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Settlement and Landscape Organisation of the Persepolis Region

Final Report Summary - SELOPERSE (Settlement and Landscape Organisation of the Persepolis Region)

The aim of the SELOPerse project was to study the ancient Achaemenid urban scheme of the prestigious Unesco World Heritage site of Persepolis (Iran, Fars province), which included one of the lavish royal residences built by the Great King Darius I (520-486 BC). Our works were based on new thoughts about the Persepolis city layout. The city was probably not structured as a densely built-up and populated centre, as was usual over the Ancient Near East up to the Achaemenid period. Indeed, we were convinced that the urban area was opened out extensively. The city should have consisted of separated settlement blocks accommodating the administrative and economic activities of the provincial capital as well as the aristocratic and common dwellings. These buildings blocks were distributed over several square kilometres, probably within a zone landscaped with gardens, parks, fields and orchards. Farther, in the large and fertile Persepolis plain supply of the city with raw materials as well as agricultural products was managed by a network of local administrative centres and farms. Our main intention was to define the layout of this uncommon scheme more accurately.
Due to the present-day anthropic pressure and intensive cultivation techniques, the traces of the Achaemenid landscape are gradually disappearing. The remains of the ancient settlements and infrastructures are hard to find, which makes it difficult to reconstruct the Persepolis city layout. The only way to study the last remaining archaeological data is to carry out large scale studies by combining several extensive and intensive survey methods (fieldwalking and geophysical surveys) as well as excavations on selected points. These pluridisciplinary and multiscalar approaches were the only appropriate solutions to retrieve the archaeological evidence and demonstrate our hypothesis on the urban scheme.
The main challenge for the SELOPerse project was to tackle these difficulties, i.e. the extensiveness of the area studied and the levelling of the archaeological remains, by applying new archaeological survey methods integrated into a comprehensive study of Persepolis. To reach these goals, the fieldwork carried out during the SELOPerse project was implemented in the frame of the joint Iranian-Italian of excavation, survey and restoration expedition in Persepolis involving a pluridisciplinary team. This field project is co-managed for the Italian part by Prof P. Callieri (University of Bologna – Italy), who was the scientist in charge of the supervision of the SELOPerse project. The Marie Curie Fellow, Sébastien Gondet, was involved in these fieldworks as full-member of the team. He managed and carried out the survey tasks of the programme, while SELOPerse was hosted by the Ravenna Department of Heritage Studies of the University of Bologna where post-processing of data and interpretation of raw data were performed. This project structure provided Sébastien Gondet with the right environment to develop his skills in management of archaeological field projects as well as training to enhance his background as a scholar.
The scientific findings are of various types, obtained on complementary scales from the single building to the whole city. At the settlement scale, combined works were carried out on the Tol-e Ajori site excavated by the joint Iranian-Italian expedition with thorough examination of the remains by means of soundings and geophysical surveys, thanks to which we were able to uncover parts of a monument dating back to the Early Achaemenid period, the formation time of the city, and study its state of conservation. The main contribution here lay in providing details on the city development chronology and on architectural plan of an early royal monument. As for the settlement surroundings, the combined survey methods enabled us to place the monuments in a broader context. As we had supposed before the project got underway, the already known or still excavated buildings are only the visible signs of a larger urban layout divided into distinct sectors. Topographical, fieldwalking, geomorphological and geophysical survey results demonstrate the existence of at least three urban sectors and allow for fuller definition of their organization scheme: the Royal Precinct sector is structured around the monumental Terrace but sprawling extensively towards the nearby plain (fig. 1); some kilometres to the west, the Persepolis West sector was used for part of the everyday activities, following an orthogonal plan with alternating built-up and green areas; further west the Bagh-e Firuzi sector brings several isolated monumental buildings, probably of symbolic status, into a common scheme but following a different pattern from the other parts of the city. Finally, on the city-wide scale (several square kilometres), surveys on the foothills revealed numerous quarries that supplied the several building sites with stone. Nowadays, these quarry remains serve as evidence to delineate the limit between the city and its territory and to approach the question of the Achaemenid territorial management. The mountain ranges are also rich in numerous funerary sites of various dating including the Achaemenid period.
Besides these new archaeological findings, the fieldwork afforded us the opportunity to test new methodological solutions to survey extensive landscaped areas. We developed adaptations of field strategies using a prototype instrument developed by the Paris University Pierre et Marie Curie. The goal was to focus on the magnetic properties of soil, changes in which are good markers of ancient human activities. Thanks to a strategy of large-scale sampling, we investigated several dozens of hectares across Persepolis. The data are still being processed and yet to be interpreted, but it has already been proved that this new method can rapidly provide a good overview of the Persepolis cityscape (fig. 2). We have devised a useful strategy thanks to which we can obtain overall mapping of a zone – a preliminary step for focusing on areas of interest in greater detail. This method could be now tested on other sites over the Near East.
Altogether, these results provide us with data for renewed reflexions on the Achaemenid urbanization processes. The Achaemenians applied urban projects far from those previously existing over the Ancient Near East. They conceived Persepolis not as a crowded, densely built-up centre encircled by sturdy defensive walls but as a pleasant urban landscape with ample open spaces extending over several square kilometres. This urban landscape is made by intertwined built and green spaces, with splendid monuments clearly separated from the common buildings. Thus at Persepolis we determine a new urban pattern that also might have been applied on several other Achaemenid foundations throughout the Empire. These approaches to the Achaemenid cities have opened up new directions in research to plan international programmes on the Achaemenid urban landscapes on the Empire-wide scale, i.e. over the entire Ancient Near East.

Legends for the figures:
Fig. 1: Magnetic map of a newly discovered monumental complex some hundreds of metres to the northwest corner of the Persepolis Terrace, a possible sign of an extension of the Royal Precinct towards this direction.
Fig. 2: Map of the soil magnetic susceptibility over the Persepolis West sector showing an intertwined settlement system. The red and yellow areas correspond to the ancient built sector while the green and blue ones correspond to unbuilt but probably green areas.