also used both for construction and for the manu­facture of smaller objects. Samples taken from beams in Burned Build­ing III were identified as elm, a wood which apparently did not occur locally and may have been brought from as far away as the Caucasus mountains to the north (Botterna 1986:255). From the same building came a fragment of Furni­ture made of elm, apparently the leg of a chair or table (Fig. 23). Some evidence suggests that this wood may also have been used for weapons. A fragment of elm ad­hering to an iron arrowhead in Burned Building II might be part of the shaft, and a tubular iron socket with elm inside from Burned Building III could be part of a spear or javelin (see Muscarella, this issue).

A variety of other woods were used for furniture and small objects (see Table). Of particular interest is another imported wood, Buxus  historic times” (Helbaek 1970). As a food for people, its primary drawback is the presence of a hull (glumes), which tightly encloses the grain and must be removed by parching or milling before consump­tion. Bread wheat, on the other hand, is a “free-threshing” variety that is easily separated from its glumes. Found in the Solduz valley as early as 6000 B.C., it has the further advantage of a high gluten content which makes lighter, more porous bread. Club wheat (T. compact) is of equal antiquity and is a closely related form.

Table 1
Woods Identified from Hasanlu c. 800 B.C. (period IVB)
Species Common Name Identified at Hasanlu
Acer Maple Construction Beams
Mace shaft
Small carved object
Buxus Box Furniture

Weapon shafts

Small carved object

Cedrus Cedar ?
Crataegus Hawthorne Bowl
Cypressus Cyprus ?
Eronymus? Spindle Tree Sculptured head
Fraxinus Ash Furniture
]uglans? Walnut Furniture
Juniperus Juniper Small carved object
Malus or Pyrus Apple or Pear Mace shaft
Platanus Plane Tree Small carved object
Populus Poplar Columns
Small carved objects
Prunus Almond, peach Furniture
Ulmus Elm Furniture
Spear shaft

Barley was usually found mixed with bread wheat, and occasionally with cultivated emmer (Fig. 20). This combination is especially interesting since barley has been found mixed with wheat in buns preserved at the Iron Age site at Glastonbury in England (Helbaek 1952). Perhaps more common in Iron Age times was its use in making beer. It may be that the mixture of hulled barleys (Her­deum distichum, two-rowed barley; H. vulgare or six-rowed barley) was intended for beer production, but it might also have served as winter fodder for domesticated animals, the most prevalent use for barley in the Middle East today. Rye (Secale) was almost certainly used as fodder; it appears rarely in samples from the Iron Age at Hasanlu but in quantities that sug­gest it was a staple crop in Hasanlu period IV.

A third major grain type found at Hasanlu is broomcorn millet (Pani­cum miliaceumm). The seeds of this plant are small, and the heads are loose and not as productive as those of wheat and barley. It is probably most familiar to Ameri­cans as commercial birdseed. Ori­ginally domesticated in East Asia, millet first appears in the Near East in the 3rd millennium B.C. and is found in Azerbaijan by 1550 B.C. (Nesbitt and Summers 1988:Table 2). At Hasanlu, carbonized millet seeds were found in Burned Build­ings III and IV, near the entrance to the Citadel, an area where horses seem to have been kept (see Dyson, “Architecture,” this issue).


Members of the legume or pea family (Legeminoseae) were an important part of the harvest in Iron Age Hasanlu. Lentil (Lens esculent), chickpea (Cicer arietl-num), and horsebean (Vlcia faba) were probably staples in the human diet, while bitter vetch (Vicia er) is more likely to have been used as animal fodder.

Chickpea is a valuable crop for farmers in arid lands because of its resistance to drought. The unirri­gated fields on the slopes to the north of Hasanlu were often planted with chickpea in the 1980s and 1970s. In the Iron Age Citadel, chickpeas were found in a room that probably served as a kitchen in Burned Building III. It can be used in a variety of ways: roasted and eaten as a snack; brewed as a beverage; and stewed with other vegetables and meat. Today the cooks of Azerbaijan are said to make the best aLgeght (lamb stew) in all of Iran, and chickpeas are a basic ingredient.


The importance of grapes and figs is deeply rooted in Near Eastern tradition. The Sumerian epic “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” joins grape and fig as sym­bols of fertility. In this story, the Sumerian hero Enmerkar demands precious metals, lapis lazuli, and craftsmen from the Lord of Aratta. The latter finally agrees, provided the people of the city of Uruk present grapes and figs to her temple. Although the location of Aratta is unknown, the journey of the Mesopotamian envoy to ar­range this “deal” led past the city of Susa in southwestern Iran and over mountains. It seems likely, there­fore, that Aratta lies somewhere on the Iranian plateau.

This tale is dated to the early 3rd millennium B.C. Over two thou­sand years later, a jar full of figs and grape pips (Fices carica, Viti3 vinlf era) was found in Burned Building LII, in a room that may have been a kitchen. In the same room, what seems to have been a string of figs was found in a copper/bronze basin with iron handles. Fragments of Vltls vini­fera from the great hall of Burned Building II were identified as car­bonized raisins. Today the mound at Hasanlu is surrounded (and even cut away) by vineyards, and grapes are likely to have been a local product in the Iron Age as well (Fig. 22). The figs, on the other hand, may have been imported, since this plant requires an annual rainfall of 86-122 cm, more than double the amount estimated for the Solduz valley. Both grapes and figs are easily preserved by drying and are very easy to transport.

Evidence for the presence of quince, the earliest fruit tree to bloom, was found in both Burned Building II and III. The flowers of Cydonia oLlonga appear before the leaves and are one of the har­bingers of spring (Fig. 21). The fruit if not treated kindly can puck­er the lips, but modern Persian cooks are adept at preparing deli­cious dishes using the quince, or beh (Persian). Quince sliced and combined with meat, onions, and yellow peas (khorest Leh) is very popular; cored and stuffed with meat and vegetables (dolmeh Leh), the quince is to be found at the fanciest dinners. Tentative identi­fication of fragments of pear (Pyres communis), apple (Pyrus males), and a variety of Prunes (possibly apricot or almond?) suggests the great variety of fruit that was consumed at Hasanlu in the past; all of these would have been wild varieties rather than cultivated. Nuts from one variety of wild almond (Prenes delclg) are still sold in the bazaars of Iran, and it is likely that they were eaten as eagerly in 800 B.C. as they are today.

2800 Years Ago
Using a variety of sources and methods, we can now present a vivid reconstruction of the land­scape to be seen in the 9th century B.C. from the top of Hasanlu. In the low and damp areas lying to the north, plumes of reeds and sedges would have formed waves bent by the prevailing northwest winds. There would have been stands of wheat and barley with tall colorful stalks of mallow in their midst, and around the field edges, some yellow ragwort interspersed with spiny thistle and twin­ing vetch.

Near the town, in areas more easily guarded, might be vineyards and groves of poplar trees fed by water led from the river to the south. In the far distance, scattered trees might be visible on the hill­sides, marking the course of small streams or springs. And looking closely one might have seen small spots of color—wildflowers scat­tered in fields as well as pasture lands. I would have felt right at home in that lovely Solduz valley.

Reconstructing Ancient Landscapes
The most useful information for those interested in ancient environments comes from pollen samples, larger plant parts (especially seeds), and artifacts that can be associated with the collection, cultivation, and use of plants by people. Each of these kinds of material requires a different method of collection and analysis; each also has distinct advantages and drawbacks, depending on the problem to be examined.

Pollen samples can provide a vivid and relatively precise picture of the vegetation within a region and its change through time. The tiny grains have a bard coat that resists decomposition, although pollen is eventually destroyed by alternating wet and dry soil conditions. Thus only small quantities of pollen are ordinarily recovered from archaeological sites. Better conditions for preservation prevail in waterlogged soils, which exclude oxygen and inhibit the decay of organic materials (The acidic conditions that may occur in waterlogged areas destroy bone, but do not harm pollen.} Techniques for recovery are relatively simple, utilizing a coring device to reach buried strata, or a trowel or spoon to collect small quantities of soil from sites under excavation. All samples must be sealed immediately in order to protect them from possible contamination by modern airborne pollen.

In the laboratory, soils are chemically washed and the pollen grains are collected on glass slides for examination under a microscope. Using the shape of the grain and patterns on its outer surface, an identification can be made at the level of family or genus, but rarely at the species level. Depending on the problems we wish to examine, this degree of precision may or may not be satisfactory. For example, palynological research provides valuable information on the forest cover of the Urmia basin. Sparse pollen grains in the Urmia core indicate that trees were rare in the region around the lake (including the Solduz valley) before about 9000 years ago. After temperatures and moisture had increased at the end of the last Glacial period, pollen from Pistacia (wild pistachio), Betula (birch), and eventually Pinus (pine) and Quercus (oak) was deposited. Because we are focusing on a major change in ecology, the exact species of pine or oak represented is less important than identification of forest trees. On the other hand, palynology cannot answer a question of considerable interest to archaeologists: when did people begin the cultivation of cereal crops in northwestern Iran? Although the Urmia core shows an increase in pollen from cereal grasses at the end of the Pleistocene, this type of pollen grain is borne by a large group of plants, including not only wild and domesticated barleys and wheats, but also other grasses.

The answer to this and other questions that focus on the ways in which people exploited plants rests not on palynology, but on the study of “macroscopic” plant remains those visible to the naked eye such as seeds, stems, and wood. Macroscopic remains recovered from archaeological sites are usually charred, since uncharred specimens are subject to decay under the soil conditions present at most sites. (Exceptions would be waterlogged or frozen sites.) Occasionally, large deposits of seeds and plant parts are found concentrated in the soil, the result of a fire or carbonization during food preparation. More often, the charred bits are scattered in the soil and are difficult to see, much less recover during excavation.

In order to collect minute and dispersed seeds, a method called flotation was developed during the 1950s and became widely used during the 1970s. The flotation process utilizes the principle that plant parts have a lower specific gravity than particles of soil; if a bucket of soil containing bits of charred plant material is dumped into water and stirred, seeds and charcoal will be separated from the rest of the deposit, and will float to the surface where they can be scooped up and saved for later study (Figs. 15a-c). The arcbaeobotanist, or specialist in the study of ancient plant remains, examines macroscopic samples under low magnification and provides identifications based on plant form. These identifications are often at the genus level, and sometimes even species can be determined. Most of our knowledge of the process of plant domestication and agriculture comes from this type of research.

Artifacts can sometimes give valuable information about the specific kinds of plant-related activities that people performed. For example, “sickle blades,”chipped stone tools with edges that are shiny (coated with a thin layer of opal), tell us that their owners were harvesting some kind of siliceous grasses. Whether these were wild plants or crops cannot be determined from the tool itself, however. Ceramic vessels can sometimes be identified as cooking pots or storage jars (Fig. 24), but the kinds of foods prepared and stored can only be determined from macroscopic remains found in the same archaeological contexts. Thus for the archaeobotanist, artifacts are a supplementary rather than a primary source for the study of ancient environments and plant-based economies.

Cite This Article

Harris, Mary Virginia. "Glimpses of an Iron Age Landscape." Expedition Magazine 31, no. 2-3 (November, 1989): -. Accessed June 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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