Great civilizations flourished around the ancient world, some entire continents away

Rich in natural resources and host to a network of trade routes, Iran—commonly known as Persia in West until 1935—saw the rise and fall of some of the oldest civilizations and cultures. The great Zagros Mountains saw the transition from mobile to sedentary life, while the fertile lowlands and valleys catered to the movement of people, animals, and goods. The southwestern lowlands alternated between the cultural spheres of the Mesopotamian plain to the west and the surrounding Iranian highlands. 

The Oriental Institute’s expeditions to Iran have revealed the history of the local cultures and urban settlements of this vast region in antiquity, uncovering the complete chronological span stretching as far back as the prehistoric period through the end of the Islamic period.

Persepolis architecture with reliefs and columns
Remains of the monumental columned buildings with carved reliefs at Persepolis
Landscape and 3D reconstruction of Persepolis by the OI’s Center of Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes Laboratory

Persepolis: Uncovering the legacy of the Achaemenid kings

29.9355º N , 52.8916º E

The intimate relationships among the structures, tombs, reliefs, inscriptions, tablets, and surroundings of Persepolis make them the gateways to understanding the largest and longest-lasting political formation of antiquity before the Romans—the continental empire of the Achaemenids. Founded by Darius the great around 520 BC and sacked by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, the architectural and artistic style of this great dynastic center broadcast a message of harmonious order, power, and unity, as well as the diversity of the empire. Just as their predecessors had done, the Achaemenid kings preserved major Near Eastern cultural trends and successfully incorporated them into the matrix of their own cultural heritage.

While known throughout history, the ruins of Persepolis were not treated to scientifically controlled archaeological excavations until the OI sponsored an expedition to the site under the supervision of Ernst E. Herzfeld (1931–34) and then Erich F. Schmidt (1934–39). In addition to exploring, excavating, and preserving the remains of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, OI archaeologists excavated the tombs of Achaemenid kings at Naqsh-i Rustam. From 1935 to 1937, the expedition also conducted an aerial survey expedition on an unprecedented scale, producing aerial photographs of excavations already in progress, sites under consideration for archaeological work, and areas of Iran yet to be explored.

Plan of the monumental terrace of Persepolis
Photo of Inscribed tablet
Inscribed tablet with seal impression from the Persepolis Fortification Archive
Video produced by the Persepolis Fortification Archive project

The Persepolis Fortification Archive: Multiple scripts and languages—a single information system

In 1933, OI archaeologists working at Persepolis excavated clay tablets in two small rooms of a bastion in the fortification wall at the edge of the great stone terrace. There were tens of thousands of tablets and fragments, of three main kinds: those with texts in cuneiform script and in the Elamite language, those with texts in Aramaic script and language, and those with no texts but with seal impressions. A single administrative organization produced these records— all strands of a single information system—in the years around 500 BC. 

Most of the Fortification tablets came to the OI in 1936, on loan for study and analysis. Individually, the documents are mere records of storage and outlays of food, but as a whole, the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA) shows a broader spectrum of Achaemenid Iranian society than any other source, from the lowliest workers to the king’s own family. The PFA has fundamentally changed every aspect of the study of Achaemenid Iranian languages, art, institutions and history.

image of seal impression