Buried for 4,000 Years, this Ancient Culture Could Expand the ‘Cradle of Civilization’

March 1, 2021

Flooding in 2001 near Jiroft, Iran, exposed the ruins of an ancient necropolis from a Bronze Age culture that flourished alongside Mesopotamia.

In 2001 a flood of archaeological objects began appearing in the antiquities market seemingly out of nowhere. For sale were distinctive pieces of jewelry, weapons, finely crafted ceramics, drinking vessels, and game boards—featuring unusual artistry and magnificent inlays of carnelian and lapis lazuli.

These extraordinary pieces featured a complex symbology of animals, both wild and domesticated, depicted fighting among themselves or with human figures, the humans always triumphant. There were beautifully realized bucolic scenes of animals grazing in vast palm groves and architectural reproductions of temples or palaces.

Data provided by the internet sites and auction houses selling these mysterious pieces was sparse and, at best, vague. Their origins were often listed as “from Central Asia.” At first, it was assumed that the pieces were the work of expert forgers, but as more came on the market in the following months, scholars began to speculate that they could be genuine, deriving from an undocumented site whose location was unknown to them. In 2002 more appeared on the market.

Iranian police solved the mystery later that year. A coordinated investigation led to the arrest of several traffickers and the confiscation of a hoard of artifacts.

These objects were being prepared to be shipped from Tehran, Bandar ‘Abbas, and Kerman to buyers around the world. Investigators revealed that most of these distinctive pieces could be traced back to a location in the Halil River Valley, about 25 miles south of Jiroft, a remote and peaceful city in southeastern Iran, not far from the Persian Gulf.

But where did these mystery artifacts come from? At the time, scholars knew of no dig sites in the area, but when they looked closer, they found a simple yet surprising explanation. In early 2001 flooding caused the Halil River to overflow its banks and erode the surrounding lands. Layers of sediment were washed away, and the remains of an ancient cemetery were exposed. Locals and looters quickly recognized the importance of the find and moved to collect and sell the artifacts they were finding.

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