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Archaeology > Alison GASCOIGNE

ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS AT JAM, AFGHANISTAN | 2005-

Opportunities to conduct fieldwork in Afghanistan have been few and far between over the last three decades. This is unfortunate, since the country provides a stunning setting for an archaeological heritage reflecting its pivotal situation at the conjunction of south and central Asia and the Middle East, and the many cultures and empires that have flourished there. Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, steps have been taken by various organisations to assess the damaged state of Afghanistan's archaeological sites, in addition to applying modern archaeological methods to research their form and significance. One such initiative is the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project (MJAP), initially set up and funded by UNESCO under the auspices of the Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente and since 2005 an independent project, now co-directed by David Thomas of La Trobe University and the author.
The site of Jam has suffered badly from looting. Although it has been protected slightly by its remote location and difficult terrain from the extreme damaged inflicted using bulldozers on sites such as Ai Khanum, the slopes are pitted with robber holes, many of which are several metres wide and deep. As a result of the looting, and in response to the angle at which the minaret is now leaning, Jam was inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage 'In Danger' list at the time of its designation as a World Heritage site in 2002. Since then, the MJAP has undertaken two seasons of fieldwork, collecting data on the extent of the site, surveying the main features, assessing the damage caused by illicit digging and undertaking scientific archaeological analysis of ceramics, finds, organic material and geomorphological samples.
Jam is located in Ghur province, and indeed has been plausibly identified as the summer capital of the eponymous Ghurid rulers, Firuzkuh. The Ghurids were one of several short-lived dynasties that captured large territories by force of arms in the mid-twelfth century. They maintained their claims to overlordship of the region by means of continuous warfare with their neighbours, before being overthrown by the Khwarazmshah, and ultimately swept away by the Mongol armies in the early 1220s. Their settlements thus thrived on the rich spoils taken from conquests, primarily of places such as Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and the areas of Sind and the Punjab to the east. With the fall of the dynasty and the disappearance of the wealth they had brought to Ghur, their centres ceased to be viable entities, having no significant hinterland to support their populations, much of which was in any case slaughtered or dispersed by the Mongols. Sites such as Jam were thus densely occupied for only a limited period of time; historical evidence indicates a life of some seventy-five years for Firuzkuh, a situation broadly confirmed by archaeological evidence from Jam.
Little remains today that obviously attests to the presence of a prosperous Ghurid settlement, the wealth and cosmopolitan nature of which are described by the historian al-Juzjani, himself an inhabitant of Firuzkuh as a young man in the early thirteenth century. The exception is, of course, Jam's stunning minaret, located on the only strip of flat land in the area, at the junction of the Hari Rud and the smaller but seasonally torrential Jam Rud. The ruins of other significant buildings do, however, still cling to the crags and slopes. These include the pier of a brick bridge spanning the Hari Rud (there has been no bridge here since the collapse of this Ghurid structure); the fort of Qasr-i Zarafshan with associated watchtowers and outlying fortifications; and a huge cistern, probably forming part of an elite residence, on the terraced summit of Kuh-i Khara. On one of the main slopes of the town, houses are built on terraces around a wide 'arcade' wall, which incorporates vaulted rooms, perhaps shops. The settlement stretches for several kilometres along both river valleys. Establishing the total extent of the remains is one of the primary aims of the MJAP, with the south and eastern edges surveyed in 2005. We hope to continue this work on the western and northern reaches of the site in 2007, the data from which will allow UNESCO to re-define the protected area so that it covers all sectors of the Ghurid settlement.
The project has also uncovered evidence for a large courtyard building, presumably the town's congregational mosque, on the flat ground by the minaret. Cleaning of robber holes and of the eroding river bank has revealed large walls of fired brick and packed earth running parallel to the Hari Rud, with areas of brick paving in various patterns and small baked-brick pillared colonnades. We plan to survey the area next season using magnetometry and ground penetrating radar, with the hope of revealing the layout, extent and location of the structure(s), which can then be protected from further building in the area. (Geophysical techniques will also be tested on the Judaeo-Persian cemetery, located more than a kilometre south of the minaret, which is threatened by looting and erosion.) In addition to monumental architecture, investigation of robber holes has also provided much evidence for domestic structures at Jam. Fragments of carved stucco frames, still holding the edges of thin sheets of window glass, have been thrown out of the ground by looters, and small pieces of wall plaster painted red, blue and green in some places still adhere to exposed wall faces. In one robber hole, the walls of an almost complete room, with plastered window ledge, central brick pier, vaulted roof and small lamp alcove (still containing green-glazed lamp) are testament to the quality of life in Ghurid Jam.
Jam was clearly a wealthy, high-status town. Conversations with local villagers reveal that finds of considerable value, including coin hoards and jewellery, have been illicitly excavated and sold in recent years. Even categories of artefact of less obvious monetary value confirm the site as a rich urban centre. Among the ceramic sherds collected and recorded in 2005 were three fragments of Minai ware (also known as haft rangi, or 'seven colours'). Minai was the culmination of attempts by Islamic potters to draw fine designs onto glazed pottery that would not run and be obscured when fired, each colour being painted on in the form of vitreous enamel, with the vessel re-fired after each application. Making vessels in this way was time-consuming and required considerable skill; the products were thus much valued, especially where gold leaf was used in the decoration. In addition, the ceramic corpus from Jam contains a considerable number of fine lustreware sherds which, along with the Minai, were imported from centres such as Kashan in Iran. Fragments of Chinese celadon attest to contact with areas far to the east. More locally made glazed wares and very local handmade, geometrically painted coarsewares also abound. The study of pottery from Jam is still ongoing; a larger corpus will be recorded during the 2007 field season, and a major programme of chemical analysis is ongoing, all of which will be compiled into the first modern archaeological publication of Afghan ceramics.
This brief account has done no more than outline some of the work we are undertaking at Jam. Despite the damage the site has sustained over the last decades, it is clear that a great deal of information about the Ghurid settlement can be recovered by the careful application of modern archaeological techniques. We look forward to continuing this process with another season in 2007, for which the generous support of the Fondation Max van Berchem is gratefully acknowledged.
Alison L. Gascoigne


Fig. 1 : The view west along the Hari Rud valley, showing the slopes on the north bank of the Hari Rud, just one of the areas of the site peppered with robber holes, surmounted by Qasr-i Zarafshan. The minaret of Jam, built by the Ghurid sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Sam, probably in the year 570 AH (1174/5 AD), is the only structure to have survived the decline and abandonment of the city more or less intact (photograph by David Thomas).

Fig. 2 : The view down to the central area and minaret of Jam and south along the Jam Rud valley, from the summit of Kuh-i Khara.

Fig. 3-4 : Some of the remaining towers of the main fort of Qasr-i Zarafshan, situated on the summit of the slopes north of the Hari Rud and commanding a wide view of the surrounding countryside.

Fig. 5 : Jam: A small fragment of Minai ware found on the surface of the summit of Kuh-i Khara, showing the fine detail of the decoration; this piece is overlain with gold leaf.