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Underwater Archaeology in Iran

Sorna Khakzad and Shadi Kalantar


Present-day Iran, which historically was part of the larger Persian Empire, has approximately 5,000 km of shoreline including its bordering seas, islands and lakes, including more than 989km of shoreline along the Persian Gulf, and 784km along the Oman Sea, as well as more than 800 km along the Caspian Sea. Despite an extensive Persian maritime history, there have only been a few attempts to write exclusively about Persian naval history, such as Hadi Hasan and Raeen. Some background studies about Persian maritime history can be found in Greek literature, travelers’ accounts and artworks.

Islamc Art and Miniature Painting, and Poem 16th, Louvre,Dpt. des Arts d’Islam, Paris, France.

The Persian Empire was a terrestrial force, until they reached the seas while they were exploring the world and extending their land. That was the time when the necessity of having a naval force was considered. According to historical sources, some documented Persian seafaring dates back at least to the Sassanid era (AD 224–651). The main branches of the Silk Road during Sasanian period passed through Iran, connected the land with the sea, and made the trade and link with the world possible. A great development of the sea fairing in Iran has based on the fact that the southern water in Iran—the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea—provided a good connection with the eastern countries such as India, Ceylon and China, and also East Africa.

After the invasion of Arabs in Iran, from the 7th and 8th C. there are records of Po-sse (Persian) ships travelling to china in Chinese records. It took some time for Persian to take over their own governance out of Arabs hands. By the 10th century, although Iran became dominantly Muslim by religion, the Persian culture and language survived the Arabs invasion. Around 9th-10 C. the sea trade from Persia with other countries improves. It is the time of flourishing Siraf—a well-known early Islamic trade emporium in the Persian Gulf— as an important port in the history of sea trade with far-east.

Stone anchors, delivered at the Bushehr Naval Trade Museum for documentation and inventory.

In recent years, some initiatives have been conducted to study the maritime history and underwater archaeology in Iran. These studies include but not limited to survey of coastal archaeological remains of Siraf, documentation of stone anchors in the Province of Bushehr, some preliminary studies on the history of shipbuilding in Iran, as well as thesis by Iranian students on different aspects of maritime and underwater archaeology. There are museums dedicated to the maritime history and trade in Iran, such as Bushehr Museum of Naval Trade.

Proto-Elamite and Elamite Seals and Seal Impressions

Direct evidence for prehistory of Near East navigation is scarce, but pictorial representations and models of ancient watercraft are a rich source of information. Some authors, De Graeve (1981), Qualls (1981), Makela (2003), Bigourdan (2003), and Pedersen (2003) have made important contributions to our understanding of early watercraft in a wide area that includes the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia, and the Elam, as a part of Mesopotamia. Iran, however, has been less well published, and this project – which has been the focus of Shadi Kalandar’ thesis –  aims at studying a small group of 19 representations, 17 seal impressions, one Koduru and one clay model found within territory of Elam.

This thesis tried to analyze the structural and technical aspects and details as much as possible. Also, ethnographical studies of this thesis is done in Hormozgan, Khuzistan and Bushehr provinces of Iran but the previous studies included no ethnographical survey in Iran.

The question which is aimed to be answered in this thesis is to realize the structural aspects (being flat-bottomed or curved, having keel or not, shape of stern and bow, etc.) along with technical aspects (propulsion and steering system) and building techniques of the watercraft used during late 4th millennium until first millennium BC. In inland and maritime waters of Elam by interpreting iconographic evidences. However, three seal impressions of the evidences that this study is based on belongs to Achaemenid and Maiden periods not Elam and the reason they are added to this collection is that they obviously show a difference with the watercraft illustrated on Elamite seal impressions which deserve an interpretation.

Surprisingly, namely iconographic evidences show an extensive similarity with three kind of indigenous boats which still are built and used in southwest of Iran where once Elam was located. These boats are called by the locals shashk, zaimeh and mashhuf. The ethnographic surveys is done to compare these boats with the mentioned iconographic evidences for a better comprehension of represented watercraft and also to prove the similarities between them. Although, it does not mean that shashk, zaimeh and mashhuf are direct decedents of the depicted watercraft but their common aspects are undeniable.

Selected Bibliography

Agius, D.A. (ed.) 2008. Classic ships of Islam from Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean. Boston: Leiden.

Bigourdan, N., 2003. L’Architecture Navale des Bateaux et Embarcations de Mésopotamie du Sud et du Golfe Persique de – 5000 à Jésus-Christ, MA Thesis, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris.

De Graeve, M.C., 1981. The Ships of the Ancient Near East (2000-500 BC), PhD Thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven.

Hadi Hassan, 1928.  Iranian Navigation History.

Hourani, G.F. 1951. Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and early medieval Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ismail Raeen, 1971. Daryanavardiye Iranian [The seafaring Iranians].

Kalantar, Shadi, 2018. Identification, Classification and Typology of the Water-Crafts Illustrated on the Proto-Elamite and Elamite (3200 BC- 7th Century BC) Seals and Seal Impressions with a Focus on their Functions. Master Thesis, University of Tehran.

Khakzad, S. & Moosaie, A., 2019. “Stone Anchors of the Persian Gulf,” Maritime Archaeology and Historical Society Journal, Vol. 30: 1.

Khakzad, S. et al, 2014, “Maritime Aspects of Medieval Siraf, Iran: a pilot project for the investigation of coastal and underwater archaeological remains,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 44 (1).

Lionel Casson, 1971, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, Princeton University Press.

Makela, T.T.,2003. Ships and Shipbuilding in Mesopotamia (CA. 3000- 200 B.C.), MA Thesis, Texas A&M University.

Pedersen, R., 2003. Boatbuilding sequence in the Gilgamesh Epic and the Sewn Boat Relation, PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University.

Shahab Setudeh-Nejad, 1970. Cultural and Cosmological Impact of Iranian Civilization in Vietnam and Peninsular Areas of Southeast Asia, Iran chamber society, Based on Wolters 1970, Wheatley 1964, and Moorhead 1965.

Whitehouse, D. and A. Williamson (eds) 1973. Sasanian Maritime Trade. Iran.