The Helmand Sistan Project

Ancient Life

Archaeological sites have a life history, even after the end of their original use. This corner of the shrine room of Temple 215, a Zoroastrian fire temple from Parthian times, shows the scars left by successive waves of sand filling the room shortly after abandonment of the site. The sand helped preserve the walls over 5 m high over the past two thousand years. Returning there a year after our 1972 excavation, we found that sand had again covered most of the area we had excavated.
One of our challenges was to determine the original ground level of the sites we examined, many buffeted by wind erosion or raised by alluviation from annual floods of the Helmand River. At Lat Qala, in the flood plain near the river, we discovered in an exploratory trench artifacts from occupation 2000 years ago at 4 m below the modern ground level.
While close to the Helmand River, the Sar-o-Tar basin was separated by a low ridge that prevented water flowing into it. To make it usable for agriculture, large canals were dug into the area from the river as early as 1000 BCE and sporadically reused in later periods. The canals were truly enormous, as the one here leading east from the Qala-i Fath area.
After its final abandonment in the 15th century, the landscape of Sar-o-Tar was left in almost pristine condition, including the low walls showing where agricultural fields were located.
Large fortified qalas were common in the Parthian and Sasanian periods, but most of the population probably lived in small farmsteads, marked only by the large store jars left in the ground, as here with Jars 238 in the foreground and Qala 231 in the distance.
We were rarely able to connect our archaeological work to specific historical events or figures. This tamga of Gondophares, founder of the local Indo-Parthian Dynasty of the 1st century CE, was one of the few exceptions. It was found on the surface in our survey of Qala 19A.
The multiculturalism of the Parthian era is evidenced by Zoroastrian, Greek, and Buddhist shrines found within a few km of each other along the Helmand River. The stupa at Khane Gauhar was accompanied by a series of caves carved out of the cliff beneath the stupa and occupied by monks serving the shrine. This was the largest of these rooms, probably an area for ceremonies rather than for habitation. Two niches for holding oil lamps were carved out of the wall on the left. We found these caves partially filled with sand and bat guano and devoid of visible artifacts.
The temple at Sehyak, near Daishu on the Helmand River, had a Mesopotamian-style shrine with Greek decorative elements and a storage compound, Area B, that was filled with large jars inset into holes carved in the sandstone that presumably held offerings to the temple. The overlapping holes and architectural reconstructions suggested the multiple periods of use of this area.
A small hoard of objects in Area B at Sehyak included a single potsherd with colored wax decoration, known from the Mediterranean but very uncommon in Central Asia.
Other fine ceramics found at Sehyak also reflected Greek styles. Photo M. Allen
Greek architectural decorations were also familiar from Sehyak, Mukhtar, and Khwaja Kanur, though the lack of stone forced the local versions to be made from fired brick.
There are almost no famous archaeological features in our research area. The exception is the decorative arch of Bust, built in the 13th century at the entrance to the citadel of Qala-i Bist. We visited it as tourists but did no archaeological work there other than to provide suggestions to the government for its restoration.
A single preserved arch remained from the 11th century Ghaznavid Lower Palace of Shahr-I Gholghola. It was constructed of very large, thin mudbricks holding the arch in place. The bases of several other collapsed arches in a line suggested this was the pathway between the northern and southern courtyards of the Palace. Sadly, the arch collapsed before our 1974 season after having stood for 10 centuries.
Another elaborate structure still standing was Mausoleum 214, part of a cluster of Timurid Houses 210 and probably the burial ground for inhabitants of the largest structure there, House 218. We identified 18 burial chambers in this 4-pillar building and excavated around the edges of one of them, which had an inscribed tombstone of its 15th century owner.
Large estates were common in the Sar-o-Tar plain, often undisturbed after their abandonment.  One of the largest, House 323, was probably built in Ghaznavid times and reused in the Timurid period. It sat within a large walled compound with a gatehouse at the entrance and an interior walkway made of vertically stacked baked brick (lower left).
The citadel/city of Shahr-I Gholghola was the source of many of the unique objects we found on the surface in the survey, including this Islamic sherd with a human face decorating it.
Another singular ceramic object from the excavations of Shahr-i Gholghola was this jar handle with incised bird decorations. Photo L.Z. Bigdeli
Beginning with the Islamic era, we regularly found glazed ceramics at our sites. But firing with glaze was a tricky endeavor. These stones were likely included in the kiln while firing the vessels, and were left with a coating of glazing afterwards.
In later seasons, we visited the Chagai Hills of Pakistan seeking the sources of copper ore that was smelted at sites in Afghan Sistan. Several sites we visited produced samples of Bronze Age ceramics, showing the industry went back as much as 5,000 years.