The Tall-E Bakun Project
Tall-e Bakun is a twin site located in the fertile Marv Dasht plain of Fars, near Persepolis, the Achaemenid ceremonial capital. Bakun has played a prominent role in the understanding of the prehistory of Fars, partly because it was the first large-scale excavation of a prehistoric mound there, and primarily for the richness of its finds.
This tall consists of two sites, differentiated as Bakun A and Bakun B, the latter being earlier. Tall-e Bakun B (ca. 5000-4200 BC) was first excavated by Alexander Langsdorff and Donald McCown in 1932, and later in 1937 by Eric Schmidt and McCown on behalf of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Excavations at Bakun was part of a major Oriental Institute archaeological project in Iran, with Persepolis as the main focus and headquarters of the project. The results from the 1932 excavations are published (Langsdorff and McCown 1942); the materials from the 1937 season are now being prepared by Abbas Alizadeh, the Oriental Institute, for final publication.
Tall-e Bakun B consists of two distinct cultural deposits; the lower deposit, Bakun BI, contained only layers of ash and debris with a coarse red ware; and the upper one, Bakun BII also did not contain architecture but yielded painted pottery.
The first season of excavations at Bakun A (ca. 4000-3500 BC) began in 1932. Work was concentrated on the northern part of the mound, where an area of about 1200 sq. m. was opened. Four occupational levels were reported, Level I being the lowest, and Level III being the best preserved and most extensively excavated. Level III contained a complex of buildings consisting of rectangular houses and warehouses with common walls. The buildings of Level III suggest a planned architectural layout; they are oriented northeast-southwest with nicely aligned and carefully abutted common walls. This level also produced most of the artifactual material including the clay sealings, which are primary indicators of ancient administrative technology.
Artifactual remains from the excavation areas include pottery, animal and human figurines, spindle whorls, pottery tokens of various shapes and sizes, small, decorated, pottery pipes, firedogs, pottery wasters, stone maceheads and pounders, stone and clay sling missiles, large and miniature vessels of alabaster and local stones, flint and obsidian blades, scrapers, borers and drills, finished and half-finished stone stamp seals, copper objects such as points and needles, chisels, a 25cm-long dagger, a stamp seal, and copper ores.
Whereas numerous whole pottery vessels still in situ, some still containing animal and fish bones, were discovered from various buildings and warehouses in the northern complex, the primarily workshop areas in the central and southern areas (excavated in 1937) produced mostly potsherds, and the few whole jars, indicating specialized activity areas within the settlement. The central and southern areas are markedly different from the northern complex of 1932 season. The northern constructions of the 1932 season exhibit a planned architectural layout as can be discerned from the regularity in spacing of the rooms and thickness of their walls. The architectural units of the central and southern quarters follow the same northeast-southwest orientation; they are not, however, as carefully constructed as the units of the northern complex. Also, these units are surrounded by open areas containing kilns of various sizes and covered with layers of debris and ash.
The wealth and variety of material items at Bakun and the evidence of large workshop areas point to the existence of local industry and connections/trade with distant regions such as the Persian Gulf, the central plateau, Kerman, and northeastern Iran whence goods like shells, copper, steatite, lapis, and turquoise were procured.
Reanalysis of the combined results of the 1932 and 1937 seasons (Alizadeh 1988) demonstrated that Bakun A was a late prehistoric example of the precursors of the later fourth millennium BC urban societies.
After I returned in September 1991 to Chicago from Cambridge, Massachusetts, I began preparing for publication the results of 1937 season of excavations at Tall-e Bakun, one of the first sites excavated by the Oriental Institute in Iran. Tall-e Bakun consists of two mounds, designated as Tall-e Bakun A and B by the original excavators, the latter being the earlier. Tall-e Bakun A is located in the fertile Marv Dasht plain of Fars province, near Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian Achaemenids (fig. 1). The site was excavated for two seasons in 1932 and 1937 by Alexander Langsdorff and Donald E. McCown.
Figure 1. Map indicating the location of Tall-e Bakun A in Fars.
Tall-e Bakun A is one the few sites in the Near East that was excavated in the 1930s with the then newly developed techniques of stratigraphic control. The precision of the excavators in retrieving data and their remarkable ability in stratigraphy resulted in meticulously recorded evidence which has enabled me to analyze and reconstruct various aspects of this late prehistoric community.
Excavations of 1932 revealed a large area in the northern sector of the mound (see Tall-I-Bakun A: Season of 1932, A. Langsdorff and D. E. McCown, Oriental Institute Publications 59). Here, a series of contiguous buildings was discovered (fig. 2). Four occupational levels were reported; Level I is the earliest, Level III is the best preserved and most extensively excavated, and Level IV is the latest. The evidence from the initial phase of the settlement consists of a 15 cm thick layer of ash, kilns, fireplaces, hard burned floors, and postholes. Most of Level I seems to have been leveled and used during Level II as foundation for buildings. However, the state of preservation was bad and only a few wall fragments and floors were discovered in Level II. But the presence of ashy layers and at least one kiln indicates industrial activities in this phase as well.
Figure 2. Various areas of excavations at Tall-e Bakun A.
Level III contained a complex of buildings consisting of rectangular houses with walls in common. In general, the buildings of Level III suggest a planned architectural layout; they are oriented northeast-southwest with nicely aligned and carefully abutted common walls (fig. 2). Some of these houses were furnished with storage areas containing large jars and other vessels still intact. Traces of red and yellow paint were found on some walls. Level III also produced most of the artifacts, including many clay sealings (fig. 3).
Figure 3. Samples of sealings from Tall-e Bakun A.
The majority of the sealings found in the northern area were door sealings. They were used to protect rooms and their contents from unauthorized entry (fig. 4). The door sealings from Bakun are so far the earliest examples of this administrative technique in the ancient Near East. A study of these sealings and an analysis of their spatial distribution in the five buildings of Level III (fig. 5) are expected to contribute to the understanding of the historical development of the precursors of the later urban societies, when the practice of sealing doors proliferated throughout the ancient Near East.
Figure 4. Hypothetical reconstruction of a warehouse with door sealing.
Figure 5. Top plans of the buildings that contained sealings.
Excavations at Bakun also brought to light a highly sophisticated painted pottery. The painted pottery at Bakun is arguably the highest manifestation of prehistoric ceramic art. It exhibits mastery in the organic relationship between the shape of a vessel and the design. The artist employed a vast repertoire of designs and created a harmonic relationship between the painted and unpainted areas of the vessel (fig. 6).
Figure 6. Samples of painted vessels from Tall-e Bakun A.
Important additional information about the site came with the results of the second season of excavations in 1937. Unlike the work of the 1932 season, which was concentrated in one large area, eleven 10 m squares were opened in the central, southeastern, and southwestern areas of the mound (fig. 2). Only the central and southern areas contained architecture; other squares yielded only kilns of various sizes surrounded by thick layers of debris and ash.
The central area consists of four contiguous 10 m squares. Although several buildings were discovered at the northeast corner of this area, even here most of the exposed area is devoid of architecture (fig. 7). These buildings demonstrate at least three different architectural phases. Since the lowest level rests on sterile soil and as such is the earliest, the architecture in this area can fill in the gap in architectural levels I and II of the northern area that was excavated in 1932. To the south of these buildings, and almost at the center of the mound, several well-constructed kilns were discovered (fig. 8). The open space in this and other areas was filled with layers of ash and soot.
Figure 7. Three pottery kilns in the central area, looking to the north.
Figure 8. Top plan and section of a pottery kiln at Tall-e Bakun A.
In the northern area the architecture was predominantly domestic in contrast to the central and southern areas which seem to have been the loci for manufacturing goods. The results of the 1937 season provide evidence of craft production in the central and southern parts of the site. Products produced include copper tools, pottery, carved stone and bone ornaments, and possibly cloth. Moreover, various imported materials provide important evidence of trade with distant regions such as Anatolia (obsidian), the Persian Gulf (sea shells), Central Iranian Plateau (copper ore), and northeastern Iran (turquoise and lapis lazuli).
The different types of architecture, their location, and the spatial and temporal distribution of artifacts in various buildings provide evidence to reconstruct intrasite settlement and industrial activities patterns. For example, the contrast at Bakun between the northern quarter and central and southern quarters indicates that some activities were spatially segregated. The central and southern parts were the location of craft and industrial production. The northern quarter was residential. However, some buildings in the northern quarter, namely Buildings II-IV, VII, and XIII also contained door sealings as well as sealings of movable objects, such as jars, bales, and bags (fig. 5). The presence in these buildings of sealings suggests that they were not merely residential but were the loci of administrative activities.
The combined archaeological materials from both seasons provide important evidence of an incipient administration and control of the flow of goods in a late prehistoric context. The results of the second season with important unpublished lines of evidence from the first season will appear as a volume in the Oriental Institute's series Oriental Institute Publications in the near future.