BMCR 2015.11.25

The Archaeology of Sasanian Politics. Journal of Ancient History (special issue), 2.2 (2014)

, , The Archaeology of Sasanian Politics. Journal of Ancient History (special issue), 2.2 (2014). Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014. 136. ISBN 2324-8106. $74.00.

Issue 2 of volume 2 of the new Journal of Ancient History contains the proceedings of a workshop on “The Archaeology of Sasanian Politics” that took place in April 2013 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. One of the editors of the special issue, Richard Payne, recognized for his numerous contributions on the Late Antique Near East, knowledgeably and prudently informs us in a kind of introduction (“The Archaeology of Sasanian Politics,” pp. 80-92) about the intention of the colloquium and the publication and the benefits of a transdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists and historians to better understand the political and economic structures and mechanisms of the Sasanian Empire. He decidedly opposes—in my view rightly—the notion of a politically- administratively and economically ‘underdeveloped’ Late Antique eastern empire. Even if one is inclined to give more positive weight than the editor does to earlier perspectives (not least those written in Italian, French, German or Russian) 1 and even if historical and archaeological research on the Sasanian Near East was already declared a necessary part of research on Late Antiquity earlier than Payne suggests,2 we are nevertheless highly indebted to the author for not only emphasizing the opportunities that arise with the cooperation between archaeologists and historians, but also for promoting it by numerous detailed suggestions in his article (see below).

Gigantic major projects such as the Gurgan Wall or the ‘militarized landscape’ of Azerbaijan of the 5 th to 7 th centuries (Karim Alizadeh, “Borderland Projects of Sasanian Empire: Intersection of Domestic and Foreign Policies”, pp. 93-115) as well as the kings’ urbanisation policy beginning in the early days of the empire confirm the administrative and economic organisational potential and the political and economic strength of the Sasanid centre. The International Merv Project has now revealed the mutually reinforcing infrastructural, economic, political- administrative, and demographic roles of Sasanian cities archaeologically, which had earlier been mainly documented only in the written sources. At the same time, it hints at the motives of the founders and sponsors (court, aristocratic officials, etc.) of those demographic conglomerations (St John Simpson, “Merv, an Archaeological Case-study from the Northeastern Frontier of the Sasanian Empire”, pp. 116-143).

James Howard-Johnston (“The Sasanian State: the Evidence of Coinage and Military Construction”, pp. 144-181) makes clear how much numismatics, in addition to archaeology and text-based history, can contribute to a better understanding of the economy of the Sasanian Empire. The author relates silver coinage to the successful infrastructural and military investments of the court, not simply their commercial intentions. On the other hand, Howard-Johnson makes clear which ‘ideological’ and political advantages were associated with a stable currency for rulers and aristocracy alike. It is a pleasure to see how time and again this author and other contributors rightly refer to the source material and insights of the other participants of the conference. This also applies to the next contribution, not presented in New York (Tobin Hartnell, “Agriculture in Sasanian Persis: Ideology and Practice”, pp. 182-208). Using the example of the Kur River Basin in Fars, Hartnell emphasises the common interests and cooperation of court and regional elites in the development of the water resources of the provincial hinterlands, thereby also detecting a ‘religious’ side to these measures promoting running-water infrastructure.3

The last contribution (Donald Whitcomb, “Landscape Signatures in Sasanian Archaeology”, pp. 209-215) presents, as a kind of epilogue, the services rendered by the conference papers in the fields of landscape archaeology and comparative urban research. At the same time, the author refers, like Payne in his introduction, to work that is yet to be done: supplementing the case studies presented here with those from other regions of the empire; intensification of research on cause-effect correlations between investments, production and settlement patterns; and, last but not least, renewed examination, sharpened by studies of the kind presented here, of the literary and documentary sources of the Sasanian Empire. For approaches of this kind, the present publication has laid important foundations and made many valuable suggestions.


1. Cf., e.g., the quoted non-anglophone literature in the notes and bibliographies of Payne and Howard-Johnston.

2. Cf. the considerations of Michael G. Morony and the reviewer on the impact of work on the Sasanian Empire on research on Late Antiquity (Michael G. Morony, “Should Sasanian Iran Be Included in Late Antiquity?”, in: Sasanika Occasional Papers 1, 2010, 1-9; Josef Wiesehöfer,’Randkultur’ oder ‚Nabel der Welt’? Das Sasanidenreich und der Westen. Anmerkungen eines Althistorikers, in: Wiesehöfer, Josef and Philip Huyse (edd.), Ērān ud Anērān. Studien zu den Beziehungen zwischen dem Sasanidenreich und der Mittelmeerwelt, Oriens et Occidens 13, Stuttgart 2006, 9-28; ibid., “The Late Sasanian Near East”, in: Chase Robinson (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 1, Cambridge 2010, 98-152). The latter also tries to show which other disciplines (in addition to archaeology and ancient history) are or should be indispensable interlocutors for a reorientation of research on Sasanian history and institutions.

3. A German-French research group (Djamali / Nelle / Wiesehöfer) aims at reconstructing and modelling the environmental conditions in Fars (Southwestern Iran) in antiquity.