Archaeology is a many-faced deity. It (she?) can smile benevolently upon you and order gold and fame to be rained down upon your head; it can order wisdom and keen insight garnished with prospector’s “luck”; it can tease and taunt and deceive and disappoint; create mirages and mansions and obliterate the same at will. It can inflict one with the incurable mania for adventure, for exploration, for seeking something beyond the bricks and bones and fashioned stones. It can send one into remote jungles and deserts in search of knowledge which can never be placed on museum shelves. Such is the search for paths traversed by ancient man, paths which provided the only physical links between ancient peoples and places. And such was our search in 1960 (Expedition, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1962)—then for ancient seaports on the coast of Pakistan—which waste unmatched outside of parts of Central Asia. Lord Curzon (1906) gave us one of the most vivid descriptions:
“Seistan is one of the most unattractive, the most inhospitable . . . the most odious of places in the world. It is a country of marshes and swamps, of sands and solitudes, of extreme heat and extreme cold, famous for a wind, the most vile and abominable in the universe, presenting at all seasons of the year dangers to life which can scarcely be realized by those who only read of them at a distance . . .”
And yet, archaeological remains spanning at least 4,000 years of human occupation are as numerous as the innumerable sand dunes. Climatic change and the Mongul invasions have both been blamed for the devastation of the region, but when the story is more fully known, both may prove to have been relatively minor—or even mythical culprits.
During the early months of 1968 and 1969 we conducted explorations in the southern half of Afghanistan Seistan (supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Philosophical Society). The 1968 season was devoted mainly to excavations at the peculiar site of Sorkh Dagh (Nad-i-Ali) (Expedition, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1968). No trace was led eventually to the establishing of the Museum’s South Asia Section.
The findings of the coastal survey, combined with later discoveries by other archaeologists, help substantiate claims of seafaring contacts between the great riverine civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley between 2400 and 1800 B.C. It seems probable that these contacts were conducted largely by “middle-men”—by people of the so-called Kulli culture who inhabited the rugged mountainous and coastal regions of southern Baluchistan and parts of southern Iran. Material evidence of these little-known peoples has recently been discovered even in the Persian Gulf along the coast and in the interior of Trucial Oman.
It is the pursuit of frontier-folk like the Kulliites that prompted our current explorations in Seistan in the southwestern corner of Afghanistan. The region called Seistan is comprised mainly of the huge inland basin straddling the border of Afghanistan and Iran, which is fed by the waters of the Helmand and lesser rivers of Afghanistan. The Afghan half is a scene of desolation and found of occupation earlier than Achaemenid Persian times of about the fifth century B.C.
The 1969 surveys shifted to the virtually uninhabited regions on the south side of the Helmand River. Regnar Kearton, graduate student of the University of Pennsylvania, and our faithful Afghan representative Ehsan Aram, helped us steer, push, pull, dig out, patch up, and soundly curse our two vehicles through more than 600 miles of roadless desolation.
The first half of the trek retraced part of the route covered by Walter Fairservis’s 1951 expedition for the American Museum of Natural History. Using Chahar Burjak as our transient base camp, we followed an old—now dried up—arm of the Helmand called the Rud-i-Biyaban. Impressive remains of mediaeval Islamic forts and caravansaries line the route westward to the Iranian border. The most startling site of all is Trakun (Tarakun). Similar from a distance to a small mediaeval European fortified town, the brick ruins are perched on a butte measuring about 1,000 by 500 feet and rising precipitously 100 to 150 feet above the plain. Its last full occupation was perhaps 200 years ago but according to local tradition Rustam, a legendary hero in Persian literature, was born there. A thirteenth century Arab writer relates that Trakun was also the site of a famous pre-Islamic Fire-temple. But there are no archaeological hints on the surface of anything earlier than Islamic times. Nor were identifiable pre-Islamic remains found anywhere along the Rud-i-Biyaban. This is peculiar because on the Iranian side of the border there are numerous sites dated by their painted pottery to between 3,000 to 2,000 B.C. Attempts to drive the vehicles southward along the border were frustrated by the incredibly contorted ground surface. It conjured up visions of the horror of a World War I battlefield.
By proceeding eastward again, atop a relatively smooth gravelly plateau, we approached the jagged northern edge of another badland called the Gardan Reg. It was in this fantastically eroded basin that Dr. Fairservis in 1951 discovered graves and painted pottery which date as early as 2,000 B.C. What is most impressive in this rapidly deteriorating region is the widespread surface debris of black clinkers and slag. Abundant traces of copper in the slag indicated almost certainly that we were in the center of a vast ancient copper working area. Native copper is found in the mountains of Pakistan not many miles to the south. The steady winds which characterize this part of Seistan could have provided excellent natural draft for the kilns. But this is a job for the metallurgists, to explain this scene of miles and miles of slag; and archaeology has yet to determine the age of all that impressive activity. Most of it may have been carried on in pre-Islamic times, but this requires much more investigation.
Our ultimate geographical goal was the Gaud-i-Zirreh in the southwesternmost corner of Afghan Seistan which forms a wedge between Iran and Pakistani Baluchistan. In terms of straight map distance, it wasn’t more than fifteen to twenty miles south of us, but it might as well have been a thousand! We wound our way southeastward through the Gardan Reg, hoping to skirt the barrier of fifty-foot high sand dunes which separated us from our goal. Two days of continuous disasters almost brought an end to our tamperings with the solitude of that dreadful place. Hours upon hours of digging out of the sand, wandering and driving virtually blind through an appalling sandstorm (near the end of which it rained!), and having a rear-end of the older vehicle give up completely, instilled memories in our minds which will not soon be forgotten. It was by then obvious that the only way to enter the Gaud was at its sand dune-free eastern end. A short rest back at our transient base, Chahar Burjak, with a bath in the icy Helmand River, rehabilitated us sufficiently so that we were able to find the only motorable descent into the depression.
Since the earliest official explorations of this region almost a century ago, it has been generally agreed that the Gaud received its water from the overflow of the Hamun lake which dominates central Seistan. The overflow, resulting from unusually heavy flows in the rivers emptying into the Hamun, reached the Gaud by way of the Shela Rud. Officers of the British-Afghan Boundary Commission traversed this region in 1894-96. They described the Gaud as “a large lake of clear, deep blue water, some twenty-five miles long and five miles wide, standing in the midst of a wide margin of solid salt.” The Shela, at the west end of the Gaud, still had water in it from the last great flood of 1885 and smaller ones in 1891-92. The same officers said that
“The banks of the Shela were inhabited, the land on either side was cultivated, and a numerous shepherd population spread themselves over the southern desert within easy reach of the lake.”
Today even that last flicker of prosperity has vanished. Now you are confronted with a totally uninhabited salt-encrusted depression some sixty miles in length and averaging about fifteen miles in width. The only people we saw in a week were three woolly Baluchis with their camels—probably from Pakistan—collecting salt at the extreme eastern end of the depression. They were positively useless as far as helping us find our way across the salt flats. In fact, their “information” was potentially dangerous because of its gross inaccuracy. There is not a drop of water in the Gaud today. Its soft salty crust sucks your vehicles down into it so that low gear, four-wheel drive is the only way out of it. We consumed so much of our precious gasoline just getting back to the firmer northern edge of the depression that our survey of the region had to be drastically curtailed.
By following along the north edge of the Gaud we were able to reach its western end and establish a base camp. It was obvious that chances of finding prehistoric settlements in and around the depression were likely to be fruitless. What has not totally disappeared as the result of wind erosion has been smothered under the shifting sands. It required several days of frustrating attempts to get anywhere near the Shela Rud. It in fact required many miles of trudging over and around the dunes from a secondary base where the vehicles were abandoned. The impossibility of carrying much food and water necessitated a shorter stay in the Shela area than we know should have been spent there, but inasmuch as we were the first Westerners to enter the area in seventy years and the very first archaeologists, some miscalculations were bound to occur.
What a change from the description of the Shela given by the British officers. No cultivation there now—no numerous shepherd population—in fact, no population at all!
We found several fairly well-preserved mud-brick buildings dating from pre-Islamic to mediaeval Islamic times. About sixty yards south of the southernmost building is a modern shrine perched atop a steep-sided fifty-foot high mound. This is probably the shrine called Godar-i-Shah in the early British accounts. It consists of the grave of some local Saint decorated with an array of most peculiar objects. On one of the broken walls of the tomb are attached skulls and horns of local animals. Bits of colored rag hang from the twisted branches of long-dead trees, as well as a metal bell which was intended to break the deathlike silence of this desolate place. Scattered on and around the grave are hundreds of empty gun cartridges, obviously left by the occasional hunters as tokens to the Saint. But most startling were the stone objects which covered and surrounded the grave. There were about fifteen beautifully carved and polished columns of alabaster, each from twelve to eighteen inches high with straight or concave sides and a single groove across the top and base. There was also a polished alabaster disc and a more crudely made “weight” carved with a handle. Similar objects were found scattered on top of ordinary Islamic graves between the shrine and the Islamic building.
The practice of covering graves with chunks of alabaster is a very common one in Seistan even today. It provides the only protection against the constant scouring of the wind-driven sands. But to find objects such as these is another question. Such objects have perfect parallels at archaeological sites 500 miles away in northern Iran. The polished stone objects in the “warrior’s” burial from Tepe Hissar (on display in the center of the Museum’s Iran gallery) are identical. The Hissar burial is assigned to Period III-C which is dated around 1800 B.C. The strong suggestion is that we stumbled upon a Hissar HI-C cemetery in the wastes of Seistan. If so, this is the earliest material discovered on the Afghan side of Seistan apart from the painted pottery found by Fairservis in the Gardan Reg. The Shela must be revisited someday and an intensive search made for the early cemetery and settlement which we can now suggest are there. But it will require a great deal of planning and preparation. Water, food, labor must all be imported from villages along the banks of the Helmand. Different types of vehicles which can overcome the topographic horrors of that place will be required.
Our earlier suppositions regarding the archaeological potentials of Seistan, which led us there in the first place, have not been disappointed even though we ourselves did not make a “strike” apart from the alabaster discoveries. Just a few miles across the border in Iran, an Italian expedition at Shahr-i-Sokhta is finding beautifully preserved remains of a third millennium B. C. town.
In the rooms they have found lapis lazuli in abundance, both in raw chunks and in the form of polished beads. Even the tools for working the stone are there. Obviously the town was central in the international lapis trade which was flourishing between its only South Asian source in Badakshan (northernmost Afghanistan) and southern Mesopotamia and Egypt. We do not yet understand why sites of this early period have not been found on the Afghan side of the Seistan border. This demands the attention of a professional geomorphologist, attention which we hope to be able to provide at some future date. The key to the archaeological and cultural history. of Afghan Seistan is still awaiting the lucky explorer. Its potential was recognized many years ago by the Director of the Boundary Commission who wrote:
“Few countries in so small a compass contain so many and varied evidences of past events, both physical and human. It offers unique opportunities for the study of physico-geographical phenomena and their relations to human life.”