Excavating Iran: Stories from the Silk Road

2 mins read

When Ed Keall first visited Iran, at the age of 24, little did he realise that he was about to embark on an archaeological venture – involving a Persian castle and a fire temple – that has now been 50 years in the making.

On the Silk Road: the snow-capped mountains of western Iran provide the backdrop to the archaeological area around Yazdigird’s castle, the original focus of Ed Keall’s research (shown here in 2007). In the foreground is the blockhouse of the castle’s defensive wall.


In 1962, I took an adventurous trip to Iran to work with British and American archaeologists, and was immediately seduced by the dramatic landscape and richness of the country’s historical culture.

I became buoyed by the idea that I could break into the profession and begin a new career for myself. Resident scholars at the British Institute of Persian Studies advised me to pick an area of specialisation that was not trendy, in order to get my foot in the door. With my background in Classical studies (Greek and Roman), one obvious potential target was the Sasanian dynasty – the Iranians who had plagued the Romans over control of the Euphrates River corridor in the 3rd-6th centuries AD. Dealing with the enemies of Rome appealed to me at that stage in my life.

The famous rock relief near Persepolis showing the Sasanaian king Ardashir receiving the chaplet of divine majesty from Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda.

Most scholars at that time paid little attention to the Sasanians: they were not ancient enough to be interesting to the prehistorians, nor much relevant for the Islamic specialists. The Sasanians became my new focus in life. The Sasanians were the last Persian dynasty to rule Iran before the Muslim Arabs took over in the 7th century AD. In common parlance, we speak of ‘Persian’ culture due to how the ancient Greeks saw Iran; ‘Iran’ is the name of the land, as it is in today’s political world. The Iranians saw a world of ‘Iran’ and ‘non-Iran’. In terms of their beliefs, there is a famous rock relief near Persepolis – the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Persians – showing the first Sasanian king of the 3rd century AD receiving his royal diadem (the symbol of his divine right to rule) from the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. The Sasanians adopted Zoroastrianism formally as the religion of state, displacing the earlier polytheism.

As for their sites, there was one that particularly intrigued me. I first learned of the legendary castle of Sasanian King Yazdigird in 1964, and then used it as part of a successful application to the British Institute of Persian Studies to study the Sasanians. This feature is an account of what happened next.

All Images: Yousef Moradi, Iranian Heritage Organization, except image on the left (Edward Keall)

This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 79.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

An area steeped in history: exploring the Parthian defensive walling along the tableland scarp (image taken in 2007).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.