The Helmand Sistan Project


Simply getting to the lower Helmand Basin was a struggle. While our Land Rovers were able to negotiate many of the sand dune patches, the trucks we hired to carry our food, water, fuel, and equipment for a 3 month field seasons were often unable to negotiate the terrain. Winches were regularly required to pull a vehicle out of sand.
In most cases, we camped in open areas near the sites we were working at, such as Shahr-i Gholghola here.
In a few instances, we lived in a village. Our host at Sehyak, Hajji Nafaz Khan, allowed us to use the courtyard of his compound, where we lived and processed our finds.
In Sar-o-Tar, our workmen needed to live in the desert with us as we were a great distance from their home villages. Their goatskin tents served the purposes well.
Soil erosion created by the constant winds and the lack of human habitation or vegetation in the desert meant that many ancient objects were lying on the surface. Except for the sand coverage, survey conditions were generally optimal.
Our survey work was rarely systematic due to the enormous amount of territory we covered, though material was collected wherever we found sites. In one case, we tried systematic sampling, here at Kurkoray I.
Excavating often was largely a process of removing piled sand from a standing monument. Temple 215, a Parthian fire temple, was buried under 2-3 m of sand but largely intact.
In several instances, we were able to conduct stratigraphic excavations to identify subsurface remains, such as inside the Circular Enclosure at Shahr-i Gholghola, supervised by our Afghan colleague Ghulam Rahman Amiri. Traces of elite houses from the 10-13th centuries were found beneath the ground.
Several large standing mounds were excavated with vertical trenches down their side, as at Lat Qala.
Horizontal excavations at several sites, such as Parthian House 139, helped determine the architectural plan of the site and the various periods of reuse.
Stratigraphic profiles of our excavations were carefully detailed and drawn by our architect Jim Knudstad.
Possibly the most unusual excavation was of the well found outside the Parthian-period shrine of Sehyak, which was excavated over 15 m down to the water table. Inside we found ceramics, Greek-style architectural columns and decorations, and a unique bilingual Greek-Aramaic inscription that once graced the shrine.
Architectural plans of many of the standing monuments were documented by our survey team, including Bob Hamilton.
Planned as an interdisciplinary project, we spent much time understanding the geology, hydrology, and climate of the region, largely the work of our geologist John W. Whitney.
Resuscitating the unpublished project in the 2010s required finding and digitizing tens of thousands of pages of field notes, plans, photographs, and slides. These materials will be archived at the National Anthropological Archive of the Smithsonian. Photo M. Allen
A fraction of our material finds were taken from Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion of 1980 and are now stored at the Smithsonian. We were able to examine, describe, draw, and photograph these objects, as done by Carol Ellick here. The vast majority of our finds were left in Afghanistan and are presumed lost after 40 years of warfare. Photo M. Allen
An archaeological project requires much work. Here a group of volunteers photograph, draw, and describe ceramics from the project. Photo M. Allen
The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership of the CAMEL lab at the University of Chicago was invaluable in using satellite images to help locate and provide aerial images of our sites, as Becky Seifried is doing here. Photo M. Allen
We compared our findings in Sistan to those of previous researchers by studying the archives of their work, such as George Dales’s archive at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Photo M. Allen
While it took 50 years for some of this material to be published, a series of books and articles from the project will make the findings of the Helmand Sistan Project available to future researchers. Photo M. Allen