The Burnt City
One of the largest and richest Bronze Age sites in
Iran and the Middle East is located in the southwestern
Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan.
Located near the city of Zabol the Burnt City (Shahr-e
Sukhteh) spans an area of more than 300,000 hectares.
The ancient site has been attracting Iranian and
international archeologists for nearly a century.
Founded in 3200 BCE, the city fell into ruins in 2100
BCE after being burnt down three times and not being
rebuilt after the last fire.
Four civilizations have lived in the city and its
ruins show that it was once composed of residential
districts in the northeastern part, an industrial area,
and a large cemetery along with memorial buildings.
The city is believed by
some to have been the capital of an ancient civilization
that flourished on the banks of the Helmand River for
more than 1,000 years and had extensive commercial,
political, and social relations with other important
cities in the region's northeastern and western areas.
The first generation to live in the Burnt City had
established relations with the inhabitants of the
eastern and northeastern parts of ancient Persia,
Central Asia and Quetta which is now the largest city
and the provincial capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan
Seals, discovered in the Burnt City, the Mishmahig
Island (Bahrain), Kuwait and southern Khvarvaran in
modern Iraq, suggest that the second generation
continued relations with Central Asia.
An ancient seal unearthed at the Burnt City
The third and fourth generations of Burnt City
inhabitants kept relations with northern and eastern
regions alive before they were gradually broken off.
British scholar Orwell Stein was the first to spot the
Burnt City archeological site in 1915. A team of
archeologists from the Italian institute for the Middle
East and Oriental studies began excavating the area in
the 1960s. The Italian team found more than 200 graves
before their project was halted in the late 1970s.
In 1997, Iranian cultural heritage experts resumed
excavations at the ancient site after an 18-year hiatus.
The Iranian team initially focused on the burial sites
and later in 1999 extended their excavations to the
Most of the excavated areas date back to 2700-2300 BCE
and have yielded hundreds of objects and relics, which
are currently being studied by experts at Iran's
Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organization
One of the most significant findings of the Burnt City
is a cream-colored clay goblet that was discovered in
1983 by Italian archeologists while excavating a
Five consecutive images drawn around the rare chalice
portray a goat moving towards a tree and eating its
leaves. The combined images are considered to be the
oldest known piece of 'animated' art.
Iranian director Mohsen Ramezani filmed an 11-minute
documentary, called The Tree of Life, for which
he used the illustrations on the goblet to show the
movement of the wild goat toward a tree in five
consecutive images. This wild goat image was later
adopted as the symbol of ASIFA, the Association of
Iranian Animation Films.
A goblet was found at the Burnt City, which is believed
to bear the world's earliest animation..
Other excavations at
the Burnt City have revealed fishing nets and hooks,
which suggest that fishing was one means of livelihood
for the inhabitants of the ancient city - this is also
evident in the recurrent use of fish patterns on the
earthenware found at the site.
In December 2006, archaeologists stumbled upon another
piece of utmost significance, an artificial eyeball
which subsequent research revealed was the first
prosthesis to have been used by man.
The eyeball was found on a 1.82-meter tall female
skeleton, much taller than ordinary women of her time,
and dated back to between 2900 and 2800 BCE.
The world's oldest artificial eyeball was found on a
female skeletal remains
The eyeball had a
hemispherical form with a diameter of just over 2.5 cm
and was made of very light material. The surface was
covered with a thin golden layer, engraved with a
central circle to represent the iris.
The eye was held in place with a golden thread, which
went through tiny holes drilled on both sides of the
Microscopic studies showed that the eye socket bore
imprints of the golden thread, which suggest that the
eyeball had been worn during its owner's lifetime.
Another medical find was the oldest sample of brain
surgery, conducted on a 13-year-old girl suffering from
Among the other valuable archeological items that the
site has yielded are the oldest known backgammon set,
dice and caraway seeds as well as numerous metallurgical
finds such as slag and crucible pieces.
The world's earliest dice where found during Burnt City
One of the major finds in the Burnt City were the
ruins of a large building with 17 rooms in 1999, which
contained various objects such as seals, fabrics, wooden
and stone tools, and earthenware.
The structure, which seems to have been a public
monument, also had two staircases one of which was
composed of eight mudbrick steps and the first of its
kind dating to the third millennium BCE.
More than 100 mounds were also discovered in the area,
which are believed to have been villages surrounding the
Despite the current dry weather conditions of the area,
experts say it used to enjoy a moderate climate in
ancient times with various floras, and different types
of trees such as the weeping willow, maple, and white
The first phase of excavations revealed clay water pipes
running through the whole city and studies showed that
the Helmand River and its many branches irrigated Burnt
Experts say around 20,000 graves exist in the city's
cemetery, which was first uncovered in 1972. The graves
provided scientists with skeletal remains of Burnt City
inhabitants, which in turn yielded valuable information
about their lifestyle.
Many of the inhabitants were found with signs of
Arthritis and the oldest individual living in the city
was a woman who had died at the age of 60.
Recent studies showed that female inhabitants of the
Burnt City outlived the male members of their community.
In June 2009, Iranian archeologists announced that the
city's men died between the ages of 35 to 45, while
women lived well into their 80s.
They also found that the area witnessed considerable
population drops and that the number of the female
inhabitants of the area was more than the male
Despite previous research, which estimated the number of
people to have lived in the Burnt City to have been
5,000, the most recent demographical studies assessed
the figure to have been more than 6,000.
Based on archeological findings, the city was an
industrial and artistic center and its inhabitants were
a race of civilized people who were both farmers and
Unique forms of jewelry and accessories found at the
site prove the artistry and creativity of these people
and reveal the methods they used in making such
Golden and azure necklaces, which were discovered in a
grave, helped archeologists to find out the way people
of the Burnt City used primitive tools to create such
Upon closer examination of the necklace experts
discovered that the artisans used to cut sheets of gold
less than a millimeter thin, turn them into cylindrical
shapes and adorned them by placing the azure stone in
A number of pots were unearthed with traces of paint,
suggesting that people of the Burnt City also had a hand
in painting clay pots.
The discovered earthenware mostly includes simple bowls,
drinking cups and water bottles.
Given the fact that many clay pots and earthenware were
found inside graves, archaeologists say that most of the
Burnt City inhabitants believed in life after death and
therefore buried dishes, water and other living
requirements with the deceased so that they could use
them in their other life.
Some graves even had garlic cloves, which according to
some archeologists, originates from the traditional
belief that garlic can expel wicked spirits out of the
The whole area was also covered with pottery shards most
of which seem to have been pieces broken in the process
of pottery. The shards were believed to have been used
as a kind of pavement.
Traces of pottery kilns were discovered at the city,
which can be a reason for the destruction of the city's
natural resources as for example trees were cut to be
used in kilns.
Different types of earthenware, stone utensils, mosaic
works, fabric and straw mats discovered at the site show
the diverse industrial activities in which the people of
the Burnt City were engaged.
Some 12 plain and colorful fabrics have been found at
the ancient site so far, testifying to the advanced
fabric industry in the city.
Studies conducted on 40 teeth unearthed in the Burnt
City necropolis showed people used their teeth to weave
baskets and other handmade products with reeds from the
In the Burnt City, using teeth as a tool was common
among the men and women of different age groups.
A grave even provided anthropologists with evidence of a
murder as the head of the victim was buried with the
murder weapon placed under its feet.
Among other findings are stone beads, a clay Elamite
inscription, small clay figurines in the form of
animals, and different metal and wooden tools.
In one of the most recent discoveries, a team of Iranian
and British anthropologists identified a male camel
rider while doing research on human remains from the 3rd
Further studies revealed bone trauma in the skeleton,
which suggested that the man had most probably been a
messenger spending most of his life on camel back.
Close examinations showed that the rider used to gather
up a leg while riding, which is something that one
usually does while riding a camel over long distances.
Archeological findings and anthropological studies have
also provided scientists with interesting information
about the social status and situation of women in the
ancient Burnt City.
A number of 5,000-year-old insignias, which were found
in the graves of some female inhabitants, suggest that
the women of the city enjoyed social and financial
The insignias were made of river pebbles and believed to
have belonged to the distinguished and privileged
members of society.
Some experts believe that the female owners of the
insignias used them to place their seal on valuable
documents, while others say they only kept them as
evidence of their high social status.
As no weapon or defensive fortress and walls have ever
been discovered in the Burnt City, many experts believe
that the inhabitants of the city were a peaceful people,
who did not get involved in war or seek confrontation.
Despite the excavations and studies carried out at the
site, the reasons for the unexpected rise and fall of
the Burnt City still seem to remain a mystery.
Archeologists, however, continue to hope that one day
they will stumble upon historical records that will help
them find the original name of the city and what
happened to its inhabitants after it was razed to the
ground by the final fire.