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Tepe Hesar


Tepe Hesar. Photo Marco Prins.
Tepe Hesar
Tepe Hesar: settlement in northern Iran,south of the Elburz, with finds from the Chalcolithic Age to the Sasanian period.

Tepe Hesar is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Iran. Any traveler coming south from Hyrcania and crossing the Elburz, would reach the Silk Road more or less at this place. Today, it is dominated by modern Damghan, which is just five kilometer northwest of Tepe Hesar. This makes the site a logical place to stay, and explains why it has been occupied for a long time.

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Pottery from Tepe Hesar. White Palace, Adabad, Tehran (Iran). Photo Jona Lendering.
Pottery from Tepe Hesar (White Palace, Adabad, Tehran)

The site has been identified in 1880 and was excavated in 1925 and 1931-1932, when Reza Shah ordered the construction of the Trans-Iranian Railway, which cuts through the main mound. It was one of the first Chalcolithic and Bronze Age excavations in this area, and the stratigraphy has been very important to date similar sites. In 1976, research was briefly resumed and radiocarbon measures were taken.

The oldest layer, Hesar I, belongs to the Copper Age (Chalcolithicum; after 3800 BCE); it is about as old as Susa B and resembles Sialk III, by which it appears to have been influenced. There's painted, black-on-buff pottery that was made on a wheel, and stamp seals, and nice copper objects have been identified as well.

A bowl from Tepe Hesar I. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.
A bowl from Tepe Hesar I. (Louvre, Paris)

Hesar II, which starts in about 3600 BCE, is marked by the appearance of burnished grey pottery and the first objects made of bronze. Among the finds are long-shaped bottles.

Hesar III, which began about 2800, saw nice metal work and grey pottery similar to Turan Tepe, which is north of the Elburz. In c.2500, when Hesar IIIb ended, a part of the town was violently destroyed. The ruin that is now known as the "Burnt Building", situated in the western part of the hill, is the most recognizable remainder. Archaeologists have found stone arrowheads and charred battle victims.

A bottle from Tepe Hesar II. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.
A bottle from Tepe Hesar II. (Louvre, Paris)

The final period, IIIc, lasted until 1900. Five moufflon heads made of gold foil were found. The site was abandoned and there was a hiatus of about five to six centuries. After that, people lived on smaller mounds in the neighborhood; if the main mound was occupied, those recent layers have eroded.

The smaller mounds from the Iron Age and later have not been investigated, although surface finds prove that Tepe Hesar remained inhabited, as one could have expected, because this part of the Silk Road, from Rhagae to Susia, continued to be in use. In the west, the Median kingdom came into being in the second quarter of the first millennium; its armies came along the road and subdued the Parthians. Later, both Media and Parthia were part of the Achaemenid and Seleucid Empires, until the Parthians turned the tables and united Iran. Directly west of Tepe Hesar, Hecatompylos flourished.

Finding a skull at Tepe Hesar. Photo Marco Prins.
Finding a skull

Isidore of Charax mentions eight stations along the road in this part of the country, Comisene (Parthian Stations 9); the splendid karavanserail in the west may be a continuation of one of these stations, although it dates to the Sasanian age and was in use during the reign of Kavad I (488-530 CE). A palace has been identified in the south. Damghan replaced Tepe Hesar as regional center after the Arab conquest.

That surprises are not excluded, was proved during my visit in 2005. We stayed for some time at Tepe Hesar, and someone found a human skull, which we have duly reported to the Iranian archaeological authorities.

A satellite photo of the Bronze Age site can be seen here while the caravanserail is here..
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2009
Revision: 12 Sept. 2010
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