Archaeology of Achaemenid Persia: An Overview

Sabrina Maras, University of California, Berkeley

Introduction to the Study of Achaemenid Iran

The archaeology of Achaemenid Iran is best known today from studies of three major sites: Pasargadae and Persepolis in the Persian heartland, in Fars, and Susa in lowland Khuzistan. In various ways each of these sites also offers a certain reflection of Iran's long and extraordinary past—a past that could perhaps be said to find one important measure of its singular quality in the attainments of the Achaemenid period (550-330 BC).

Unearthing even a small proportion of the numerous archaeological sites in Iran has been a long and gradual process that dates back to at least the middle of the nineteenth century (1). It has only been within the past few decades, moreover, that a profound re-examination of earlier scholarship (including a thoroughgoing reassessment of extant classical accounts of Persian history and culture) (2) has begun to provide a more balanced assessment of Achaemenid Iran than was previously available. Also, while we still know relatively little about the nature of life within the empire (in all its no doubt considerable variety and complexity), new Achaemenid-era sites (of a sometimes less than elite character) are still being located through ongoing surveys and excavations in southwest Iran, in both Fars and the adjacent Mamasani district of Khuzistan (3). Significantly, a comprehensive analysis of thousands of inscribed clay tablets of Achaemenid date from Persepolis has recently gained vital new momentum; and it can be anticipated that these 'Persepolis Fortification Texts' will shed new light on many separate facets of life at Persepolis (4). They also complement what is known from the Treasury texts, a second corpus of clay tablets found at the Persian capital city (5). Indeed, as Curtis and Simpson (2010: xiii) have noted, the current reappraisal of the sources used for the reconstruction of Persian history during the past 30 years is drastically changing our view of Achaemenid history (6).

Early Travelers

The first known western travelers to reach Iran, and to record their impressions while exploring the Achaemenid and other ancient sites that lay in their path, were not great in number, but they were intrepid in seeking to document remote, often forgotten monuments (7). In the late 15th century, it is known that the Venetian Josafat Barbaro visited various of the main sites in Fars (8). In the nineteenth century in particular, Iran's intriguing monuments attracted the attention of such travelers as Morier, Ker Porter (1821) and Flandin and Coste (1843-54). At the time that such individuals were making their observations, the true date and identity of many of the principal sites still remained a mystery.

With the passage of many centuries even the very name of Cyrus the Great (r. 550-530 BC) came to be forgotten, and many of the Achaemenid monuments came to be associated with figures mentioned in the Koran or in the rich mythology of medieval Iran. This explains why today certain monuments are still sometimes referred to by such designations as the 'Throne of the Mother of Solomon', or the 'Throne of Jamshid.' (9)Indeed, the prior importance of such sites as Pasargadae and Persepolis was often only attested by the exquisite quality of certain still visible, standing stone remains. As one example of the confusion that could surround the location of a once important site, the prevailing view in the early 19th century was that the city of Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus, was located 150 km to the southeast of its real location (Stronach, 2005: p103). The whereabouts of Pasargadae remained a matter of doubt for many years, and the true identity of the site was only established in the wake of detailed, separate studies by Lord Curzon in 1892, and by E. Herzfeld in 1908.

Early Excavations

It was during the reign of the Qajar monarch, Nasr-ed-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896), that archaeological endeavors in Iran, undertaken by both Iranian and non-Iranian investigations, had their birth (Mousavi, 2005: p448). In 1884, the French began excavations at Susa, led by Marcel and Jane Dieulafoy. During these investigations, the famous glazed brick depictions of Achaemenid royal guards were located. Nevertheless the excavations were suspended for more than a decade when the authorities in Tehran could not guarantee the safety of the French archaeologists (Chevalier, 1992: p16).

In 1895, the Qajar government granted a permit to the French authorities to continue to excavate at Susa, and, five years later, in response to intense diplomatic pressure from France, the newly founded Delegation en Perse 'obtained a total concession (i.e., permission) covering all archaeological excavations in Iran for an indefinite period' (Mousavi, 2007-8: p42). In 1900, during the reign of Mozaffer ed-Din Shah, the agreement was revised yet again—and the French were granted permission to take excavated objects back to France in exchange for payments made in gold and silver.

In 1897, Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924) was appointed as the first director of the French excavations at Susa and he held this position for 15 years, during which time he discovered a wide range of spectacular objects, even if his excavation methods left much to be desired. Throughout the nearly 30 years of the French archaeological monopoly, the Delegation focused almost exclusively on Susa, to the detriment of other areas of potential interest. Later, during the period leading up to WWII, there was a fierce archaeological rivalry in Iran between the French and the Germans, whose interests were represented for many years by Professor Ernst Herzfeld (Boucharlat, 2005: p429).

Herzfeld was a German-born scholar of very wide learning, who was one of the first scholars to devote a notable part of his career to Achaemenid studies. After publishing his dissertation on Pasargadae in 1908, he wrote a second thesis on Iranian rock reliefs and other monuments, published jointly with Friedrich Sarre (1910). Indeed, the first new excavation to take place in Iran after the lifting of the French monopoly in 1927, consisted of Herzfeld's work at Pasargadae in the following year (Stronach, 2005: p103).

In the meantime, events were taking place that would change the way research was conducted in Persia. With the constitutional revolution of 1906, Iranians began to become more aware of their ancient cultural heritage (Mousavi, 2005: p448). Soon thereafter, steps were taken to create the first antiquities service in 1910; and this event was followed, in 1916, by the opening of Tehran's first antiquities museum with a modest collection of 270 objects (10). In 1925, the installation of the Pahlavi dynasty ushered in a new era of heightened interest in the major monuments of the country and, not long afterwards, the country's name was changed from 'Persia' to the equally ancient label 'Iran.' (11)

Modern Excavations

It was in this new situation that, from the early 1930's onwards, American teams began to work in Iran for the first time. At the instigation of James Henry Breasted, the charismatic director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Herzfeld was recruited to be the first director of the Oriental Institute's excavations at Persepolis (Stronach, 2005: p112). The investigations at this great site continued until 1939, with Erich Schmidt taking over as director following Herzfeld's departure from Iran in 1934.

In 1930, André Godard, the new head of Iran's archaeological service, introduced the practice of a division (or partage) of excavated artifacts, finally acknowledging Iran's right to keep at least a portion of its cultural heritage, even if it had been recovered in the course of work conducted by foreign teams. In 1937, the Musée Iran Bastan (now the National Museum of Iran) was created to showcase the many new objects being discovered within Iran. Nevertheless, it still took over 40 years before archaeologists from other countries would cease to receive a half-share of the finds recovered in any one season. In 1968, the French announced that they had no further interest in continuing partage; and in 1972, the Iranian authorities indicated that all excavated objects recovered during official excavations would have to stay, henceforth, in Iran.

Today, Iranian archaeologists are deeply involved in the study and preservation of their own cultural heritage. Since relatively few archaeological teams from other countries have worked in Iran since the revolution of 1979, Iranian scholars have become increasingly active in the field. At the same time, a number of British and German teams have continued to work in collaboration with Iranian colleagues in recent years and, in connection with rescue excavations in the Tang-i Bulaghi in Fars, international teams from France, Italy and Poland were able to join their Iranian colleagues in recording a wide variety of sites that range in date from prehistoric to Achaemenid times.(12)

Achaemenid Archaeology

For a known historical entity that lasted for well over two hundred years the Achaemenid empire has a less recognizable archaeological footprint than might be expected. Most everyday objects 'do not belong to types that are distributed throughout the length and breadth of the empire' (Curtis, 2005: p30). Even with reference to pottery, there is little homogeneity. Thus, while a particular type of Achaemenid drinking bowl with an everted rim and a rounded body does have a fairly wide distribution in both ceramic and metal forms (cf. Dusinberre, 1999), pottery of Achaemenid date often reflects (to the frustration of many an excavator) the continued existence of earlier, strictly local pottery traditions.

At an elite level, however, certain types of construction and certain types of building (including various forms of columned hall) are characteristic of the Achaemenid period. Specific forms of big stone masonry can be readily cited; note may also be taken of a preference for square mud-bricks (at least in the homeland) together with an interest in stepped niches—a distinctive Iranian architectural predilection that reaches back to the early first millennium BC in the Burned Buildings of Hasanlu IV (13). But above all else, one or two types of stone column base, including the finely proportioned bell-shaped column base that was introduced during the reign of Darius I, almost always serves to proclaim an Achaemenid presence. Also, from the time of Darius onwards, the pre-eminent royal reception hall was a freestanding square columned hall that was flanked by tall porticoes on three sides. An Old Persian inscription from Susa tells us, moreover, that this majestic form of hall 'of stone in its columns' was known as an 'Apadana' (Kent 1953: p155; Stronach, 1985: p433).

When reliefs were not carved into living rock, they were often an integral element in Achaemenid palatial architecture, as were brilliantly colored reliefs in glazed brick. A number of highly specific weapons, including the akinakes (or short sword), with its distinctive scabbard, are known to have been characteristic products in the Achaemenid period, as were long-lived bronze trilobate arrowheads (found by the hundreds at Persepolis).

Two other specific chronological clues have also come to be recognized. That is to say that the presence of the distinctive marks of a toothed hammer or toothed chisel on the fine stone masonry of early Achaemenid Iran is at once a broad indication of a date after c. 500 BC (cf. Nylander, 1970: p53-56; also Stronach, 1978: p99-100).

In addition, the changing shape of the iron and lead metal clamps that are associated with big stone masonry in Achaemenid Iran offer valuable chronological clues with reference to the early evolution of architecture in the Achaemenid period (Nylander, 1970: p63-67).

As the 'Apadana reliefs' at Persepolis clearly indicate (and as parallel archaeological and historical testimony would also seem to suggest), the goldsmiths and the silversmiths of the empire were expected to produce a particular range of precious vessels, fine jewelry with polychrome inlays, and ceremonial weapons in what archaeologists have referred to as the Achaemenid 'court style'. Indeed, all these items appear to have played their part in formal exchanges that strengthened, in theory at least, the bonds between the Achaemenid ruler and his subjects. But while Achaemenid architecture very clearly references Lydian and Ionian masonry, Egyptian cavetto cornices, Babylonian and Elamite brickmaking traditions and Mesopotamian iconography, the end result is a unique, elegant, visually stunning and impressive aesthetic that ultimately reflects the international focus of Persian rule in the ancient Near East from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC.


The site of Pasargadae (fig. 1), the capital of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the empire of the Persians, lies in the Dasht-e Morghab, or the Plain of the Water Bird, in the upland province of Fars in southwest Iran. According to Strabo (XV.3.8) the site was founded by Cyrus in order to commemorate his victory over Astyages, the last king of Media. And by and large this claim is likely to be well founded.

The stone monuments that remain are still relatively well preserved. They include the still almost intact tomb of Cyrus (fig. 2); a palace area marked by a freestanding, palatial Gatehouse (fig. 3) as well as two large, elegant palaces: Palace S and Palace P (figs. 4 & 5); elaborate gardens that stood on all sides of the palaces (see below); the so-called Zendan-e Suleiman (fig. 6), a tall stone tower that may have been a locus for coronation ceremonies; two monumental stone plinths that are also likely to have been connected with solemn religious ceremonies; and the Tall-e Takht (or Throne Hill) with its imposing stone platform and two unfinished stone staircases (fig. 7). The monuments of Pasargadae at once draw on older Iranian architectural traditions—notably those of Media—as well as on new state-of-the-art masonry (such as had developed in Ionia and in Lydia over the course of the first half of the sixth century BC). Also, since Lydian stonemasons could only have become available to Cyrus after the Lydian capital, Sardis, had fallen into his hands in or near 547 BC, actual construction at Pasargadae can hardly have begun much before 545 BC. In order to create a gleaming, brand new capital, all Cyrus' major buildings made extensive use of exquisite, finely dressed limestone masonry, besides introducing other finely carved stone elements. 

Much of our present relatively secure knowledge of Pasargadae is owed to David Stronach, who excavated at the site from 1961 to 1963, as well as to observations made by the gifted Swedish scholar, Carl Nylander, whose studies at Pasargadae also took place in the 1960's (14). Certain of Stronach's more interesting discoveries relate to Cyrus' royal garden, in the vicinity of Palace P. Here, hidden in a jar, was a hoard of jewelry consisting of more than 1,100 items. Dated from the 5th to the 4th centuries BC, it included two gold ibex-headed bracelets (fig. 8), three pairs of elaborate gold earrings (fig. 9), necklaces and a gold button with cloisonné decoration (cf. Curtis 2005: p132-36, and p137-148). It was here too that Cyrus introduced immaculately carved stone water channels and basins in a choice garden setting. This not only made novel use of the new standards of stonework that were available to him following the unmatched extension of his power to the Aegean, but it made for a particularly memorable royal garden. Various considerations also suggest that the garden in question could have represented the first known chahar bagh or fourfold garden, one of the most fundamental configurations in Persian garden design (Stronach, 1994). Since 2004, Pasargadae has been included in UNESCO's select list of World Heritage Sites (i.e., in a list of sites that stand preserved for their manifest contributions to the common global heritage).

The Relief and Inscription of Darius I at Bisotun

This monumental relief with adjoining trilingual cuneiform inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform was carved into the precipitous face of the Bisotun mountain, some 70 meters above the age-old highway that connected Babylon to Hamadan (Stronach and Zournatzi, 1997). It was in this prominent but secure location that Darius I (522-486 BC) chose to erect a victory relief that would offer a single abridged version of the tumultuous events that followed his seizure of the throne of the empire founded by Cyrus. In the relief (fig. 10), the tall commanding figure of Darius, armed with a bow, is shown with his leading foot planted firmly on the prostrate body of his chief opponent, Gaumata, who raises both arms in supplication. Beyond Gaumata, another nine rebel leaders proceed in bonds toward the king. Lending legitimacy to the reign of the new king, the winged symbol of Ahuramazda, holding a ring of kingship, floats above the scene.

In his various trilingual inscriptions at Bisotun, Darius is clearly concerned to bolster his claim to the throne. In this connection he lays special stress on his identity as a member of the Achaemenid family and he ascribes his selection as king to the favor of Ahuramazda. The greater part of the rest of the inscriptions deals with the fate of those who sought to wrest power from Darius and, by this same token, the Bisotun inscription represents almost the only known Achaemenid historical narrative. Not unimportantly, Darius uses the Old Persian version of the text to refer to his introduction of the Old Persian cuneiform writing system: 'By the favor of Ahuramazda this is the inscription which I made. Besides, it was in Aryan...' (Kent, 1953: p132). We also know that copies in Aramaic (the lingua franca of the time) were distributed throughout the empire, with at least one known copy and several fragments—on papyrus—reaching the island fortress of Elephantine, on the middle reaches of the Nile (cf. Greenfield and Porten, 1982).

The identity of the monument at Bisotun as the work of Darius was recognized by Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1846), who, at great personal risk, was the first to examine and copy the inscriptions. Modern editions of the Old Persian text are owed to Kent (1953), and Schmitt (2000).


The extensive site of Susa was for many years the enduring capital of the Elamites, beginning in at least the 3rd millennium BC and continuing as such until it was incorporated into the empire of Cyrus, probably around 540 BC (Potts, 1999: p307). Situated in lowland Khuzistan, it was the Iranian 'gateway' to Mesopotamia, and it stood at the eastern terminal of the famed royal road that linked Sardis to Susa. As a result, Susa became one of the chief cultural, political and administrative hubs of the empire. Although neither Cyrus nor his son, Cambyses II (530-522 BC), would appear to have built at Susa, the strategic and evocative qualities of this ancient capital of lowland Elam were not lost on Darius. Indeed, his rapid program of construction at Susa (fig. 11), which started very soon after he came to the throne, became one of the more effective advertisements for the hard-won stability of his reign and his far-reaching control over every corner of the empire.

In an important trilingual text that archaeologist have dubbed the 'foundation charter', Darius used his construction of the 'Apadana'—a vast royal reception hall of an entirely new design (fig. 12) with stone columns that were over 19 meters in height—to demonstrate his undeniable control over the far-flung peoples and resources of the Persian empire. In the text he states, with no small degree of pride, 'The goldsmiths who wrought the gold, those were Medes and Egyptians. The men who wrought the wood, those were Sardians and Egyptians. The men who wrought the baked brick, those were Babylonians...' (Kent 1953: p144).

The long history of the excavation of Susa, beginning with W.K. Loftus' recovery of much of the plan of the Apadana in 1850-52, cannot possibly be recounted in full in these pages. But in terms of Achaemenid remains alone, mention must be made of the glazed brick reliefs (Dieulafoy, 1893) that depicted the elegantly attired royal guards of Darius that flanked a key corridor between the Apadana and the more private quarters of the palace of Darius: reliefs that were so sensational that they called for the creation of a special hall at the Louvre after they had been shipped back to France soon after their discovery (Boucharlat, 1997: p56). Jacques de Morgan, whose principal interests lay in the prehistoric period, was also responsible for the excavation of one remarkable Achaemenid find in the early 1900s. This consisted of a bronze coffin containing the remains of an elite female, who had been buried, most probably in the 4th century BC, with a rich array of inlaid gold and silver jewelry (Morgan, 1905a: p57).

Most parts of Susa revealed at least some traces of Achaemenid occupation. On Susa's easternmost mound Roman Ghirshman exposed part of an industrial quarter that would appear to have been 6th to 4th century BC in date (Ghirshman, 1954; cf. also Stronach, 1974); and during the tenure of the last excavator of Susa, Jean Perrot, a number of notable Achaemenid discoveries came to light. Apart from excavating a previously undetected palace of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BC) on the west bank of the River Shaur, Perrot's team also recovered a remarkable stone statue of Darius (fig. 13). This partially broken but more than life-size statue was carved in Egypt before being shipped to Susa by Darius' son and successor, Xerxes (486-465 BC). The statue would appear to have been one of two pairs of such statues that had flanked the two main doorways of the main gate leading to the palace of Darius (Perrot 1981: p86; Stronach, 1974).


Persepolis (fig. 14), founded by Darius a few years after work at Susa had begun, is one of the more spectacular sites of the ancient world. The partly stone-built buildings stood on a terrace that rises 12 meters and more above the surrounding plain. Visitors to the terrace had to mount an impressive double staircase before they could pass through the tall 'Gate of All Lands,' guarded by winged colossi of Neo-Assyrian inspiration (fig. 15). Each of the palatial structures on the Terrace was freestanding and conformed to a single, uniform orientation.

Within the northern, public sphere at Persepolis no building was more dazzling than the Apadana (fig. 16). Capable of holding a throng of ten thousand, its high north and east stone socles were adorned with reliefs showing delegations from twenty-three separate lands bearing gifts for the king (fig. 17). The centerpiece of each composition (before each was removed and placed in the Treasury for unknown reasons) showed the seated monarch, accompanied by the crown prince, about to give word that the parade of tributaries could begin (fig. 18). In many ways the reliefs of the Apadana, which were designed by Darius and completed by his son Xerxes, illustrate the peaceful conditions that the Achaemenids envisaged for their empire. The more private, southern part of the Terrace was characterized by the individual palaces of successive monarchs, including Darius and Xerxes. Here also stood the once-rich Treasury, excavated with meticulous care by Erich Schmidt (1953, 1957), but already relieved of almost all its precious goods at the time that Persepolis fell to Alexander late in 331 BC.

Beginning with Darius I, the Achaemenid kings chose to be buried in awe inspiring rock-cut tombs. The four most celebrated of these tombs stand at nearby Naqsh-e Rustam, and each follows Darius' innovative design (fig. 19). This shows the king, mounted on a stepped plinth, opposite a fire altar, with the image of Ahuramazda hovering above the rest of the scene. A lunate symbol is placed to the far right. As an indication of the fact that 'the spear of the Persian man had gone forth far' (Kent 1953: p138), the remainder of the upper register shows representatives of 30 lands (15) supporting the enormous, moveable throne on which the king stands. Beneath this composition there is an exact replica of the facade of the Palace of Darius (Schmidt, 1970: p81). Since the whole facade of the tomb was no doubt completed before the death of Darius in 486 BC, it can perhaps also be counted as one of the earliest examples of the mature Achaemenid sculptural style. Indeed, subtle changes in the depiction of the voluminous, folded Persian court dress also provide minute but useful chronological clues that are of special relevance during the reign of Darius (Stronach, 1978: p96-97).

The first thorough archaeological survey of the fertile Marv-dasht Plain in which Persepolis stands was undertaken by William Sumner during the 1960's. Among other things, Sumner's surveys sought to explore the problem of when the Persians might have first settled on the Persepolis plain. But the transitions from painted pottery to plainware that could perhaps reflect the arrival of the Persians remains far from clear, and still stimulates discussion (cf. Stronach, 1978: p183-185; and Miroschedji, 1987: p32-35; 1990: p53). Surveys conducted by Boucharlat suggest that, during Achaemenid occupation, there were three distinct zones of habitation around Persepolis: the internal royal area; a second zone of towns standing at a distance of 15-20 km from the inner nucleus; and an external ring comprised of farms and aristocratic residences (1997: p265). Boucharlat notes that this settlement distribution is also similar to that which existed in the vicinity of Achaemenid Susa.

Other Sites

Beyond the limits of Iran an Achaemenid presence is documented archaeologically over a wide area that once stood within the bounds of the empire. This is less true for the eastern satrapies, but it is abundantly true for Anatolia, especially with reference to the satrapal seats of Sardis (Greenewalt, 1997: p484-7; Dusinberre, 2003) and Daskyleion (cf. Kaptan, 2002). Also, for Achaemenid remains from the empire as a whole, note, for example, the luxury items from the northeast that are associated with the so-called Oxus Treasure (Tallis, 2005: p222-226); the more everyday items from an Achaemenid military cemetery in north Syria (e.g. Moorey, 1980); a wide variety of items from the southern Levant (Stern, 2001); and certain striking pieces of sculpture from Egypt, such as the statue of Udjahorresne(t) from Sais, in the Western Delta (Posener, 1936, no. 1). Babylon was also an Achaemenid royal seat (Haerink, 1997: p28) and even sites in the south Caucausus reflect a once significant Achaemenid presence (Knauss, 2007: p111). Overall, however, the archaeology of the Achaemenid period still remains distinctly in need of further study in areas that stand outside the borders of modern Iran.