Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Metropolitan Museum’s Excavations at Qasr-i Abu Nasr

Beginning in 1932, a team from the Department of Near Eastern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art excavated for three seasons at the site of Qasr-i Abu Nasr in southern Iran. Located 6 km east of Shiraz, the site had remains from several periods of occupation—Parthian (247 B.C.–224 A.D.), Sasanian (224–651), and Islamic (9th–14th century). The major phase of settlement dates to the Sasanian period and Qasr-i Abu Nasr was one of many small towns scattered across the Fars plain during that time. Artifacts excavated at the site have place names on them that suggest the town was either Old Shiraz or interacted frequently with Old Shiraz. The town also maintained connections with the district capital of Jur. Situated against the mountains, the settlement was probably placed to take advantage of water resources and positioned along a likely route for roads entering the Shiraz plain. Despite the advantageous location, however, the site never developed beyond a small town and fortress.

The French monopoly on excavations in Iran ended in 1930, presenting the Metropolitan Museum with an ideal opportunity to apply to the Iranian Antiquities Department for permission to excavate a site. At this time, it was common practice to divide the finds of an excavation between the sponsoring institutions and the host country, a system called partage. The chance to acquire material from Iran, until then largely restricted to French institutions, was especially appealing to the Met team. Building on previous collaborative excavations at Ctesiphon, which produced Sasanian material for the Museum in 1931–32, the newly created Department of Near Eastern Art sought a site where the Met could work as the sole sponsoring institution.

Qasr-i Abu Nasr was selected for its manageable size and because doorways found standing at the site suggested the possibility of Achaemenid (550–330 B.C.) remains. The Met sent three staff members in the field: Joseph M. Upton, Charles K. Wilkinson, and Walter Hauser. The project would come to be called the Persian Expedition of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and would later also encompass excavations at the site of Nishapur in northeastern Iran. Apart from preliminary reports that appeared in the Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the work at Qasr-i Abu Nasr went unpublished as excavators turned their attention to the more well-preserved material from Nishapur. Two major publications about Qasr-i Abu Nasr were eventually issued in 1973 and 1985 (see Further Reading), synthesizing the original reports, finds, and drawings from the excavation.

Over the course of three seasons, the team excavated four main areas of the site: the Western Area, the Fortress, the Lower Town, and the nearby tombs. The first season of the Persian Expedition (December 1932–April 1933) focused on the Western Area. In the second season (October 1933–May 1934), the team shifted to the raised area in the east called the Fortress; they also conducted some excavations in the Lower Town when rainy weather forced them off the Fortress. In the third and final season (December 1934–April 1935), they worked to complete the plans of the Fortress and also excavated some tombs in the surrounding hills. By 1935, the team planned to finish up in anticipation of beginning excavations at Nishapur.

Remains in the Western Area spanned three different phases: late Sasanian (6th–7th century), Buyid (9th–10th century), and Muzaffarid (13th–14th century). The doorways composed of the earlier Achaemenid-style stones that had initially enticed the excavators proved to be a later addition to the site, brought from Persepolis to Qasr-i Abu Nasr in the ninth or tenth century (33.175.1). Excavations revealed the remains of several large buildings, including an octagonal structure and a large vaulted hall. Unfortunately, excavation methods of the time make it very difficult to disentangle the various re-buildings to create a clear plan of the settlement in this area. Fragments of a window screen (33.175.37) and other stucco fragments were found in and around the octagonal building. The pillared, vaulted building has been suggested as a possible Nestorian church.

The Fortress dates primarily to the Sasanian period, although soundings in some areas suggest it was occupied earlier, in the late Parthian period. Set on a natural topographical rise, the area was accessed by a ramp and a gate on the southwestern side. Roughly triangular in shape, the Fortress is bisected by a main street running southeast to northwest. The buildings do not follow a regular plan, although they are roughly oriented to the main street. As is expected within a fortress, many of the finds relate to defense and administration. Numerous metal arrowheads were found across the area (34.107.146). Several metal keys were also recovered. Perhaps the most significant find from the Fortress was a cache of sealings, or seal impressions (36.30.250; 36.30.249). These small clay objects played a role in Sasanian administrative practices. A piece of clay would be pressed around a rope or string to close a document and then stamped with a seal (36.30.31; 36.30.32). If the stamped clay was broken and removed, it could not be replaced unless the seal owner was present. In some cases, these removed sealings seem to have been deliberately stored for administrative purposes. The Fortress cache was preserved because the building had burned, baking the clay and retaining the seal impressions.

Most of the finds in the Fortress—including ceramics (34.107.4), game pieces (36.30.7; 36.30.5), and other small objects (34.107.67; 34.107.75; 34.107.78)—reflect everyday life and labor in the Sasanian period. Over time, the buildings in the area were rebuilt and were constrained by other nearby structures, thus the Fortress retained roughly the same plan during the Sasanian period. A large podium, which excavators sometimes called a fire altar, was found in the southern part of the Fortress. Scholars have proposed that the podium was linked to Zoroastrian religious practice at the site during the Sasanian period.

Additionally, the team excavated various other locations around the site, including in the Lower Town, between the Western Area and the Fortress. A substantial enclosure wall and several buildings were uncovered, but very few records pertaining to these excavations are known. As elsewhere at the site, the finds range from plain ceramics (34.107.40) to small gold items and weaponry such as arrowheads. During the final season of excavations, the team explored several tombs in the surrounding hills. The stone cairns were either round or built against the rock faces. The tombs were mostly empty and had probably been looted much earlier in antiquity. Based on the few fragmentary finds, excavators suggested the tombs dated to the Parthian period.

Although the Qasr-i Abu Nasr excavations did not produce the quantity and quality of museum objects originally hoped for, they did provide valuable insight into Sasanian society and culture. Approximately six hundred objects from the excavations were brought to the Museum, and a small exhibition of the finds was held in 1934. Before the Persian Expedition, very few Sasanian sites had been excavated, and the publication of the seals, ceramics, and coins provided valuable comparanda for future work.