Mughan Steppe (Iran)

Irrigation and Pastoralism on the Mughan Steppe, NW Iran (2005)

The Mughan Steppe Archaeological Project investigated the massive irrigation and settlement system of the Sasanian era (dates) and the landscapes of the Shahsevan pastoral nomadic confederacy and their antecedents.  A pilot season of survey in Ardebil Province, NE Iran took place in January 2005.  The survey was directed jointly by Karim Alizadeh of the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research and Jason Ur of Harvard University.

Methods. The survey was heavily reliant on CORONA satellite imagery for site and feature detection. This imagery, which was acquired between 1959 and 1972, captured an archaeological landscape which has since been dramatically transformed by a modern irrigation system.  Many of these features no longer survive and can only be located via historical satellite photographs.

Sasanian Fortified Settlements and Irrigation Systems. At the NW edge of the Sasanian empire, the state appears to have imposed a series of square fortifications, surrounded by unwalled towns. The largest is Ultan Qalasi, a 28 ha town on the edge of the Aras River.  Smaller sites have 1 ha fortified components.  All of these sites are found along irrigation canals.  The longest ran along the southern edge of the steppe.  In several cases, CORONA imagery preserves the traces of the entire field systems associated with these canals.

Shahsevan Pastoral Nomadic Campsites.  After the collapse of Sasanian settlement, the steppe was taken over by pastoral nomadic groups. The Mongol army spent winters here.  By the 17th century, Mughan was the winter pasturegrounds for tribes of the Shahsevan confederacy.  In some parts of the steppe, their campsites survive as circles of shallow depressions; these were the semi-subterranean shelters for animals.  On the northern part of the plain, the campsites have been destroyed by the modern irrigation system but are visible in CORONA satellite imagery.

Archaeological publications on the Mughan Steppe Archaeological Project