Bronze age civilization that predates ancient Mesopotamia


May 2004

In Iran, an archaeologist is racing to uncover a literate Bronze Age society he believes predates ancient Mesopotamia. Critics say he may be overreaching, but they concede his dig will likely change our view of the dawn of civilization

Discoveries made during a dig in southeastern Iran have convinced archaeologist Yousef Madjidzadeh that a desolate valley here was once home to a thriving—and literate—community. He calls it nothing less than "the earliest Oriental civilization." It's a dramatic assertion, but if he's right, it would mean the site, near Iran's Halil River, is older than Mesopotamia, a thousand miles to the west in what is today Iraq and long acknowledged as one of the earliest civilizations. Confirmation would overturn our understanding of the critical period when humans first began to live a literate urban life. It would also give sudden prominence to this forgotten corner of Iran.

It took an unlikely combination of events—a flood in this region, combined with a political thaw in distant Tehran, the Iranian capital—to bring Madjidzadeh here in the first place. Starting in 2001, local villagers began plundering ancient graves that had been exposed earlier that year by a flash flood. Iranian police confiscated hundreds of finely worked stone vessels carved with images of animals and architecture and decorated with semiprecious stones. Madjidzadeh strongly believes most were made in this valley more than 4,000 years ago.

But other scholars are cautious about Madjidzadeh's ideas, since no radio-carbon tests have been done and there isn't enough research on the area to conclusively cross-reference the finds with other sites. Even Madjidzadeh's American collaborator, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Holly Pittman, gently suggests that there is not enough evidence yet to back up Madjidzadeh's claims. "He's a typical archaeologist," she says with a smile and a shrug. "His site is the center of the universe." Still, she adds, it is "a very exciting site. The fact that this was a third millennium civilization adds tremendously to our knowledge of the time."