The Helmand Sistan Project


The Parthian period (200 BCE - 225 CE) represented the apogee of population in Afghan Sistan. Because of the length of time and density of population, our collection of ceramics from these periods is enormous. We have ceramic samples from over 100 surveyed sites from this period and found material at almost all of the 11 sites we excavated, including substantial collections from House 139, Temple 215, Sehyak, and Lat Qala. Recent surveys in Iranian Sistan have produced similar collections. 

Several features of Sistan Parthian ceramics stand out. Large storage jars and some smaller forms are ribbed on the exterior. Sistan ribbed ware, first labeled by archaeologist Walter Fairservis, continues for numerous centuries after the Parthian period but is evident at every Parthian site. For finer ceramics, there are also several distinguishing features. They are almost always fired a deep red with a dark red slip on the exterior and burnished in a circular, or “ring,” pattern. These were found on shallow bowls and on stemmed goblets, a shape common in our Parthian ceramics. Ring burnished red slip decorations also extend before and after the Parthian period, but the volume of them at Parthian sites exceeds other points in times. This also made it easy to spot Parthian sites on the ground surface during our surveys. 

Overlain on these features are several others. Many of the larger jars are further decorated either with incised patterns, usually horizontal lines or waves across the shoulder of a vessel, or a similar set of patterns using a combed tool. Less common were appliqued bands along the shoulder, sometimes decorated with punctated or slashed incisions. 

The finer table ware show other decorative elements as well. The ring burnishing is occasionally varied with other burnished patterns, such as cross hatches, waves, or vertical stripes. Some red slip vessels also contained stamped decorations such as a leaf decoration, rosette, or simple circles. 

At sites that seemed to have some cultic significance, such as Khwaja Kanur, Mukhtar, and Sehyak, we found still other features. Many sherds had incised tamga identifier marks on the shoulder or base. A form of bucket, or situla, often with highly decorated basket handles, was found at these sites but was almost absent elsewhere. 

Cooking wares from Parthian sites were distinctive by the use of appliqued sun decorations on the exterior. Off the archaeological sites, and seemingly associated with burials, we found small, fragile but complete unguent juglets, sometimes painted. Storage jars embedded in the ground with ledge rims were another common form. These appeared in groups (2 - 30+ vessels), representing what we thought were small farmsteads that we labeled jar sites.

A sampling of sherds from ribbed storage jars found in Sar-o-Tar in 1971.
Two broken red slip ring burnished bowls from Sehyak. The one on the left is more gray than red, a sign of overfiring in the kiln, which is not uncommon among Parthian ceramics and is likely deliberate.
An elegant Parthian goblet with a S-shaped body, missing its base, from Sehyak.
Some of the types of incised decoration on Parthian jars: waves, grooves, and punctations, from Lat Qala.
While ring burnishing was the most common decoration on fine Parthian wares, some of the burnished decoration was even more elaborate, such as the waves and cross hatching on these pieces from the Qala 4 area.
Stamped decorations are also found on Parthian red wares, commonly rosettes or leaf patterns, as on this sherd from Sehyak.
Over 75 tamga characters were incised on sherds from Sehyak, far more than from any other site, suggesting the cultic nature of the site.
Sehyak contained a large number of situla, buckets with basket handles. Many of the handles were elaborately decorated with incised or punctated patterns.
Coarse, handmade, often burned inside and out, cooking pots were sometimes decorated, like this one from House 139.
Dozens of these small, fragile unguent juglets were found on the surface, usually away from known archaeological sites, suggesting they were for funerary purposes and had been exposed by wind erosion. These two were painted in red and black.
Found in clusters, often away from visible archaeological sites, these large jars were likely for storage of grain or water and were all that remained of farmsteads from the Parthian period. Most were broken but the pieces we found of their rims were simple round holes much narrower than the shoulder of the vessels. We labeled them ledge rim jars. This set of jars was found outside House 139.