Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Iran Beckons Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Andrew Lawler

A surprise invitation to foreign archaeologists to return and resume work

The lush garden of the last shah is one of Tehran's few cool places in the hot summer. Set on a hillside overlooking the sprawling city, the grounds of the Niyavaran Palace were the setting last August for an unusual moonlit meal, with white tablecloths, candles, and dozens of dishes--from diced lamb to delicate sweets--laid out under the stars.

The elaborate banquet and the heartfelt speeches of the hosts were part of an effort to rekindle an old romance that ended with the 1979 revolution. Foreign scholars are now being actively courted by Iranian officials eager to reconnect with the West and ready to provide access to the country's wealth of sites. "We are ready to collaborate," says Jhalil Golshan, research director for the Iran Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO), which oversees archaeology for the Iranian government.

Like any romance, particularly the second time around, there is much hope but no guarantee. Foreign archaeologists in Iran, as well as their allies in the Tehran government, are hostage to larger political forces. Reformists and conservatives are contending for supremacy, and the former are using archaeology as a lever to reopen scientific contacts with the West and revitalize tourism. But the presence of American troops in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan concerns a country still bitter about U.S. support of the shah, while U.S. and European concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, human rights issues, and support for alleged terrorist groups create strains between Tehran and Western countries. And there are internal stresses, too, among the various competing organizations in Iran involved in archaeology. Groups within ICHO are vying for influence, while independent university researchers clamor to be heard. Doing archaeology in such conditions is risky

Andrew Lawler, Boston correspondent of Science magazine, has traveled twice to Iran in the past year to cover archaeology.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America