The Archaeology of Sasanian Politics


Organized by Richard Payne and Merhnoush Soroush

Archaeological excavations, surveys, and analyses have revitalized the study of Sasanian history in recent years. The International Merv Project, the investigation of the "Great Wall of Gurgan," and the survey of the Mughan Steppe, among other projects, reveal a remarkably robust state in the fifth and sixth centuries, far more capable of marshaling men and material in its service than most historians have been willing to admit. In the aftermath of Hun invasions, the empire successfully reorganized its resources to invest in the massive infrastructure projects visible in Gurgan, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere that enabled Iran not simply to endure but to expand. It is the goal of our workshop to convene archaeologists and historians to debate how recent archaeology can provide new perspectives on the dynamics of Sasanian imperialism. We wish to move beyond the traditional historiographical paradigm of centralization / decentralization, nobles vs. kings of kings, toward archaeological perspectives on Sasanian politics. If we begin with the archaeology, do different questions, models, and approaches to Sasanian imperial dynamics present themselves?

It is the aim of this workshop to discuss how the defensive walls, fortified settlements, irrigation systems, rural estates, urban structures, and other interventions in the landscape did not only reflect developments in the empire (e.g. the increasingly bureaucratized fiscal and military administrations normally attributed to the late Sasanians), but also created new opportunities for the organization of imperial resources, the mobilization and monitoring of aristocratic networks, and the recalibration of relations between provinces. At the same time, we would like to situate these historical developments in the longue durée landscape with which archaeologists work - and to which historians often only genuflect - that constrained the activities of this continental empire.


8:45am Opening Remarks: Richard Payne (ISAW & Mount Holyoke College)

Session I: The Sasanian Imperial Infrastructure

9:00am James Howard-Johnston (University of Oxford)
The Sasanian State: The Evidence of Coinage and Military 

Discussant - Roderick Campbell (ISAW)

10:00am Coffee Break

10:30am St. John Simpson (British Museum)
Merv, A Sasanian Bulwark on the North-Eastern Edge of the Empire
Discussant - Judith Lerner (ISAW)

11:30am Karim Alizadeh (Harvard University)
Borderland Projects of the Sasanian Empire: Intersection of Domestic and Foreign Policies
Discussant - Emily Hammer (ISAW)

12:30pm Lunch Break

SESSION II: The Encounter of Iran with Turan

14:00 Aleksandr Naymark (Hofstra University)
Sogdians of Bukhara between Sasanians and Huns: Numismatic Data
Discussant - Michael Bates (American Numismatic Society)

15:00 Soeren Stark (ISAW)
Fortified Borderlands: A View Beyond Imperial Iran. Some Results of Recent Fieldwork on the Fortification of the Bukhara Oasis
Discussant - Scott McDonough (William Paterson University)

16:00 - Coffee Break

SESSION III: The Sasanian Political Economy

16:30 Jairus Banaji (SOAS)
The Sasanian Aristocracy in the Seventh Century
Discussant - Richard Bulliet (Columbia University)

17:30 Concluding Remarks - Donald Whitcomb (University of Chicago)


Seating is limited, registration required to

This is a public event.

To RSVP, please email