Iran is a country saturated with an exquisite array of cultures and their artifacts spanning several millennia, from the Pre-Neolithic to Islamic period. This vast land lies in the midst of the grand and ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Persia and the Indus Valley. Its unique geographic location enabled a rich cultural exchange between a variety of cultures, thus, creating a complex ethnic structure in both ancient and modern times. By virtue of geography, each zone of the Iranian plateau interacted differently with its neighbor and surroundings, sometimes innovating new hybrid cultures, sometimes emulating neighboring material culture. From this intense activity many ancient objects remain embalmed in the earth waiting to reveal their precious history. Approximately nineteen cultural heritages sites in Iran are currently protected by UNESCO with 49 additional sites on the tentative list. However, more attention needs to be given to the preservation and cultural management of numerous excavated and uncovered sites alike.

 In Iran there is an eagerness for progress interlaced with a wealth of cultural heritage, but managing and balancing these two aspects is challenging. There are presently 33,000 sites on Iranian National Heritage list, most of which are endangered by high levels of both man-made and natural disasters (pollution, flood, sandstorm, fire and earthquake). The consequential and unfavorable effects of sandstorms and pollution is acid rain, which endangers exposed archeological sites, such as the Sassanid and Achaemenid rock reliefs. Combined with poor management the harmful effects are exacerbated.

Great Victory Relief at Naqsh-e Rostam

Great Victory Relief at Naqsh-e Rostam (Photo Credit: The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies)

A lack of proper management and administration continues to be a major threat to Iranian cultural heritage. The tragic earthquake in 2003, which shook the ancient site of Bam, home to one of the oldest mosques in Iran, to its core. Following the natural disaster, local efforts failed to contain the situation, which resulted in further harm to the site. Others like the Kharg Island cuneiform inscription are left in terminal condition after vandals defaced it with a hammer (Hejazi and Mehdizadeh, Persian Architectural Heritage, 2008). The site of Jiroft, a rich tomb, was systematically looted with its ornate burial goods smuggled out of Iran and sold at auction. After a decade, Iran is still working to repatriate the looted objects.

Still other sites that if left without proper management it will disappear: Mahtaj Hill, Shahr’e Yeri and Khaled-e-Nabi cemetery.

“Currently many of the structures of Shahr’e Yeri are in danger of destruction as a result of natural circumstances such as rain and snow and also lack of maintenance. There are plans to construct a museum at the site.”

Additionally, thousands of ancient sites and historic buildings are threaten by numerous construction projects and progressive city development. Modernism and urban development beginning under the Qajar dynasty and continuing under the Pahlavi dynasty resulted in a significant loss of historic integrity. On the other hand, a lot of attention was given to research and scholarly archeological work along with conservation, albeit with a strict limitation of what merited preservation.

Before the Iranian revolution, excavations were carried out jointly with American and Europeans universities. However, post-revolution excavation and cultural heritage protection has been more irregular, and the Iran-Iraq war had devastating effects on both countries. Due to the post-war sanctions and the economic turmoil, less attention was given to these sites. In the 1990s, Iran, in an attempt to advance and stabilize the country, developed programs such as building dams and new road construction—both of which pose serious threats to the archeological landscape. The sanctions in 2006 also greatly influenced cultural heritage preservation by preventing the importation of modern equipment and technologies which would help to improve cultural heritage management.

Scholars, such as Kamal Niknami, call for a solution that creates an academic and research base in Iran. He argues that there is a dire need for new technologies, archeological tactics and “programs which assure the integrity of archeological heritage in its natural and cultural setting” (“Iran: Archaeological Heritage in Crisis,” 2005).

In comparison to other countries in the region, antiquities in Iran are not as systematically looted. However, many excavated archeological sites remain unpublished, resulting in an alternate form of loss. These artifacts and objects remain unidentified, making it potentially easier to sell them on the market.

 Unfortunately, due to political strife between Iran and U.S., archeological artifacts become entangled in international politics and policies. After a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997, survivors of the attack filed a lawsuit against the government of Iran, citing the role in training Hamas, winning a $412 million judgment in 2003. The lawyer for the survivors argued that Iran should sell antiquities currently being held in American museums and universities in order to pay the judgement. Similar litigation has been brought against Harvard’s Semitic Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Chicago’s Field Museum. Professors, researchers and concerned citizens have decried the idea and the Societas Iranologica Europea circulated a petition to ask President Obama to stop the sale of the ancient tablets. In 2014, the Oriental Institute won its appeal and will retain its collection of ancient Iranian tablets. At the conclusion of their study, the collection will be returned to Iran.

Persepolis Tablet (Photo credit: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Persepolis Tablet (Photo credit: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Artifacts from the site of Chogha Mish have been on loan to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago since the 1960s and have been requested to be returned by the Iranian government. The site dates from the 4th millennium B.C. and is an important source of information for the early development of the world’s first writing system. The original loan period was for 3 years from 1964, and the Iranian government has been working since the 1970s to reclaim the collection. In March 2015, a court ruled that the ancient collection is to be returned to the Iranian National Museum in Tehran.