The British Museum Siraf project
Project leader: Seth M. N. Priestman
Department: Middle East
Project start date: 2007
End date: 2009
Project funded by:
- British Institute of Persian Studies
- British Museum Challenge fund
- Iran Heritage Foundation
External partners: British Institute of Persian Studies
The port of Siraf is in southern Iran, roughly half way along the north shore of the Persian Gulf within a shallow bay partially occupied today by the village of Tahiri. The remains of the medieval city are confined within a narrow coastal strip of about 0.5-1 km wide with mountain ridges running parallel to the coast rising up immediately behind. The port has a relatively close deep water approach, solid anchorage and good protection from the dominant storm pattern: the North-Wester or Shimal. Otherwise the city occupies a barren, isolated position with few dependable sources of irrigation and limited land suitable for farming.
Against this setting, Siraf rose to prominence as one of the main ports in the Persian Gulf and a centre at the heart of commercial exchange, operating across much of the Indian Ocean. For around 250 years, between the mid-eighth to early eleventh centuries AD, Siraf would have ranked among the world's most prosperous cities.
At its height, Siraf covered an area of 250 hectares with grand multi-storied houses set back from the sea. At the centre of the city was a large congregational mosque and bazaar, and in the suburbs, an extensive industrial quarter where there is evidence for the large-scale production of pottery and glass. Elsewhere within the city evidence exists for the production or working of iron, copper alloy, soft-stone, shell, textiles and jewellery. Initial results from analysis of mineral samples, undertaken in the British Museum scientific research department, provide evidence of an unusually large garnet most likely imported from Sri Lanka in its raw form, either for re-export or local re-working.
The prime source of Siraf’s wealth was derived from its role as a centre of maritime trade in the Persian Gulf, at a time when Indian Ocean trade as a whole underwent a period of dramatic expansion. Levels of contact with South and Southeast Asia were increased, while for the first time, regular direct voyages were made between the Persian Gulf, China and East Africa.
Between 1966 and 1973 six seasons of excavation were undertaken at Siraf by the British Institute of Persian Studies and the Iranian Archaeological Services under the direction of Dr David Whitehouse (see below for selected publications). During the excavation large areas of well-preserved architecture were exposed at locations distributed across the city, during which several million objects were recovered. Of those finds exported to Britain, the largest portion was deposited and registered within the British Museum. Other finds are currently housed in at least 10 different institutions in three different continents, including a large body of the finds in Tehran.
The British Museum Siraf Project began in 2007 as a two-year research initiative supported by the British Institute of Persian Studies. The aim of the project was to provide a complete catalogue of the excavated finds from Siraf in the British Museum. The collection of over 20,000 artefacts from Siraf represents one of the largest archaeological assemblages held by the Museum's Middle East department. Before the project began the finds from Siraf were unregistered and information on the collection remained limited.
All of the finds and samples from Siraf in the British Museum are now registered and entered on the Museum’s central database. These records form the basis of further research and analysis of the collection and serve as a primary record of the objects themselves. Specification, descriptions and images of the finds from Siraf can now be accessed by searching the Collection database online.
A further central objective of the project was to use the study of the finds to characterise and illustrate the full range of materials typically represented at a major Early Islamic (about seventh to eleventh century) port in the Indian Ocean. Particular attention has been given to the ceramics, which account for approximately half of the collection. Early Islamic pottery manufactured within the Persian Gulf region has been recovered from coastal sites distributed throughout the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Japan to South Africa. By improving our understanding of pottery from a single influential port, we are able to appreciate interactions that took place over a far broader geographic area.
As part of the work on the pottery it was possible to lay out all 10,000 sherds in the collection at one time and to use this opportunity to make considerable refinements to the classification of the assemblage. As part of this process all recurrent forms were categorised and a small selection made for each form for the purposes of illustration. Finds illustration was completed largely by Mrs Mohaddeseh Mansoury Razi who joined the project from Iran for three months in 2008 as Iran Heritage Foundation Fellow to the British Museum.
The information that has been recorded about the finds from Siraf is being brought together for publication as a British Institute of Persian Studies monograph. This will include an overview of the collection together with a selection of specialist reports on individual find categories.
The next stage of the project, begun in 2009 and continuing to 2012, involves analysing this information. Seth Priestman, who directed the British Museum Siraf Project, is currently undertaking this research as an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award between the British Museum and the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton.
S.M.N. Priestman ‘The rise of Siraf: long-term development of trade emporia within the Persian Gulf’. In Proceedings of the International Congress of Siraf Port, November 14 - 16, 2005. Bushehr: Bushehr Branch of Iranology Foundation & Bushehr University of Medical Sciences, 2005, 137-56
V.F. Piacentini, Merchants, Merchandise and Military Power in the Persian Gulf (Suriyanj/Shakriyaj-Siraf), (Rome, Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Serie IX, Vol. III(2), 1992)
N.M. Lowick, Siraf XV. The Coins and Monumental Inscriptions, (London, The British Institute of Persian Studies, 1985)
D. Whitehouse, Siraf III. The Congregational Mosque and Other Mosques from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries (London, The British Institute of Persian Studies, 1980)
D. Whitehouse, ‘Excavations at Siraf. First-Sixth Interim Reports’, Iran, 6-12, (1968-74)
7th International Congress of the Ancient Near East
12 – 16 April 2010, British Museum
Seth Priestman will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Siraf and the Abbasid Trade Boom Phenomena: Quantitative Ceramic Evidence’ in the megacities session.