Re-excavating Cheshmeh Ali

Reviews and Reports

By: Timothy Matney

Originally Published in 1995

View PDF

Fainted ceramic traditions were widespread across southwestern Asia in the Early Chalcolithic period (roughly 5500 to 5000 B.C.), distributed from the central plateau of modern-day Turkey, across northern Syria, through Iraq and highland Iran to western Turkmenistan and the borders of the Kara Kum Desert. Among these Early Chaicolithic traditions, the exquis­ite prehistoric painted ceramics of Iran have long held the special attention of archaeologists, art historians, and collectors of antiquities. With their flocks of long-necked birds, prancing goats, and intricate geometric designs in hold black paint (Figs. 1, 2), these elegant vessels speak to contemporary sensibili­ties across a gap of some two hundred generations.

Despite its aesthetic appeal, the Early Chalcolithic pottery of north central Iran has received little scientific study. Nearly sixty years since the end of the joint University Museum-Boston Museum of Fine Arts expedition to Cheshmeh Ali, the details of excavations at the site remain largely buried in the storerooms and archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. To remedy this situation, in the fall of 1993 I initiated a restudy pro­ject at the University Museum, with the goal to publish in full the results of the Cheshmeh Ali excavations. Sifting through correspondence, afield notes, object cards and other long-neglected documents, I am, in a sense, re-excavat­ing one of Iran’s most important Early Chaicolithic villages.

Life in the Early Chalcolithic Period

Frank Hole has characterized the Early Chalcolithic period, which he terms the “Early Village Period,” as a time of small, widely dispersed agricul­tural villages. Subsistence in north central Iran was based on a mixed economy including the herding of domesticated goats and the cultivation of barley, as well as the age-old pursuits of hunting wild animals and gathering plants. Remains of undomesticated sheep, cattle, and gazelle have been found at the village of Tepe Salk, contemporary to and 200 kilometers south of Cheshmeh Ali. The remains of Early Chaicolithic dwellings form an important part of the archaeological record (Fig. 3). Villages consisted of clusters of rectilinear mud-brick or packed mud buildings, most containing only a few rooms. The popu­lation of these villages rarely exceeded 200 inhabitants. Presumably, widespread nomadic and semi-nomadic elements existed in Early Chaicolithic society but have left few traces for the archaeologist to exhume.

As its name implies, the Early Chalcolitbic period (chako = copper) witnessed the innovation of copper working in the region of north central Iran. Simple hammering and annealing of small quantities of copper to make objects is attested to at Tepe Sialk. By the early part of the 5th millennium B.C., cop­persmiths had developed the technology for smelting and casting. A workshop for casting copper from this period was found at Tepe Ghabristan, northwest of Cheshmeh Ali, complete with smithing tools, molds, and finished copper objects (Majidzadeh 1979).

Other aspects of Early Chaicolithic society remain tantalizing but vague. At the site of Zagheh, 250 kilometers to the northwest of Cheshmeh Ali, excavator Ezat Negahban recovered the remains of a Late Neolithic “shrine” dating to the late 7th or early 6th millennium B.C. This building had elaborate buttressed architecture, internal platforms, and walls painted with geometric designs in red and white and embedded with mountain goat skulls. While no such structures were found at Cheshmeh Ali, it seems plausible that similar shrines may have continued to exist into the Early Chaicolithic period.

The burial customs in the Early Chaicolithic period seem to have var­ied considerably from one area to the next. In general, burials consisted of sin­gle skeletons interred in simple pits, often dug below the floors of houses and courtyards. Infants were buried in ceramic vessels. At Cheshmeh Alai and Tepe Hissar further to the east, the dead were buried with painted pottery vessels, necklaces, armlets, belts and other ornaments made of beads, various stones, and copper. Often a simple copper pin, perhaps worn on the clothing, accom­panied the deceased. At both Cheshmeh Ali and Tepe Hissar, with a few exceptions, skeletons lay on their right sides, with legs contracted (Fig. 4). Their orientations suggested to Schmidt, who also excavated at Tepe Hissar, that the bodies were buried facing the sunrise or sunset. At Tepe Sialk to the south, Early Chaicolithic burials customarily were not accompanied by grave goods, but the skeletons showed traces of having been sprinkled with red ochre, a custom which goes back to earlier Neolithic practices, e.g., at Belt Cave on the shores of the Caspian.

The Archaeological Site of Cheshmesh Ali

Cheshmeh Ali is set within the southern foothills of the Eiburz Mountains which seAarate the interior deserts of Iran from the lush subtropical CasAian shores to the north (Fig. 5). In summer, these foothills present a dry, parched landscape broken only by scattered patches of green around the infre­quent springs and occasional streams which run down from the mountains. However, the southern Elburi. slopes receive a moderate amount of precipita Dion and provide, especially at the western end of the range, fertile upland meadows and agricultural land in the valleys. The geography of the region is also important in terms of transportation. Cheshmeh Ali was located along what was to become one of the most celebrated east-west trade routes in antiq­uity—the Silk Road—which follows for a time the southern flanks of the Elburz Mountains. The movement of people, goods, and ideas along some sec­tions of this trade route appears to have started as long ago as 7,000 years, when the small village of Cheshmeh All flourished.

Cheshmeh All is the name given to a small portion of the more exten­sive archaeological site of Rayy. The city of Rayy, dating primarily to the Islamic period (A.D. 637-1220), surrounds and overlies the earlier historic and prehistoric deposits of the site, including the small Arehistoric mound of Cheshmeh Ali. As Erich Schmidt, the excavator, described the site of Rayy: “The imposing acropolis or fortress crowns a rocky spur of the Elburz Mountains. Smaller mounds and girdle walls of the city defense extend far into the plain, covered with bricks and millions of pot fragments” (1935:4F-42). Today, the mound of Cheshmeh All is once again inhabited, this time by the occupants of suburban Teheran which has expanded to engulf the ancient site.

Early Painted Ceramic Traditions

As noted above, painted ceramic traditions were widespread across ancient southwestern Asia in the Chalcolithic. Perhaps the most well-docu­mented of these was the Halaf tradition of northern Mesopotamia. Named for the site of Tell Halaf in northern Syria, Halaf-style pottery has a wide distribu­tion from the Syrian Euphrates to the Taurus Mountains of Turkey to the Greater ‘Lab in northeastern Iraq. Roughly contemporary painted ceramic tra­ditions in the southern Mesopotamian lowlands include the Chogha Miami Transitional (CAT), the Ubaid l (or “Hajji Mohammed”), and Ubaid 2 tradi­tions. In Susiana, well-known painted ceramics of comparable date from the sites of Chogha Mish and affarabad arc termed “Susiana a-b.” On the Anatolian plateau, sites like Hacilar, atal Hüyük West and Can Hasan illumi­nate an independent Early Chalcolithic tradition with striking red-on-cream painted pottery, including some anthropomorphic vessels. East of Cheshmeh Alai, the distribution of related Early Chalcolithie painted pottery traditions fol­lows the piedmont region of the Elburz Mountains and is found, for example, at the site of Tepe Hissar, near modern-day Damghan.

The Pottery

The Cheshmeh Ali Prehistoric Project began by focusing on the sAectacular pottery housed in the storerooms of the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Fig. 6a, b; see also Fig. F). The earliest vessels were handmade, although by the end of the Early Chalcolithic, evidence for the use of a slow wheel is found. Typically, the fabric of the vessel is a deep red color, although many lighter shades are also found. The vessels range from eggshell-thin cups to storage vessels with sides two or three centimeters thick and are characterized by a number of handleless forms: small round-bottomed cups with flaring rims, large spherical bowls and pedestalled vases being some of the more common.

The pottery of Cheshmeh Ali, however, is best identified by its painted deco­ration. The paint itself is dark, either dark brown or, more commonly, black. The majority of sherds are painted with geometric designs: parallel bands, vertical stripes, diago­nals, wavy lines, chevrons, dots and dashes. Another frequent motif is a floral or tree pattern with curling branches emanating from a vertical stalk or trunk (Fig. 7). Vessel interiors are often painted in bands with cross-hatching which closely resembles the work of the basket weaver. We can only assume that many of the forms of these early pots were heavily influenced by traditions of basketry and woodworking which have left few traces in the archaeological record. Although less common than the geo­metric designs, the painted animals of Cheshmeh All form an important Aart of the ceramic tradition. Goats, ibexes, gazelles, and long-necked water birds parade in horizontal bands across the vessels showing the Aotter’s skill at por­traying both naturalistic renditions of the local fauna, as well as highly conven­tionalized animals, exeeuted with only a minimum of strokes from the artist’s brush. Representations of humans are exceedingly rare.

Although we have known about the painted Cheshmeh Ali tradition for many decades, our understanding of these pottery vessels is still limited. Basic questions addressed by the current research are: What are the chronological and spatial distributions of this tradition? Do they form distinct types’ which can be correlated with kinship or other social groupings? How does this tradition relate to the other Early Chalcolithie traditions mentioned above? The first step toward answering these questions has been to reconstruct the site three-dimensional. From F934 to 1936, each object found at Cheshmeh Ali was catalogued, described and drawn, and many were photographed. Detailed plans and daily log books (Fig. 8) note the location of walls, floors, pits, and other architectural features, as well as the location of the thousands of artifacts recovered by Schmidt’s team. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, each piece of information is fed into a computer database, the analysis of which will yield clues vital to understanding the site’s spatial relationships.

FUTURE WORK: Understanding Cheshmesh Ali’s Prehistoric Ssymbols

This brief report has described the background and the work in progress. Therefore, it seems appropriate to give the reader some sense of where the Cheshmeh Ali Prehistoric Project is headed, beyond the mundane (but important) questions of chronology, typology, and interrelations with other sites.

In 1977, anthropologist Martin Worst published a paper entitled “Stylistic Behavior and Information Exchange” in which he suggests that it might be useful to view material culture, especially styles of artifacts, as a means of transmitting information. The visual information encoded into styles of dress, pottery, houses, and so forth broadcasts messages about our territorial or social boundaries, our ritual contexts and ethnic affiliations, our self-created identities. It helps maintain relationships of exchange, prestige, and power, especially when costly materials or large labor inputs are necessary for produc­tion. In short, stylistic data is integral to social cohesion and the smooth flow of negotiations between individuals and groups (Wobst 1977).

Working from this basic premise, a number of scholars have ana­lyzed the decora­tions on prehistoric painted pottery in an attempt to under­stand the “meaning” of the information encoded within them. For example, Susan Pollock attempted to corre­late variations in painted ceramic styles with changing sociopolitical com­plexity in the Susiana Plain of Iran during the late 6th and 5th millennia B.C. She found that as society there became more complex and stratified, a class of elite or prestige goods emerged which demonstrated a “redundancy of stylistic embellishment.” As Pollock puts it, “…the florescence of painted goblets in Susa A is related to the presence of a distinctly stratified society…whose elite could support the costly production of fancy pottery which symboli­cally reinforced their high-status positions through the stylistic messages it conveyed” (1983:386).

In a similar vein, one goal of continuing the present research is to assess the meaning of the Early Chalcolithic motifs found on the pottery from Cheshmeh Ali. This work has already been started by examining and cataloguing all the design elements found on the pottery, noting their location on the ves­sels, their variants, and the combinations in which they occur. This information is being coded and entered into a computerized relational database. Additionally, the stylistic information regarding the vessels is tied to a database containing a wealth of information on the spa­tial location of every object, within rooms, on floors, in ancient pits or piles of debris. The spatial patterning of the objects also provides us with an understanding of where an object was used, what it might have been used for, what meaning it might have carried. Which artifacts were used in burial rituals? Which were used exclusively by men or women? What was the social significance (if an!) of the elaborate painted motifs? Were they family-specific, individual to each potter, or perhaps related to another social grouping? To answer these questions, we must turn to the patterns found within the computer database; these patterns should provide sonic insight into the information encoded on the beautiful painted vessels of Cheshmeh Ali.

And so we turn to new technologies and new methodologies to look at very old data, much as Schmidt had done when he turned to the cutting edge of technology—aerial photography, moving, color and stereoscopic picturesand to the young methodology of detailed stratigraphic excavation. Where Schmidt laboriously created cross-indexed systems of notecards and file folders, the modem researcher can access thou­sands of pieces of information in a matter of seconds through a computer database. Not only have such developments eased the burden of working through the mountains of information generated by archaeological excavation, but they have also opened up entirely new avenues of research and allow us to ask questions which Schmidt working within the limits of his era could never have addressed.

Perhaps the most significant change in archaeological fieldwork over the past sixty years has been the introduction of new technology. Most modern excavations employ teams of specialists—paleobotanists, palvnologists, geomorphologists to name a few—as well as a variety of scientific instruments. Laser theodolites, laptop computers, and even robots have largely replaced the traditional plumb bobs, notecards, and plane tables in the field. Erich Schmidt work at Cheshmeh Ali was highly innovative, pushing the limits of the technology of the 1930s, especially in the area of photography. Schmidt employed aerial photography, color photographs, even stereoscopic pho­tographs as an aid in recording the details of his work. In the following pages, the story of his excavations is told mainly through his evocative photographs which provide a glimpse into the early days of American archaeology in Iran.


This project is supported by generous funding through the Museum’s newly endowed Robert H. Dyson Fellowship for the Cheshmeh Ali Prehistoric Project. In addition to acknowledging Bob Dyson’s constant support for this on-going project, I would like to thank Ann Behrman and John Larson for their assistance, editorial and other­wise, in the production of this article.

Cite This Article

Matney, Timothy. "Re-excavating Cheshmeh Ali." Expedition Magazine 37, no. 2 (July, 1995): -. Accessed April 24, 2024.

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

Report problems and issues to