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Other spelling: Cheragh-Ali Tepe

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Golden goblet of Marlik, Iran.
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Golden goblet of Marlik, Iran.

Steatopygous female figure of Marlik, Iran.
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Steatopygous female figure. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski.

Archaeological site in Northern Iran. The royal cemetery unearthed at Marlik was that very rare find, a collection of tombs entirely untouched for some 3000 years. In the few months of continuous scientific excavation from November 1961 until October 1962 several thousand objects were mapped and retrieved, hundreds of which were gold. The sheer value of the gold, silver and gems discovered at the site runs into the millions of dollars, their artistic intricacy and beauty, their rarity, and their historical importance make them quite literally priceless.
The cemetery was found by a survey team from the Archaeological Service of Iran as they were in the process of mapping likely sites for future excavation. Located in the valley of Gohar Rud (crystal river), a tributary of Sepid Rud in Mazandaran Province in Northern Iran, Marlik (sometimes called Cheragh-Ali Tepe after a previous owner), is a large rocky mound surrounded by olive groves and wild pomegranate bushes overlooking the rice paddies characteristic of the wet and fertile northern slopes of the Alborz Mountains.
When the survey team arrived there was little sign of archaeological material, but the side of the hill showed signs of ditches dug by antique smugglers in an unsuccessful search for artifacts. Unlike the smugglers, the survey team recovered several interesting objects, including several gold buttons in their first test trench. Gold fever is the same the world round, and whereas gold mining may destroy mountains and men, the most valuable commodity at an archaeological site is not the items recovered, but their placement, their depth, and their juxtaposition, in short their scientific context, and the antique smuggler destroys all this in the lust for a few items.
Knowing that as soon as word of gold got out, Marlik would be plundered, the survey team immediately contacted the Archaeological Service in Teheran for instructions. What followed was a struggle between the modern practice of scientific archeology, and the traditional methods of plunder, smuggling and governmental corruption.
The reform elements in the Archaeological Service took the initiative, and despite bureaucratic obfuscation, the Ministry of Education granted a charter for the excavation within a few days. Opposition from smugglers, antique hunters, local dignitaries, and corrupt officials gave an urgency to the excavation, and it was a daily battle by the archaeologists to continue the digs. The continual menace on several occasions resulted in armed confrontations between the gendarmes protecting the site and the many forces arrayed against the excavation, and on one occasion the site was attacked at night while the gendarmes were absent, leaving the archaeologists to literally fight for their lives.
The people who buried their dead at Marlik remain something of a puzzle for history. They seem not to have left any written records, and aside from the cemetery at Marlik there is not very much in the archaeological record to fill out their history. Very likely, Marlik, the name the local villagers gave to the mound, is 'Marda-lik' (place of the Marda or Amarda), and the Greek historian Strabo describes the Marda as living in this part Ancient Persia. There are some significant similarities between the metalwork at Marlik and some of those found at Sialk near Kashan, and as the finds at Sialk are dated as slightly later than those of Marlik, it is suggested that the Amarda around Marlik and the Sepid Rud, relocated to the central Iranian plateau near Sialk where they were eventually assimilated into the general Medes population.
If the original population abandoned the valley soon after the burials, this may explain why the cemetery was forgotten and not looted in the intervening years. This theory still remains unconfirmed, and it remains true that little can be said with any certainty about the people who buried their royalty atop the mound at Marlik.
The excavation recovered 53 tombs, of which two belonged to horses. Those buried were surrounded by jewelery and valuables, as well as by implements of daily life and figurines which may have served to represent their life, activities and deities. While the people at Marlik seem not to have been literate, their technical skill seems exceptional, and they excelled in metal work.
The items recovered at Marlik contain many unusual items which have helped to develop current thinking on the chronology of metal working in late bronze age cultures. It is significant to note that without scientific excavation procedures, it would have been impossible to date and locate these items, and it would have been impossible to appreciate their unique and important place in the archaeological record.
The most famous item recovered is the 'Gold Bowl of Marlik', which for a period was included in the design of the 500 rial banknote. A beaker 17.5 cm high and 14 cm across, it is a relatively pure and consequently, soft gold vessel. It is done in repousse with details in linear engraving. The design is two winged bulls standing on their hind legs with their forelegs on each side of a palm tree (the design is repeated twice, once on each side of the vessel). The heads are hammered out from the body of the vessel and done in fine, naturalistic detail. Likewise the wings and body of the bulls are finely detailed. The rim is a triple lined guilloche band, and the base consists of overlapping semicircles on which the bulls stand. The base of the vessel is a sixteen petaled rosette surrounded by sixteen double-lined petals. The beaker is one of the earliest examples of its design, variants of which are found later in Elamite and Assyrian artifacts.
Another gold beaker of exceptional design is 20 cm (8 in.) high and 14 cm (5.4 in.) in diameter. It has four bands of repeated designs which tell a story of life. The lowest band represents a mountain goat suckling her young kid. The next band shows that the child had matured to a vigorous adult which is standing on his hind legs and eating the leaves from the highest branches of the palm of life. The third band depicts a powerful and menacing boar, ominous in it's silent threat. The fourth and highest band, depicts two vultures ripping at the carcass of the mountain goat stretched onto its back. The advanced age of the mountain goat is depicted by the long horns which have eleven lines etched into them. Above the carcass of the mountain goat we see a small figure squatting in front of a young tree. The figure is stylized and may represent a foetus or a monkey. The presence of a tail, and what appears to be fur, suggests a monkey at the tree of wisdom, which may relate bowl to the tales of Kalileh and Demneh, in which allegorical tales of the life of animals in the jungle teach about human life and society, and in which the monkey acts as the wiseman drawing morals from the tales (Kalileh and Demneh as we know it today dates to the 3rd century CE, yet the stories it comprises undoubtedly have roots in more ancient times). Either as foetus or monkey, the image acts to remind us of the transitory and cyclical nature of life.
It is impossible to do justice to the many items found at the site. The site was one of the richest to date in early glass work, and provided important clues on the chronology of the development of glass technology. Many of the metal items found show the earliest examples of several gold and sliver metallurgical techniques, and establish the craftsmen at Marlik as among the most accomplished of their time. The pottery, weapons and tools uncovered at Marlik were all of fine quality and craftsmanship, and their sheer number and concentration provide valuable information on the technological abilities of craftsmen in the second half of the second millenium BCE.
After all their trials and travails, the archaeologists at Marlik were ordered to abandon the site in November of 1962 after a change in government which brought the allies of the smugglers and antique dealers, some of which were in the family of the Shah, to power. Forced to abandon the excavation, there was little that could be done other than return to Teheran to appeal the decision. When a team was permitted to return to the mound one year later, it was clear that little more could be done as the entire area had been ravaged by illegal digging. A brief survey showed some 2000 holes had been haphazardly dug around the valley, and everything that had been despoiled was now lost to history. It is difficult to say what was destroyed, and to this date the only material of the Marlik people to be available to science is the collection from the excavation which is housed at the Muzeh Iran Bastan (Archaeological Museum in Teheran).

By D. Josiya Negahban