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Antiquity Vol 83 Issue 320 June 2009

Tepe Pissa: new investigations at a Kura-Araxes site in central western Iran

Yaghoub Mohammadifar, Abbass Motarjem & Hosein Torabzadeh Khorasani


During the Early Bronze Age, in the early to mid third millennium, the material culture of central western Iran was influenced by the cultural phenomenon known as Kura-Araxes, or Early Trans-Caucasian (ETC). Although difficult to define precisely, it is thought to have originated in the general area of north-eastern Anatolia, the Kura-Araxes river basin in Transcaucasia, north-eastern Azerbaijan and south-eastern Daghestan (Kohl 2007: 96). From here it apparently spread over a huge geographical area stretching from western-central Iran to eastern Anatolia and south into Palestine.

The first evidence for the ETC culture in western Iran was revealed at Yanik/Yanigh Tepe, a mound located to the northwest of Lake Urmia. Charles Burney's excavations there between 1960 and 1962 exposed large areas of ETC period occupation. Architecture consisted of tightly packed round houses with benches and storage bins. The burnished hand-made ceramics had dark grey-black and red fabric and were decorated with incised and excised geometric patterns, sometimes infilled after firing with gypsum (Burney 1964).

At the time of Burney's work, this material culture was poorly represented in Iran and bore no similarity to known Early Bronze Age cultures. It further represented a break in material culture with the Chalcolithic deposits found at the same site. Perceiving the similarities with material deriving from excavations in the former Soviet Union, Burney suggested that this culture originated there (Burney 1964).

The characteristic ceramics were subsequently identified much further south in the Zagros Mountains. During 1967-1973 T. Cuyler Young Jr., sponsored by the Royal Ontario Museum Toronto, undertook large-scale excavations at Godin Tepe (Young 1969). The mound is located in the Kangavar valley, central-western Iran. Eleven cultural phases were defined, with level IV producing the characteristic ETC material. A surface survey of the Kangavar valley undertaken in 1974 also identified sites with these ceramics (Young 1975) and work by Swiny (1975) documented ETC material in the Hamedan plain.

Though the importance and widespread nature of the ETC phenomenon in Iran is clear, many questions remain. Absolute and relative chronological parameters remain to be clearly defined. Although Burney's excavations at Yanik Tepe were exceptional in the length and extent of occupation revealed, it nevertheless remains difficult to reconstruct a consistent phasing of the site's contexts. Furthermore, no extensive excavations have been carried out in the Hamedan plain. There is therefore a clear need for new research excavations on this period and region.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Location of Tepe Pissa in Iran.
Click to enlarge.

Tepe Pissa

Recent fieldwork by Bu Ali Sina University, with financial assistance from the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization of Hamedan province, has identified ETC material at the mound of Tepe Pissa on the Hamedan plain, northwest of Hamedan itself (Mohammadifar & Motarjem 2006). At 3.5 hectares, it is larger than Godin Tepe which lies 80km to the south (Figure 1).

The Abbas abad river, originating in the Alvand mountain, flows to the west of the mound (see Figure 2). The alluvial plain on which it lies is highly fertile and is considered to be one of the most important agricultural centres in western Iran. Moreover, it is located on a major communication route between the plains of Iran and Mesopotamia. The importance of this location is emphasised by the existence of the ancient city of Hegmataneh (Ecbatana) just 5km from Tepe Pissa. This was the first capital of the Medes (728-550 BC) and subsequently the Achaemenid summer capital (550-330 BC).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Tepe Pissa, showing location of sections A and B and previous investigations by Fossey in 1913.
Click to enlarge.

Tepe Pissa has attracted the attention of archaeologists for nearly a century. Ch. Fossey first began investigating the mound in 1913 on behalf the French government (Chevalier 1989). His goal was to discover Ecbatana, whose location was hinted at in the accounts of Greek historians (Herodotus, The Histories Book I, 95-9). His failure to identify Ecbatana however led him to abandon his work, evidence of which can still be seen on the centre of the mound (Figure 2).

The current investigations at Tepe Pissa have been conducted over two seasons, in 2007 and 2008. The goal was to establish the stratigraphy and thus define the chronology in two areas, A and B, west and east respectively (see Figure 2).

Preliminary indications are that the first settlement had a depth of 2.8m rising from the level of the present plain. The cultural material (see figures 3 & 4) dates to the ETC period. Baked black ceramics were found with incised decoration which had been infilled with gypsum. The decoration consists of complex geometric designs including spirals and is similar to pottery from the ETC 1 phase at Yanik/Panigh Tepe and from sites in eastern Anatolia (Mellaart 1966).

Figure 3
Figure 3. ETC ceramics from Tepe Pissa.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Ceramic figurine from Tepe Pissa.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Section A at Tepe Pissa (east).
Click to enlarge.

Section A

Section A was located on the eastern edge of the mound. The section was 1.6m in length and was excavated down to virgin soil. Cultural deposits 8.9m in depth were found. Twenty-nine layers were identified which can be divided into three main phases (Figure 5).

Phase A:I had a depth of 4.15m and consisted of layers 29 to 14. The material of this phase is datable to the ETC period.

Phase A: II had a depth of 3.75m and consisted of layers 13 to 2. The material is characteristic of the Middle Bronze Age in the Zagros area and is comparable to the Godin III culture.

Phase A: III was 1m deep. This refers to a single layer of the Ashkanian/Parthian period.

Section B

Section B was located on the western side, beyond the Abbas abad river (Figure 6). Eight occupation layers were identified, all of them datable to the ETC period. The depth of cultural deposits in this section was 3.30m and virgin soil was reached at a level of 0.4m above that of the present plain in this section. The first inhabitants of this part of the mound must therefore have resided on a naturally elevated area, about 3.2m above the adjacent river. It is possible that the initial occupation of this village spread from the east to the west of the hill.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Section B at Tepe Pissa (west).
Click to enlarge.


These results were obtained in the first two seasons of a proposed five year project. It is clear from work carried out so far that the Hamedan plain was a major centre of the ETC. culture. Archaeological observations of the area around Tepe Pissa reveal the widespread nature of the characteristic ceramics on sites in the plain of Hamedan and Razan further to the north-west. Undoubtedly the extensive nature and considerable depth of deposits at Tepe Pissa will shed light on a range of issues, from defining chronological parameters to understanding the character of human settlement and lifeways in central-western Iran during the ETC. period.


We would like to thank Helen Taylor (British Museum) and M. Bagheri (Bu-Ali Sina Unversity) for reading the manuscript and A. Bayat (Director of the Hamedan ICHTO) for this support and encouragement. We also wish to thank Dr Kazem Mollazade of the Department of Archaeology, Bu-Ali Sina University, M.R. Ranjbaran (Hamedan ICHTO) and F. Amini (Tehran University).


  • BURNEY, C. A. 1964. Excavations at Yanik Tepe, Azerbaijan, 1962: third preliminary report. Iraq 26: 54-61.
  • CHEVALIER, N. 1989. Hamadan 1913, une mission oubliée. Iranica Antiqua 24: 245-51.
  • KOHL, P.L. 2007. The making of Bronze Age Eurasia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • MELLAART, J. 1966. The Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age in the Near East and Anatolia. Beirut: Khayats.
  • MOHAMMADIFAR, Y. & A. MOTARJEM. Report of Hamadan Survey. Unpublished report, ICHTO Archive (in Persian).
  • SWINY. S. 1975. Survey in north-west Iran 1971. East and West 25: 77-98.
  • YOUNG, T.C. Jr. 1969. Excavations at Godin Tepe: first progress report. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.
    - 1975. Kangavar valley survey. Iran 13: 191-3.


(* Author for correspondence)

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