Persepolis & Political Economy in Ancient Persia


A review of Persepolis in Context: A Landscape Study of Political Economy in Ancient Persia, by Tobin Montgomery Hartnell.

There have been relatively few studies of ancient Persia’s political economy. In his dissertation, Tobin Hartnell seeks to redress this gap in the historiography by providing a survey of ancient Persia’s political economy, by which he means political interactions with the physical environment and natural resources. He focuses on Persepolis, one of the important capitals of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC), as the subject of his study, and identifies the Kur River Basin (for a schematic plan see figure 1.3, p. 11), as an example of a particular political landscape. The Kur River – the largest river in the province of Fars – springs from the mountains of Eqlid and ends in Bakhtegan, Iran’s second-largest lake (about 160 km east of Shiraz).

Hartnell’s aim is to define the relationships between the pre-Islamic Iranian political regimes and their subjects from the point of view of a landscape study. In his dissertation, Hartnell addresses these issues and offers the results of his archaeological surveys in the region to provide a better understanding of the organization of the landscape in the homeland of the Persian Achaemenids.

Hartnell defines “ancient Persia” as the nation of Parsa (the area that corresponds approximately to the modern day province of Fars in southern Iran) that existed during the Achaemenid Empire and played an important role not only during the Achaemenid but also during the Parthian and Sasanian eras. His study covers the period from the beginning of the first millennium BC up into the early Islamic centuries. He focuses mainly on pre-Achaemenid, Achaemenid, as well as Sasanian Fars.

The structure of Hartnell’s survey is based on analyses of the archeological evidence, referring to three main categories: the military landscape (Chapter 4), the economic landscape (Chapter 5), and the cultural landscape (Chapter 6) of the Kur River Basin, subdivided into four archaeological Phases VI-IX (for a complete chronology see table 1.2, p. 20-22). Phase VI comprises Shogha-Teimuran, 1400 – 600 BC; Phase VII the Late Plain Ware, 550 – 280 BC; Phase VIII the Hellenistic to Parthian period, 280 BC – AD 250; and Phase IX refers to the Sasanian Grey Ware, AD 250 – 800.

The new archaeological data, based on the Hartnell’s own archaeological surveys in the region during five seasons (see table 2.2, p. 40), accompanied by a geospatial database of past research, enabled the author to provide a new understanding of the political economy of this important region.

Chapter 1 gives an introduction to ancient Persia. Hartnell describes the importance of landscape and draws an outline of different cultural material related to pre-Islamic Persia. Introducing the general environment, he focuses on the above-ground water resources in the Kur River Basin, namely rivers and springs, comparing the use of rainfall and river water within the Kur River Basin. Following this, he turns his attention to underground water sources. The chapter closes with an account of the synopsis of the archaeological phases in the Kur River Basin and some archaeological and historical background to Persepolis. Lastly, he gives a brief introduction to the subject of political economy.

In addition to outlining the dissertation’s methodological approach, Chapter 2 also includes an overview of the past source surveys, summarized in table 2.1 (pp. 31-33), and a brief evaluation of them. In this chapter, Hartnell also explains his method of collecting data and imagery, as well as providing a survey on researched areas and techniques of observing and collecting the materials.

Chapter 3 gives a chronology of the Kur River Basin, including the local Red Ware Traditions. It introduces the ceramics of the late second millennium and the first millennium BC and gives an absolute chronology of Phase VII (550 – 280 BC), Phase VIII (280 BC – AD 250), Phase IX (AD 250 – 800) and the Islamic Phases (AD 800 – 1950).

Chapter 4 is dedicated to the military landscape of the Kur River Basin from the earliest known military infrastructures as well as the defensive strategy of the Shogha-Teimuran phase (1400 – 600 BC), and the defensive strategy of Phase VII (550 – 280 BC), including the citadel of Persepolis and the Royal Road. The chapter continues by discussing the military landscape of Phase VIII (280 BC – AD 250) and the regulation of territory in Phase IX (AD 250 – 800).

Chapter 5 includes a comprehensive overview of the economic landscape of the Kur River Basin. The main focus of this chapter is on the Achaemenid economy and especially on agriculture, which was one of the largest and most important industries of the ancient world (p. 103). The author draws his attention to the role of money in the era (pp. 105-107), as well as to the historical evidence and accounts of barrages, reservoirs, off-takes, canals and settlements of Phase VII (550 – 280 BC). Taking a short view on Phase VIII (280 BC – AD 250), he continues the discussion with a survey on the Sasanian economy including barrages, irrigation canals, settlements, mills, networks of Phase IX and a discussion on the limits to the Sasanian royal economy.

Following the discussions on military and economic landscapes, in Chapter 6 Hartnell discusses the cultural landscape of Persepolis. He comments briefly on the Elamite religion during Phases VI (1400 – 600 BC) and VII (550 – 280 BC) in the Kur River Basin, as well as on the relationship between Persian and Elamite culture. He continues the discussion on the Achaemenization of the Kur River Basin and the debate about early Persian fire altars within the era; Persepolis after Alexander’s fire and the so-called Frataraka Temple; the Phase VIII (280 BC – AD 250) sculpture at Malyan; and the funerary monuments as well as undated religious monuments. The following themes comprise Phase IX (AD 250 – 800): burials and a notion on the creation of a Zoroastrian landscape.

In Chapter 7, Hartnell considers some challenges facing the capitals of ancient Persia. After explaining the route networks in the Kur River Basin, he focuses on hierarchies of the Achaemenids as well as on the evidence for the social complexity at Persepolis. He continues with Median and Elamite places, as well as Central Asian fortified sites. With regard to the main royal capitals of the Kur River Basin, he discusses the Elamite city of Anshan, the physical evidence for Persepolis and beyond, and finally the city of Istakhr.

From the wide array of sources described in Chapters 5 to 7, Hartnell comes to the conclusive discussion in Chapter 8. This includes the debates on Phase VI (Shogha-Teimuran, 1400 – 600 BC) to Phase VII (Late Plain Ware, 550 – 280 BC) and Phase VIII (Hellenistic to Parthian BC – AD 250) and finally Phase IX (Sasanian Grey Ware, AD 250 – 800). Hartnell’s main goal in this survey is not only to collect the relevant new data on Persepolis’s political economy in its wider Pre-Islamic regional context, but also to present a geo-spacial archaeological database of prior studies. Objecting to the model of a “village-based economy” proposed by Linda Katherine Jacobs, he suggests that pastoralism was the pre-dominant life mode in Phase VI (pp. 240-242). Hartnell also points out that the lack of a military infrastructure suggests a general decentralization of military power within the pastoral community of the Kur River Basin. He argues that the evidence of the renovation of an important Elamite cultural monument at Naqsh-e Rustam indicates some level of cultural continuity and suggests that the river basin served as an important religious location.

With regard to Phase VII, Hartnell moves beyond the three major theories explaining settlement patterns that existed prior to his study: 1) that the “Persepolis Palace Complex was associated with a city and at least three urban sub-districts”; 2) that Persepolis functioned as a royal zone and had little impact beyond a 30 kilometer radius; and 3) “the wider community was pastoral” (pp. 243-244). Using the historical archives of Persepolis, Hartnell suggests a three-tier administrative hierarchy, but admits that the archive “does not provide direct evidence for or against the association of the Persepolis Palace Complex with an urban area” (p. 244). His examination of the settlement sample from the Pulvar River Valley could not prove a hierarchical and regional settlement system that would support a city close to Persepolis.

The challenge with studying Phase VIII is the very little evidence of settlement in the Korbal District or Abarj Valley. Hartnell concludes that the plain must have been relatively isolated. Without further samples, the relationship between Phase VII and VIII is difficult to discern.

Hartnell argues that a fundamental change occurred in the built landscape of the Kur River Basin during Phase IX, with an increased importance of farming during this time. He also provides evidence for a settlement hierarchy in the Kur River Basin that suggests a low-level settlement of four to ten hectares for this region. In terms of military strategy, Hartnell also found evidence for two additional types of military construction to those already known – namely, a series of walls along the foothills of the Pulvar River Valley, and fortified villages with an outer defensive wall and glacis along the riverbank.

Some six useable appendices are to be found at the end of his work, including: UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) points used in creating the geospatial database, a list of ceramic terminology, site lists from the Abarj valley, the Korbal district, the Pulvar river valley as well as site correspondences between summer’s grid, and a new survey.

Since among the great civilizations of the so-called ancient Near East, our archaeological knowledge about the regional organization of the Achaemenians, one of the important empires of the ancient world, is less than satisfactory, Hartnell’s Persepolis in Context: A Landscape Study of Political Economy in Ancient Persia is an extremely welcome study to the growing new body of literature on ancient Iranian archaeology. It extends our knowledge of under-explored aspects of pre-Islamic Iranian archaeology and history.

Shervin Farridnejad
Department of Iranian Studies, Faculty of Philosophy
University of Göttingen

Primary Sources

Archaeological discoveries and regional data from Kur River Basin
Topographic and archaeological maps
Regional surveys
Geospatial database
Literary sources

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 353 pp. Primary Advisor: McGuire Gibson.


Image: Persepolis, Photograph by Asana Mashouf, Wikimedia Commons.

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