The Environment of Tepe Hissar, Iran: Using Material Culture to Illustrate a Society’s Relationship with its Surrounding Environment
Semester: Spring 2023
Faculty Advisor: Astrid Lindenlauf
Field Site: The Penn Museum
Field Supervisor: Katy Blanchard
Praxis Poster:Hannah Cohen_Praxis Poster_Final
Having just transferred into Haverford College, I did not hear of Bryn Mawr’s Praxis Program until my field advisor, Katy Blanchard, recommended that I look into completing a Praxis Independent Study. I met Dr. Blanchard through my Professor for ARCH 244: Great Empires of the Ancient Near East after inquiring about how I could continue learning about the subject now that the semester was drawing to a close. My Professor, Dr. Swerida, recommended that I get in contact with the Keeper of the Near Eastern collections at the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology who was not only well versed in the history of the ancient Near East but also had worked with many students in the Bi-College Consortium and had, in fact was a Bryn Mawr alum herself (as a Classical Languages major, I found the fact that Dr. Blanchard had majored in Bryn Mawr’s Classics department to be quite exciting as well but, alas, I digress). Dr. Swerida also put me in contact with my faculty advisor, Professor Lindenlauf after I had decided to take up Dr. Blanchard’s recommendation and pursue a Praxis Independent Study.
My original goals for the course consisted of merely two things: gaining a better understanding of how to use material culture to study ancient societies (for as much as my archeology course revealed my love of studying the ancient Near East, it also revealed my tendency to avoid looking at artifacts in favor of looking at textual evidence) and learning more about the ancient Near East. After talking to Dr. Blanchard and Professor Lindelauf about my Praxis, however, I realized the extent to which taking an independent study would let me delve into a specific topic. My previous desire to be an biologist (a marine biologist in particular) left me with a longstanding interest in ecology, environmental science, and other related topics and, even though I now study the humanities, I wanted to find a way to combine my long standing interest in the environment with my newer fascination with ancient societies. Upon telling this to my two advisors, Dr. Blanchard recommended I focus on looking at the collections of Tepe Hissar – a site which, in spite of having a rich culture and plentiful collection, was often overlooked. And thus is how this Praxis Course was formed.
In the museum, I focused primarily on the technical aspects of interacting with the artifacts. Many of the smaller artifacts – animal figurines, spindle whorls (which are small donut-shaped artifacts that were used to create wool. See fig. 7 for an image), and hand tools were stored in drawers which needed to be inventoried to ensure they were all accounted for in both the drawer and the museum’s data-base. The objects were also rehoused so that they would be better preserved and easier to access.
One of the largest tasks I had in the museum was photographing the artifacts. Even though the museum has had the artifacts for quite some time, many had not been photographed and those that were needed their photographs updated so that the pictures would have greater clarity. There were two modes of photography that I used at the museum: shot-down photography and shot-on photography. The shot-down photography was used for flat objects such as potsherds (see figs. 2 and 3) as it only captured two sides of the object whereas the shot-on photography was used for objects with greater three-dimensionality as it could capture all sides of an object. The photos I took are currently being uploaded in the database and, in conjunction with updates to the objects descriptions, will allow for researchers to have a greater ability to find the objects in collections that would be most useful for them to study.
The academic component of my course was equally as interesting as the field-work. My first readings were from the then most recent (and, I must say, well timed) edition of the American Society of Overseas Research’s magazine (the December 2022 publication) which focused on the wide range of ways in which different societies in the Near East interacted with and perceived animals. My readings gradually grew more specific and soon I focused on learning about the site of Tepe Hissar itself by reading articles concerning the stratigraphy of the site, the artifacts found at the site, and even an analysis of what the people of Tepe Hissar ate. The readings and the discussions I had with Professor Lindenlauf regarding them allowed me to not only view but also analyze the artifacts of Tepe Hissar which I worked with, making the fieldwork component of my course even more meaningful than I had found it before.
I am going to assume that I won’t be able to hold your attention for much longer so, rather than telling you about all of my findings, I am going to briefly elaborate on my favorite: how the dog depicted in fig. 9 helped me conclude, alongside other materials, that sheep were highly valued in Tepe Hissar.
When talking to Professor Lindenlauf during one of our meetings, I mentioned that I always thought it would be interesting to look at society’s values through the traits present in dog breeds that originated from that region. Dogs are one of, if not the, oldest domestic animals and so, they have historically been present in many societies, each of which selectively bred the animals to retain characteristics that allowed the dog to perform the role(s) which they thought it was necessary for a dog to perform. With the help of Dr. Blanchard, I found a depiction of a dog from Tepe Hissar, of course, this would be the animal figurine from fig. 9. While looking at the dog I noticed how it had the shape resembling that of a mastiff and, after doing some further research, I discovered that there was indeed a mastiff that originated in Iran during this time: the sarabi dog (also known as the Persian mastiff). This dog was bred for the purpose of guarding sheep and so, looking at this dog in addition to the depictions of sheep and artifacts that indicated the creation of secondary products from sheep made me realize just how important sheep were to the people of Tepe Hissar. Furthermore, I also realized the extent to which I improved in my ability to analyze artifacts! This skill, and all the others that I have learned, will help enrich my academic career; I am particularly excited to apply them next year while studying abroad in Rome. I also thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to explore ancient peoples relationships with the environment and I hope to further study ancient societies through this lens.