The Helmand Sistan Project

Bronze Age

A 50-year-long excavation project in Iranian Sistan has made identifying our Bronze Age ceramics much simpler. Shahr-i Sokhta, “The Burnt City,” is an UNESCO World Heritage site dating to the 3rd millennium BCE and has been studied since the 1960s. The painted pottery from Shahr-i Sokhta has been extensively published and compared with other sites both inside and outside of Sistan. Our ceramic finds at two sites—Dam and Godar-i Shah—provide few surprises to this large corpus. Two styles of painted wares, one on a light colored clay, the other on gray clay, are found at Dam. We also found numerous mat impressed potteries, some impressed on the base, some on the sides, some seemingly created within a basket. All are known from previous research in Sistan, southeast Iran, and northwest Pakistan. A form of pottery with a carinated shoulder may come from a slightly later period, early in the 2nd millennium BCE. The most intriguing piece we found, a highly polished and decorated, almost complete, globular vessel, comes from Lat Qala and has similarities in Harappan and post-Harappan Baluchistan to the southeast of Sistan. 

What surprised us the most was that, despite the frequency of Bronze Age pottery found on sites in Iranian Sistan, we found very little of it along the Helmand River itself, which we have assumed to have been continuously occupied in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE. We have no clear explanation for this, though we suspect it is related to the difficulty of finding artifacts in a river valley subject to annual flooding and in which the land has been in continuous use since the Bronze Age. 

Light colored buff painted ceramics are a well-known type in the broad region during the Bronze Age, some of which have elaborate geometric or floral decorative patterns painted on them.
This painted cup, with the foot detached, was found almost complete at the site of Dam. The shape is common at Iranian Bronze Age sites in Sistan.
Several types of mat impressed pottery were found at Dam and Godar-i Shah, which show basketry weaving patterns as well as ceramic styles of large jars. Mat designs were pressed both on the base of vessels and on the shoulder.
Possibly the most striking piece of Bronze Age pottery found was this almost complete globular vessel from a layer of later fill at Lat Qala. The highly polished pot is painted with a set of polychrome geometric patterns reminiscent of the Indus Valley and Baluchistan.
Paint was also applied in similar patterns to dark colored “gray” wares, some of which were made with very finely levigated clay.
Recent research by Biscione and Vahdati has attempted to identify ceramics from the simpler culture that occupied Turkmenistan, Eastern Iran, and Sistan after the demise of Shahr-i Sokhta. They suggested these undecorated ceramic pieces from Dam date from those times, early in the 2nd millennium BCE.