News this Week

Science  07 Nov 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5647, pp. 962

You are currently viewing the .

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution


    Facing a Security Deadline, Labs Get a 'Provisional' Pass

    1. Martin Enserink

    When the U.S. government wheeled out an aggressive timetable for implementing a new antibioterrorism law last year, research lobbyists warned that it couldn't be done. The extremely tight deadlines, if unmet, could endanger the continuity of vital research projects, they said (Science, 21 February, p. 1175). The government pressed ahead anyway.

    As it turns out, the research community was right. Over the past half-year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been choking on thousands of newly required security checks for researchers; by early this week, not a single lab had received the official go-ahead that the rules required by 12 November. As a research shutdown loomed, the government announced on Monday that researchers can continue working without a background check, for now, as long as they have submitted the appropriate paperwork. Government agencies say they'll start sending out a flurry of “provisional registration certificates” this week to keep labs in business.

    The announcement brought a sigh of relief at many institutions. “I'm grateful that there won't be an ultimate standoff,” says Richard Harpel, director of federal relations at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, one of several organizations that had implored the government to ease the deadline. But many feel that, even as the government is tightening the biosecurity screws on researchers, it appears not to have its own act together. “We were afraid that this train wreck could happen,” says Janet Shoemaker, director of public and scientific affairs at the American Society for Microbiology, which predicted last January that the tight schedule would cause trouble.

    The threatened impasse resulted from a law passed last year that—among many other things—seeks to prevent aspiring bioterrorists from getting their hands on human and agricultural pathogens. Under the current interpretation of the law, all labs possessing or working with these “select agents” had to submit comprehensive security, training, and record-keeping plans in order to be registered by either the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, researchers and labs had to undergo a security risk assessment by the FBI.

    Too close for comfort.

    Researchers using “select agents” won a suspension of rules that could have shut lab doors on 12 November.


    The risk assessments, slated to be finished by 12 June, have been plagued by problems. Staffing at FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division in Clarksburg, West Virginia, which handles the applications, has been insufficient; many applications have been delayed for months because researchers were unaware that they had to submit a fingerprint card along with their form; and an unknown number of applications have simply gone missing.

    As a result, out of almost 9000 applications received, roughly 5000 had been processed by 1 November, says Monte McKee, chief of CJIS's investigative and operational assistance unit, and it may take months for the rest to go through. Meanwhile, inspectors at HHS and USDA have been scrambling to review more than 500 lab registration applications; many labs that sent in stacks of paperwork had received no response until recently. After struggling to meet the 12 November deadline, often at significant cost, research institutions say the silent wait has been maddening. In an editorial in this week's issue of Science, associate vice chancellor for research policy R. Timothy Mulcahy of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says the government's poor performance has created a “perfect storm of confusion and frustration” (p. 949).

    The new rules published in the Federal Register on Monday may calm that storm somewhat. HHS and USDA will give provisional registration certificates to labs that meet the law's requirements with regard to biosafety and security, provided key officials have submitted all the necessary paperwork for a background check by 12 November. Indeed, HHS and USDA officials say the vast majority of labs will pass muster; their provisional registrations will be valid until the FBI completes the background checks, says Ted Jones of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the HHS agency in charge of the process.

    Still, uncertain days lie ahead. For various reasons, either the form or the fingerprints are still missing for about 2000 researchers, says McKee. And “a small fraction” of the labs reviewed by CDC have major security or safety problems that are “showstoppers,” Jones says. Come 12 November, they will either have to relocate their pathogens to an approved lab or destroy them. He declined to reveal the labs' identities or why they failed to pass.

    One reason so many researchers are nervous about the deadline, says Harpel, is that breaking the new law, even inadvertently, could result in stiff fines and jail sentences of up to 5 years. With one of their own now on trial for just such a violation (see next story), “there's a tremendous fear.”


    Has Voyager Gone Beyond the Fringe?

    1. Adrian Cho*
    1. Adrian Cho is a freelance writer in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan.

    A plucky little spacecraft has passed the threshold into a new and mysterious outer region of the solar system. Or has it?

    Launched in 1977, NASA's Voyager 1 probe has sped more than 13 billion kilometers from Earth—more than 85 times the distance to the sun. And in the summer of 2002 it may have passed the shock wave at which the torrent of particles streaming from the sun, known as the solar wind, slows from supersonic to subsonic speed.

    Going, going …

    Voyager 1 may have passed into the outer region of the solar system.


    A detector on the spacecraft registered a 100-fold increase in low-energy particles, Stamatios (Tom) Krimigis of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and colleagues report this week in Nature. Equal numbers of the particles were heading toward and away from the sun. That's what researchers would expect to see if Voyager 1 had passed through the “termination shock” into the region where the solar wind blows more gently. “We're getting into the transition to interstellar space,” Krimigis says.

    But Frank McDonald of the University of Maryland, College Park, and colleagues report, also in Nature, that higher-energy particles increased less than theory says they would have if Voyager 1 had crossed the termination shock. “Have we passed it?” McDonald asks. “Or are we just in the vicinity?” Voyager 2 may provide the answer when it passes through similar territory in 2008.


    Butler 'Lit Bonfire' to Hide Misdeeds, U.S. Says

    1. David Malakoff

    LUBBOCK, TEXAS—The high-profile criminal trial of microbiologist Thomas Butler began here this week with federal prosecutors alleging that his claim that 30 vials of plague bacteria had gone missing from his Texas Tech University lab was actually an attempt to cover up other misdeeds. “Things are not as rosy at Texas Tech as you might think,” U.S. assistant attorney Robert Webster told jurors in opening arguments over the January incident that sparked a national bioterror scare (Science, 24 January, p. 489).

    But defense attorneys say that Butler is a patriotic researcher who became a target for frustrated federal investigators. “He made the mistake of embarrassing the FBI,” said attorney Charles Meadows Jr.

    Butler, 61, is facing 69 criminal counts ranging from lying to federal agents about the fate of the 30 vials of plague bacteria, to carrying undeclared samples into the country, to mishandling grant funds. They carry a penalty of up to 469 years in prison and more than $17 million in fines. Supporters say that Butler is the victim of prosecutorial excess, but the government says that he violated rules designed to keep potential bioweapons secure.

    The trial, expected to last a month, is big news in this cotton-growing college town of 210,000 on the Texas plains. Butler arrived at the courthouse in a conservative sports jacket and tie, looking subdued. Once inside, he listened intently and made occasional notes on a legal pad. Behind him sat his wife, two of his four children, and a small group of neighbors and colleagues.

    Legal steps.

    Thomas Butler and his wife arrive for the start of his trial in Lubbock, Texas.


    The trial opened with statements that combined dramatic sound bites with a primer on the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Webster promised the 16 jurors and alternates that they would “become amateur biologists and chemists” by the end of the trial. He outlined the government's view that Butler reported the plague vials as missing on 13 January in a bid to divert attention from conflicts he was having with campus officials. In one, the university's Institutional Review Board had ordered Butler to stop his research involving human subjects due to disagreements over protocols, Webster said. He also said that auditors were examining allegations that Butler had “shadow contracts” for clinical trials that prevented the university from recovering overhead costs.

    Butler was “in trouble,” Webster said. “He knew the wagons were circled, … and he had a plan to lash out. … He wanted to throw a monkey wrench in the internal affairs of [the university].” But he didn't anticipate that Texas Tech officials would contact police. Instead of “lighting a fire, he lit a bonfire,” Webster said.

    Butler's defense team dismissed that notion. Federal investigators threw the book at the researcher, they said, only after Butler refused to go along with their suggestion that he admit to lying about the fate of the vials. Butler signed a handwritten statement saying that he “had made a misjudgment” in telling investigators that the vials may have been stolen. His attorneys emphasized that the word was chosen carefully. “They couldn't get him to admit to lying because he didn't lie,” says Meadows, adding that Butler still doesn't know what happened to the vials.

    Meadows also disputed the government's financial fraud claims, saying that they rest on differing interpretations of “vague and confusing” university and tax rules. He said that e-mail evidence will show that government scientists encouraged Butler to bring them samples of plague bacteria aboard aircraft and in cars. “He did everything the government wanted him to,” Meadows said.


    Ozone May Be Secret Ingredient in Plaques' Inflammatory Stew

    1. Jean Marx

    Cholesterol has earned a bad rap for its role in forming the artery-clogging plaques that characterize atherosclerosis and lead to heart attacks and strokes. But cholesterol has accomplices. In particular, researchers think that inflammation of blood vessels is a major instigator of plaque formation. Work described on page 1053 now points to an intriguing new way in which inflammation may lead to cholesterol deposition in plaques.

    Paul Wentworth Jr., Richard Lerner, and their colleagues at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, report evidence that ozone is produced in plaques, possibly by the antibodies and immune cells located there. Further results indicate that this ozone contributes to plaque formation by oxidizing cholesterol. If so, the work may solve a major mystery.

    Researchers have known for years that cholesterol oxidation contributes to plaque formation, says Daniel Steinberg of the University of California, San Diego, who was instrumental in demonstrating the importance of cholesterol oxidation. But he adds, “The truth is we don't know exactly how [cholesterol] gets oxidized in vivo.” In addition to providing a possible explanation for cholesterol oxidation, the new findings may also lead to better ways of identifying people at high risk of heart attack and suggest new strategies for preventing atherosclerosis.

    The current work grew out of a discovery the Lerner team made last year: Antibodies generate ozone from water if provided with a highly reactive form of oxygen called singlet oxygen (Science, 15 November 2002, p. 1319). Ozone kills bacteria, and the finding suggested that antibodies might work in part by using ozone.

    In addition, the team showed that neutrophils, a type of immune cell found at inflamed sites, could provide singlet oxygen. Because antibodies are also present at inflamed sites, this raised the specter that antibody-generated ozone might contribute to the damage of inflammatory diseases, including atherosclerosis.

    Cholesterol burden.

    When incubated with cholesterol plus a cholesterol ozonolysis product, macrophages became clogged with the lipid (red stain), which contributes to plaque formation. This didn't happen to cells exposed only to cholesterol.


    To test this idea, Wentworth and his colleagues obtained 15 surgical samples of atherosclerotic tissue. The samples produced ozone when exposed to a neutrophil-stimulating chemical, demonstrating that plaques have the equipment for ozone production. An indication that this might lead to plaque formation came from finding that the samples contain compounds produced when ozone oxidizes cholesterol.

    Other experiments showed that these “ozonolysis” products promote one of the steps in plaque formation: cholesterol uptake by cells called macrophages. In addition, Lerner says, they were as “toxic as hell” to blood vessel cells and thus might promote inflammation.

    Steinberg cautions that it's too early to say whether ozone production in plaques is a major contributor to atherosclerosis. But finding out is important. “Once we know for sure [how cholesterol is oxidized],” he says, “we'll know which antioxidants will work” in suppressing plaque formation. The enzymes that generate singlet oxygen in immune cells would be one target for antiatherosclerotic drugs.

    The new results might also point to a better diagnostic test for ongoing inflammation in the arteries, says Samuel Wright, an atherosclerosis researcher at Merck Research Laboratories in Rahway, New Jersey. Current tests for C-reactive protein measure overall inflammation and thus aren't highly diagnostic. But the Lerner team found greatly elevated levels of a cholesterol ozonolysis product in blood from patients with advanced atherosclerosis. If that proves to be a better measure of heart attack risk, Wright says, “it would be a huge benefit to people with heart disease.”


    Sex Studies Denounced, NIH's Peer-Review Process Defended

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    A religious lobby's denunciation of nearly 200 studies of health and sexual behavior provoked a backlash from the biomedical community last week. After the Traditional Values Coalition shared a list of grants with Congress and called for a Justice Department investigation of them, biomedical leaders defended the sponsor, the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, NIH says that as soon as this week it is planning to give Congress an explanation of the scientific value of these kinds of studies.

    The brouhaha erupted after a staffer at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent NIH a list of studies, largely on AIDS risk and prevention, compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition, which claims to represent over 43,000 churches (Science, 31 October, p. 758). Demanding an investigation, the coalition's executive director, Andrea Lafferty, last week described the projects as “prurient” and “smarmy,” with “little or no bearing on public health,” calling NIH a “federal ATM for grant traffickers.”

    High dudgeon.

    Traditional Values Coalition leaders Andrea Lafferty and Lou Sheldon confer.


    As news of the list hit the press, two scientific groups, among others, stepped up to defend NIH's peer-review process. “We can't let moralizing trump sound science when the public's health and safety are at stake,” warned a statement issued by Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science. Jordan Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, also issued a statement, saying that “AAMC is deeply concerned” about the “extraordinary scrutiny” and “efforts to subject [NIH research] to ideological litmus tests.”

    NIH spokesperson John Burklow says that the agency will not comment on the merits of individual grants but will respond to Congress with a letter that describes the value of the studies and the review process. NIH has contacted some researchers with active grants on the list to give them a “heads up,” Burklow says—not to ask them to help justify the grants, as some had been told earlier. Burklow says NIH is moving ahead with its review because the Commerce Committee has not indicated that NIH should “change course.”

    Still unknown is whether any officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helped compile the grants list, which includes award amounts. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) initially alleged in a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson that officials had been involved because the list contained funding information that was not publicly available. He then backed down in another letter after becoming aware that some NIH award information can be found on the Web. Thompson denied that HHS was involved in a 28 October response to Waxman, noting that the Traditional Values Coalition claims to have used public data. Nevertheless, Waxman has asked HHS for any evidence of correspondence between the coalition and HHS officials.


    Ex-NASA Chief Loses Bid for College Presidency

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Faculty members at Boston University (BU) were left shaking their heads in disbelief last week after trustees asked former NASA chief Daniel Goldin to back out of the university's presidency 24 hours before he was supposed to take office. But the fiasco over Goldin's botched appointment may contain a silver lining for them: a bigger role in the governance of the country's fourth-largest private university.

    Goldin, who earned a reputation as an efficient, tough-talking NASA administrator with his “faster, better, cheaper” motto, accepted BU's offer of the presidency over the summer on the condition that John Silber step down as chancellor and trustee. Silber ran BU as president or chancellor for 30 years, most recently after Jon Westling resigned as president in 2002 after only 18 months on the job. But Goldin's insistence on sole control of the helm pressured Silber into announcing that he would retire on 31 October. He stepped down as planned, even though the Goldin appointment fell through.

    Bye-bye, BU.

    Dan Goldin gave up the presidency of Boston University 1 day before he was to take office.


    “Silber's departure presents an opportunity for giving the faculty a greater role in governing the university,” says biomedical engineer Herbert Voigt, chair of BU's faculty council, some of whose members have been strongly opposed to Silber's top-down style of management. Last week, after The Boston Globe reported that the board's executive committee was planning to rescind its offer to Goldin, the faculty council wrote to the board that “the current crisis in the university's leadership” was due in part to “one person's excessive influence in the university's affairs. We expect that when John Silber retires on October 31, this situation will change.” The council is seeking a seat on the board.

    That's also the day the crisis came to a head, when Goldin accepted the university's reported offer of $1.8 million to walk away from the job. Goldin made statements that “the board did not find to its liking,” says Christopher Barreca, chair of the board. “We concluded that it had been a mistake to offer him the job.” Goldin and BU would not have been a good match, he says, because there was no “compatibility of temperament” between the two. Medical school dean Aram Chobanian has been named interim president.

    Although neither man is talking about the affair, sources say the board was alarmed by Goldin's apparent intention to shake up the university's top administration and his reported questioning of financial ties between some of the trustees and the university. Among the dramatic changes that Goldin was planning, according to The Boston Globe, was the replacement of provost Dennis Berkey and treasurer Kenneth Condon. “He was showing very poor judgment,” says Voigt, who believes that several faculty members were initially excited about Goldin's arrival. “At least he could have waited until November 1 to lay out his plans for change.”

    Some former colleagues at NASA, where he ruffled many feathers but succeeded in streamlining operations, are surprised by the timetable of his actions. It's not as if he is unfamiliar with “the need to make intelligent compromises,” says Courtney Stadd, former NASA chief of staff. “You can't survive 10 years as head of NASA without a capacity to adapt.”

    “I'm not surprised that he would have gone in with the intention to shake things up,” says Alan Ladwig, former associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA, who notes that Goldin made numerous changes within 3 months of his arrival at NASA in 1992. “But I am surprised by the timing.”

  7. SPAIN

    Employment Law Falls Short, Say Young Scientists

    1. Xavier Bosch*
    1. Xavier Bosch is a science writer based in Barcelona.

    BARCELONA—Young Spanish scientists have a new employment bill of rights. But instead of celebrating, the researchers took to the streets this week to tell the government that the new rules are woefully inadequate.

    The statute, approved on 24 October and scheduled to go into effect this month, is the first attempt to standardize the status of some 10,000 research fellows in Spain. Traditionally regarded as students and supported on monthly grants, the fellows formed the Federation of Precarious Young Researchers 3 years ago to bring attention to their quest for recognition as full-fledged, productive workers. “I have grown up scientifically with the eternal promise of some legislation,” says Joaquín de Navascués, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid's Center of Molecular Biology. “Now that it's been approved, I feel disappointed and frustrated because the government continues to consider research as a peculiar profession and researchers as everlasting students.”

    The new law gives fellows access to the country's free social security system and health, retirement, and disability benefits. It also spells out the duties of their mentors and prohibits employers from assigning additional duties unrelated to their work. It applies to all fellows working at research centers that sign up for a new national registry of grants.

    Worked up.

    Madrid's Joaquín de Navascués is “frustrated” by government policies toward young researchers.


    But Navascués and others say that the new law fails to give researchers credit for work done before they become regular staff and explicitly omits the first 2 years of postgraduate work. It also keeps them ineligible for unemployment benefits. “The statute leaves many unresolved aspects about the beginnings of scientific careers,” notes Flora de Pablo, a research professor at CSIC's Center of Biological Research in Madrid and president of the Spanish Association of Scientific Women.

    “[The researchers] are training personnel during their first 2 years,” explains a spokesperson for the Ministry of Science, and their positions do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Although he agrees that more needs to be done, Pedro Morenés, state secretary for science policy, says that “we have approved a text where there was nothing before.”

    This week the fellows were expected to protest against the new law at public demonstrations in several cities. “Whether it is ‘knowledge workers’ or ‘brick workers,’ we just want to be recognized as workers,” fumes Navascués.


    Unsuspected Underground Nitrates Pose a Puzzle for Desert Ecology

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Desert plants face a hardscrabble life. Their soil is parched, and it's poor in bioavailable nitrogen, an essential nutrient. A few meters down, though, lies a potential bonanza. On page 1021, a team reports that desert subsoils in the southwestern United States contain much more nitrogen than previously estimated, a finding that raises questions about how desert ecosystems work. “This paper clearly will cause people to think about arid lands and where they fit into the global nitrogen cycle,” says ecologist Ross Virginia of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

    The nitrate was discovered by accident. Hydrologist Michelle Walvoord, then a Ph.D. student at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, and hydrologist Peter Hartsough of the University of Nevada, Reno, were drilling cores at the Nevada Test Site to study chloride in the subsoil. They found a peak of chloride several meters below the surface, which indicates that the climate became drier some 16,000 years ago. Oddly, nitrate concentrations also peaked at that depth. “We thought that was weird,” recalls Walvoord, now a postdoc at the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood, Colorado, because nitrate in soil is usually concentrated in the uppermost meter.

    The matching peaks suggested that nitrate, like chloride, was leaching from the soil without being taken up by plants or microbes. To check out the pattern, Walvoord, Hartsough, and colleagues studied four more desert sites in the Southwest. Although only two other cores showed a tight match between chloride and nitrate, the researchers found subsoil nitrate in almost all the cores, in amounts ranging from 2000 to 10,000 kilograms per hectare. (Farmers typically apply 25 to 250 kg/ha each year.) That's up to 10 times more than is found in the topsoil.

    Buried riches.

    In deserts such as Nevada's Amargosa, nitrate leaching from the soil has accumulated meters below the surface.


    Because deserts make up one-third of the dry land on Earth, their subsoil reserves could add up to a lot of nitrogen, Walvoord and her colleagues say. They estimate that it could mean 16% more nitrogen in Earth's soil than previously thought and as much as 71% more in deserts. In the future, Walvoord and colleagues say, that huge nitrate reservoir could percolate into aquifers and contaminate groundwater if Southwestern deserts are irrigated or the climate becomes wetter.

    How widespread that problem could be isn't clear. “The variation they saw across cores makes regional and global extrapolations a lot more questionable,” cautions ecologist Robert Jackson of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But that same variability provokes some interesting questions about desert ecosystems, he adds. Why isn't the nitrate tapped by desert plants, which can use nutrients from as deep as 4 meters? Jackson wonders if the pool of nitrate could help explain why deep-rooted woody plants have invaded the Southwest over the past century or so: “The paper is helpful because it makes us rethink the way deserts work.”


    Europe Whittles Down Plans for Massive Chemical Testing Program

    1. Samuel Loewenberg*
    1. Samuel Loewenberg is a writer based in Madrid.

    MADRID—The European Commission (EC) has scaled back a major piece of legislation on safety testing of commercial chemicals. Yet even in its revised form, the proposed law would represent one of the most ambitious toxicological programs ever undertaken.

    An earlier version of the legislation, which has been in the works for more than 2 years, would have required chemical makers to perform extensive toxicological and environmental tests on the 30,000 chemicals most commonly used in commerce (Science, 18 April, p. 405). Under the latest draft, released by the EC last week, the testing requirements would apply only to chemicals produced in amounts greater than 10 tons, covering about one-third of the number originally envisioned. Some 1500 chemicals that European regulators deem particularly hazardous to human health—including brominated flame retardants, phthalates used as plastic softeners, and perfluorinated compounds—are likely to be severely restricted or banned, the EC says.

    The testing program, to be called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), would require some safety tests of chemicals produced in amounts of between 1 and 10 tons. But such substances would be exempt from tests of reproductive effects and environmental persistence. The changes mean that “we will have no idea how far the chemicals get into the environment,” contends Stefan Scheuer of the European Environmental Bureau, a coalition of 140 nongovernmental organizations.

    The revisions to the legislation, according to lobbyists and U.S. officials, came after a blitz by the European and American chemical industries, which had estimated that the tests would cost as much as $12 billion. In reworking the legislation, the EC stated that it wants a program that would not unduly crimp European competitiveness. Industry and environmental groups concur that the legislation, although watered down, still amounts to a radical change. “At the end of the day, this will still be the biggest such program in the world,” says Véronique Scailteur, director of external relations at Procter & Gamble's headquarters in Brussels. The testing is now expected to cost about $2.3 billion.

    Scheuer says, however, that he and other activists are planning a lobbying counterattack to try to persuade the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to restore some cuts when the two bodies take up the legislation early next year.


    Iran Reopens Its Past

    1. Andrew Lawler

    After nearly a quarter-century of isolation, Iran is again admitting foreign archaeologists. Although politics could easily derail this exciting new development, Western and Japanese researchers are willing to take the risk in order to gain access to this data-rich land

    PERSEPOLIS—The ruins of this ancient Persian capital, burned by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E., were almost laid to waste a second time nearly 25 years ago. A mob led by a mullah set out from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz bent on destroying the storied site, a symbol to Islamic revolutionaries of both paganism and the shah's tyrannical rule. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the provincial governor convinced the mob to disperse.

    This summer, another eager group left Shiraz for Persepolis, this time by air-conditioned bus after a lavish poolside banquet hosted by the governor's successor. This party of foreign archaeologists was here as part of an unprecedented attempt by Iran's leaders to entice researchers from abroad to return and start digging again. For more than 2 decades, the wealth of archaeological treasures in this country—a center of early agriculture, a crossroads between Europe and Asia, and a cradle of great empires and religions—has been off-limits to outsiders. But in recent years, reformers gained prominent positions in government and the economy has boomed. Now Iran's tens of thousands of important archaeological sites are under threat from rampant development and looting, and its small, fragmented, and isolated community of archaeologists is struggling to protect them.

    So the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO), part of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, is ready to reopen the doors to foreigners. But unlike in earlier decades, they want visiting researchers to work in equal collaborations with Iranian archaeologists. Many foreign researchers have taken up the offer. Already, German, Australian, Japanese, and U.S. teams have started work on joint projects with Iranian colleagues, and plans for a half-dozen more are being drawn up. The top three American universities in the field—the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia, and Harvard University—are now negotiating long-term agreements with ICHO.

    Regime change.

    Masoud Azarnoush welcomes foreign archaeologists, but as 50-50 partners.

    To make Iran more hospitable for research, ICHO is constructing a new conservation laboratory, renovating the aging Iran Bastan Museum, and creating independent research institutes at important archaeological sites. The ministry also shelled out more than $300,000 to host an international conference in Tehran in August on ancient cultural relations between Iran and the West. Forty foreign archaeologists, many of whom were returning to Iran for the first time since the 1979 revolution, were flown to Tehran, put up in one of the capital's most luxurious hotels, fêted at a banquet in the palace garden of the shah, and treated to a 3-day excursion to important historical sites such as Persepolis. “I believe the people who organized and funded this are serious,” says Gilbert Stein, director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who attended the meeting. “I'm optimistic this collaboration is going to happen.”

    Nevertheless, the door could easily be slammed shut again because of, among other obstacles, Western worries about Iran's nuclear program, internal power struggles between reformists and conservatives, or bureaucratic infighting among the fiefdoms of archaeology here.

    An “unavoidable land”

    Iran's pull on archaeologists such as Stein is magnetic. Nearly three times the size of France, the country stretches from Turkey and Iraq in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. Hunter-gatherers wandered on the central plateau 30,000 years ago. In the jagged Zagros Mountains, humans first domesticated animals around 8000 B.C.E. A series of empires, starting with Elam and its capital of Susa in the 12th century B.C.E., rose and fell in the following millennia.

    Traders, nomads, and generals used Iran, a land corridor sandwiched between the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf in the south, to ferry semiprecious stones, flocks, armies, and silks from Central Asia, China, and India to the West. From the other direction came Sumerian seals, Greek artisans, Roman gold, and the Prophet Muhammad's faith. Critical questions about early agriculture, nomadism, state formation, international commerce, and religious movements in the region make this a crucial piece in the Asian puzzle. “Iran is an unavoidable land,” says Masoud Azarnoush, director of ICHO's Archaeological Research Center in Tehran, which employs some 30 archaeologists.

    Facing forward.

    A young Iranian archaeologist ponders carvings at the cliff tombs of ancient Persian kings near Persepolis.


    This wealth produced a golden era in the field. “Iran in the 1960s and '70s drew a major influx of younger scholars at the forefront of archaeology,” says Harvard's Irene Winter. “It was at the cutting edge of recording and data processing—not just object hunting.” Scholars began to conduct broad surveys to understand land-use patterns and urban development, and they introduced new technological advances, from x-ray diffraction for examining the source of materials to radiocarbon dating.

    Much of that was brought to a halt by the forces unleashed by the fall of the shah. Visas were hard to obtain, and dig permits were denied to foreigners. That attitude was due in part to a century of foreign excavations that operated under few constraints and tended to sideline Iranians. At Susa, for example, European visitors were treated to elegant dinners with fine wines; the gift of a recently excavated artifact was sometimes part of each guest's table setting. “There was the smell of neocolonialism back then,” says Remy Boucharlat, who directs the French Institute of Archaeology in Tehran.

    View this table:

    At the same time, the shah's regime increasingly used archaeology to suggest links to glorious ancient rulers such as Cyrus and Darius of the 6th and 5th century B.C.E. “We had the impression that archaeologists served to enhance certain ideological aspects of the regime before the revolution,” says Azarnoush. The shah's extravagant 1976 festival celebrating 2500 years of Persian history at Persepolis outraged conservative mullahs with its excess of food, wine, and elaborate decorations and helped spark the regime's downfall 3 years later—and inspired the Shiraz mob.

    The revolution abruptly halted all foreign digs, closed universities, and prompted Iranian archaeologists to either flee the country or wait for an intellectual thaw. Foreign Asia specialists took their expertise and new techniques to Turkey, Israel, Syria, and then Central Asia when the Soviet Union collapsed a decade later. “An unforeseen consequence of the Iranian revolution has been a far better understanding of its neighbors,” Harvard archaeologist Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky told participants at the August conference in Tehran. Azarnoush—who himself emigrated for a time to the United States—says that Iranian digs never entirely ceased. But the revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq war left little support or funding until the late 1990s.

    Opening windows

    In 2000, reformist President Mohammad Khatami, speaking at the United Nations, called for a “dialogue among civilizations.” The same year, a joint Iranian-German team began excavating an ancient mining site near the village of Arisman on the edge of the central Iranian plateau in a bid to understand ore production and trade during the 3rd and 4th millennia B.C.E. Soon a team of Iranians and Australians started a survey of Elamite sites, and an Iranian-born researcher from Chicago won permission to work in the eastern province of Khuzistan.

    Quality control.

    Isolation has taken a toll on Iranian archaeology, says Hassan Fazeli, director of the University of Tehran's Archaeological Institute.


    The ministry leadership then decided in 2001 to make a dramatic appeal to foreigners by organizing a meeting to bring them to Iran, an idea proposed by Abdoul Majid Arfaee, an Elamite specialist who worked at Tehran's Bastan Museum. “When you are in a room which has been shut up for a long time, the air is stale,” explains ministry adviser Keyvan Sepehr. “We are trying to open a window and change the atmosphere a little.” The effort to bring in foreigners has met with some resistance, he admits. “We have some conservative academics who disagree with this approach, but we can convince them we cannot close the door forever.” When the meeting finally took place, in August this year, the ICHO chief was blunt in his welcoming address. “Isolation will result in backwardness,” said Seyyed Mohammed Beheshti. “We have no other alternative but to cooperate.”

    Iranian officials are paying particular attention to relations with U.S. universities. They have asked Chicago, Penn, and Harvard first to each put together a more general framework outlining a long-term relationship—an unusual step. Holly Pittman, an art historian at Penn, says Iranian officials are keen to ink these deals before the upcoming Iranian presidential election. “They want to get these agreements in place so if there is a change in administrations, it would be harder for conservatives to turn things around.”

    Hold the sugar

    Foreign archaeologists are arriving just in time. Innumerable ancient sites are disappearing under highways, plowed fields, and expanding cities as Iran's population and economy mushroom. “That exerts tremendous pressure on us,” says Azarnoush. The only remnants of many sites are bags of shards collected long ago and stored in the Bastan Museum.

    A couple of dozen kilometers south of Tehran, for example, one side of a pre-Bronze Age mound called Tepe Chesme Ali is covered with houses, but the other half has been rescued by being turned into a park with grass and fountains. Other sites have not been so lucky. Tepe Pardis is a pre-Bronze Age mound nearly surrounded by vast brickyards feeding Tehran's endless appetite for building material; bulldozers have already taken a chunk off the northern edge. “We are turning our cultural heritage into bricks; it's a great tragedy,” says Rahman Abbasnexhad, an archaeology graduate student at the University of Tehran who wants to start excavating the site in 2006 but isn't sure what will be left.

    New face.

    Western researchers such as Remy Boucharlat say they are happy to leave old colonial days behind.


    Perhaps one of the greatest archaeological tragedies is unfolding in Khuzistan, the southwestern province that borders Iraq and was the center of the Elamite civilization in the 2nd millennium B.C., maintaining close contacts with nearby Mesopotamia. First the region bore the brunt of the brutal Iran-Iraq war, and now it is being intensively planted with sugar cane. “Sugar cane is the most destructive crop for archaeological sites; they plane off the ground, and there is unremitting cultivation using heavy hydraulic machinery,” says Nicholas Kouchoukos, a University of Chicago archaeologist who has recently worked in the province.

    Sites such as Jundi-Shapur, an important city under the Sassanian empire that flourished during the time of Rome, boasted universities and palaces in the early centuries of the common era. Now Jundi-Shapur has been turned over to farmers despite ICHO protests. “We are always trying to coordinate with development plans,” says ICHO deputy of research Jalil Gholshan. “The problem is that Iran is full of archaeological sites.” He says ICHO can only hope to limit the destruction: “We can't keep the entire country intact.”

    Tourist trade

    Influencing developers requires clout, and under Beheshti's leadership, ICHO—which receives about $30 million annually—is starting to gain some political and financial muscle. The Bastan Museum, for example, plans a $2.5 million renovation and expansion, and the basement storage areas have already been modernized with well-organized storerooms, thick steel doors, and video cameras in freshly painted hallways. In addition, the museum is establishing research centers for specific periods.

    After the revolution, Iranian authorities focused on building a modern facility for the Islamic collections next door to the Bastan. As a result, much of the pre-Islamic material was neglected. “There were many problems; nothing was organized,” says Mohammad Reza Kargar, the Bastan director. A bevy of young researchers in the past 2 years has taken on the task of “re-excavating” the dusty storage rooms containing more than 300,000 artifacts as a precursor to the renovation. Shahrokh Razmjou, a Ph.D. student heading the Center for Achaemenid Studies— devoted to the era of the first Persian empire—says he recently found dozens of boxes of artifacts, some wrapped in Parisian newspapers from the 1930s, that had not been opened since they were excavated.

    Head to head.

    Chicago's Gilbert Stein (left) and Harvard's Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky are jumping at the chance to return to Iran.


    ICHO also is creating independent research institutes at specific sites, such as the region around Persepolis and Pasagardae near Shiraz. The Pasagardae Research Foundation was set up in August 2001 and is funded to the tune of $300,000 annually by a host of government groups. “We want to become a model for other major sites,” says its director, M. H. Taliebian, who adds that he is negotiating joint efforts with the Louvre, the British Museum, and other foreign organizations. Japan and UNESCO helped conserve the Chogha Zanbil ziggurat starting in 1998 and set up the conservation lab at the site in southwestern Iran.

    But competing fiefdoms inside and outside ICHO make for a fractured archaeology community here. Officials at the Bastan Museum complain bitterly that the new conservation lab being built across the street by another ICHO division excludes them. University officials chafe under ICHO control over all excavations. And the ministry's top-level control of the August conference alienated many archaeologists, several of whom boycotted the proceedings.

    Now a government plan to merge ICHO with a tourism organization that reports directly to the president is raising alarms. The new Organization of Cultural Heritage and Tourism is expected to be announced shortly. “If it is done as now planned, it will be an advantage to cultural heritage,” says Gholshan. “But if ICHO is somehow subordinate to tourism, then it would be a disadvantage.” Much will depend as well on the director. Both foreign and Iranian researchers are hoping Beheshti will get the job.

    Despite the internal wrangling, foreign researchers with experience in Iran aren't discouraged. “The conference is a good start,” says Barbara Helwing of Berlin's German Archaeological Institute, who has several seasons at Arisman under her belt. “Just having scholars here to explain new ideas is already very important.” Still, she adds, “you can't predict anything here.” And for those who want to start digging here, “you have to convince them; they aren't just throwing open the doors.”

    And there are good reasons to want to try. Dig permits in Syria and Turkey are increasingly difficult to obtain, and neighboring Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan remain virtually off-limits to researchers. So even the hint of a welcome mat in the region is drawing the avid attention of scholars. “It will all get going again,” predicts Robert Dyson, a retired Penn archaeologist who spent his formative years in Iran. Adds Azarnoush: “There's plenty to do all over this country.”


    Jiroft Discovery Stuns Archaeologists

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Researchers had long suspected that a Bronze Age civilization flourished between Mesopotamia and the Indus River. Now a huge haul of stone vessels has pinpointed it to Jiroft

    TEHRAN—Destitute villagers in southeastern Iran have uncovered what appears to be a Bronze Age civilization that flourished between ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia and Harappa in the Indus River Valley more than 4000 years ago. Scholars already had hints of a mysterious society in the region, but the new find nails down its heartland along the banks of the Halil River. The discovery of hundreds of stone vessels and massive architecture near the town of Jiroft opens a new chapter in Iranian and Middle Eastern archaeology. “From now on, we must speak of before and after Jiroft,” says Harvard University archaeologist Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky.

    But there are currently more questions than answers. Much of the evidence of this new civilization—hundreds of intricately carved stone vessels—is locked up in a regional police station after being seized as contraband from illegal digs. Scientific excavations have only just begun, and Iranian officials anticipate years of work involving an international team of researchers from many disciplines. But the revelation of a large and vibrant Bronze Age society is sending ripples of excitement through archaeological circles. “It is like a new Indus Valley, a new Nile Valley,” Masoud Azarnoush, director of Iran's Archaeological Research Center in Tehran, said in an interview with Science in his Tehran office. “This new discovery puts Iran in the center of civilization and cultural activities in the 3rd millennium B.C.E.”

    This rich agricultural area north of the Hormuz Strait is bordered by deserts and is feverishly hot in the summer. But it seems that the ancient Jiroft people lived here in large numbers and specialized in making vessels covered in unfamiliar iconography and semiprecious stones. Made of chlorite, a dark stone that is easy to carve but wears slowly, the objects portray a bewildering variety of plants, buildings, and half-animal, half-human figures including strange scorpion men and kneeling women between horned animals. They also depict the outlines of monumental buildings resembling ziggurats, and archaeologists may be close to finding examples of such buildings. The legal excavation conducted earlier this year at Jiroft exposed part of a huge building or fortress, 30 meters by 62 meters, protected by a massive wall, says Yousef Majidzadeh, the Iranian-born archaeologist in charge of the dig.


    The vessels from around Jiroft are reminiscent of those previously found scattered throughout the region. “There was obviously tremendous cultural activity in this area, since small numbers of manufactured pieces similar to the ones from Jiroft are found over a vast area, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia,” says Azarnoush. These artifacts—although usually devoid of carving—have turned up in the Royal Tombs of Ur, the Sumerian city of Mari in today's Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. A few pieces have been found as far north as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

    Scholars had guessed that this region was the source, and Lamberg-Karlovsky found one manufacturing center at nearby Tepe Yahya during the 1970s. But the sheer number of vessels from Jiroft as well as the massive number of large mounds make it the likely central homeland, Lamberg-Karlovsky says. Because the Jiroft material was looted, the date and authenticity of the vessels are open to dispute; the artifacts themselves are impounded by the courts in Kerman. But many Iranian and foreign archaeologists and art historians who have examined the objects or photographs date them to mid-3rd millennium B.C.E. based on similar vessels found elsewhere.

    Well traveled.

    Stone vessels like those found at Jiroft have also turned up everywhere from Uzbekistan to the Arabian Peninsula.


    Azarnoush ordered a survey last year when he heard about massive looting in the area, and excavations began this year. “We hope to be able to find the center of production of these goods,” he says. During the intense heat of summer, a survey team examined the sources of the Halil in the northern mountains to ascertain the boundaries of this civilization; this winter, a team led by Majidzadeh will resume digging.

    They have quite a task ahead of them: Azarnoush estimates that there are nearly 300 tells, or mounds, in the area yet to be examined. “The first excavation hints at huge cities, 100 square hectares in size,” marvels Jean Perrot, who led French digs at Susa before the revolution. Majidzadeh says, “This area covers 400 square kilometers and had some cultural political unity.” But much of the material is buried under 3 to 4 meters of sedimentation, say Iranian archaeologists.

    The origins and demise of the Jiroft people are obscure, although some scholars suspect they might have influenced the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex, which developed to the north in later centuries (see p. 979). “This is another Bronze Age civilization comparable to the Indus and Mesopotamia, but smaller in scale and less complex,” says Holly Pittman, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “It will be extremely important.”

    The prospect of revealing Jiroft's secrets excites researchers. “This is going to be one of the major excavations in the next 10 years,” says retired archaeologist Robert Dyson of the University of Pennsylvania. “This changes fundamentally our understanding of southeast Iran,” adds Lamberg-Karlovsky. “And it is something quite new.”


    Looting Savages New Site

    1. Andrew Lawler

    TEHRAN—The looters brought picnics, and whole families dug together. Villagers in southeastern Iran, suffering from an extended drought during 2000, were desperate. So when a rare flood along the Halil River exposed a grave with decorated stone vessels, people rushed to the site to dig up strange dark jars and beakers, which they then sold. “There was unbelievable destruction,” says Yousef Majidzadeh, an Iranian-born archaeologist who is in charge of legal excavations there.

    Now, at least 400 people are in jail, including a government official accused of complicity, and many hundreds of vessels have been impounded as evidence. The impact of the looting—which continues over a vast area around Jiroft—is also rippling overseas. The Iranian government hopes to retrieve a piece that it and a prominent French archaeologist believe—based on the style and type of the stone bowl—came recently from the Jiroft area and was purchased by the Louvre Museum in Paris.

    Majidzadeh says that not much was done to stop the looting at first. “Officials did not pay attention, since the peasants were poor because of the drought, and they thought that it was one way for them to get some money.” Eventually the authorities stepped in and seized hundreds of artifacts from nearby villages, but these have little scientific value because it is extremely difficult to date stone vessels once they are removed from the ground. “We know the context of none of this,” says Holly Pittman, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “We know it is coming from graves, but we don't know if [fakes] were added.” Oscar Muscarella, an archaeologist at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that researchers will never even have proof any of these vessels came from the graves. “It doesn't mean every object is a forgery,” he says. “But if there are no answers, we have to start at square one.”


    At first, officials did little to stop the looting at Jiroft.

    Seyyed Mohammed Beheshti, director of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO), says that the 400 people detained each face up to 10 years in prison under Iranian laws. News reports in August said an ICHO official who worked in the Jiroft area was arrested during an international archaeology meeting in Tehran for alleged involvement in a looting ring. ICHO representatives decline to discuss the matter.

    Beheshti says in the past there had been little looting in this part of Iran, which is remote from the capital. He believes that during the drought, drug smugglers turned to lucrative antiquities trafficking and are now organizing targeted looting in places such as Jiroft. “They are getting a lot of money in this market and forcing villagers to do the illicit excavations,” he says. “We are trying to control this new wave of looting through various means: army, laws, whatever we can.”

    The Iranian government recently announced the creation of a special brigade called Guardians of Cultural Heritage to fight illegal digs and antiquities trafficking. Those who try to smuggle such material out of the country could face between 5 and 20 years in jail or even capital punishment.

    The underlying cause of the trade, Beheshti and other Iranian officials maintain, is the hunger abroad for antiquities. Recent purchases by the Louvre are underscoring that tension between Western curators and collectors and Iranian and foreign archaeologists. Jean Perrot, a distinguished French archaeologist who headed Susa excavations before the revolution, complained at the August meeting in Tehran that a stone bowl purchased by the Louvre bears all the stylistic hallmarks of a Jiroft piece. He says he has no proof, just a strong suspicion that it is part of the cache coming recently out of the Jiroft graves.

    But his accusation meets with a hot denial from Annie Caubet, head curator of the Louvre's Department of Oriental Antiquities. In a 17 September letter to Perrot, she said she was “dismayed by the accusation” and insisted that prior to the 2002 purchase, “this work was owned by a private collection which has been in Europe since the end of the 1960s.”

    An official with the Paris law firm the Bureau of International Legal Services, which is representing the Iranian government, told Science that Iran intends to begin legal action soon to recover what Iranian officials say is the country's property. Archaeologists such as Perrot say they hope that the controversy will not interfere with their efforts to return to work in the country.


    Bringing Cultural Heritage Out of the Shadows

    1. Andrew Lawler

    In a few short years, this unorthodox official has transformed the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization and is turning Iran into a destination of choice for archaeologists

    In a nation where somber, turbaned clerics dominate politics, Seyyed Mohammed Beheshti stands out. Shortly after he took over as head of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO), a colleague complained that he didn't go to the mosque for public prayers. “But if I did, my toupee would fall off,” he replied. Beheshti's striking reddish-blonde mop is only the superficial manifestation of his nonconformist approach.

    Son of a senior parliamentarian and friend of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Beheshti is a leading reformist. As head of the Film and Serials Group in the 1990s, he won acclaim for his bold support for the blossoming Iranian film industry, considered today as a star of international cinema. Since 1997, he has brought his skills to bear on ICHO, which oversees archaeology and had long been a backwater in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He has won greater government funding, instituted an impressive news service and Web site, and championed the return of foreign archaeologists. “He is a breath of fresh air, and the reason we've been able to do anything is because of that man,” says University of Chicago archaeologist Abbas Alizadeh.

    Beheshti recently spoke with Science on the grounds of the shah's former Niavaran Palace in northern Tehran.

    Fresh air.

    Seyyed Mohammed Beheshti is a leading light in the push to bring back foreign researchers.


    Q: What challenges does archaeology face here?

    A: We have to deal with more than 200,000 archaeological sites around Iran. Because of development projects threatening so many of these sites, we don't even get to choose our projects. We have to come up with a strategy to save them.

    The other problem is that we don't have many international connections, and our current knowledge in archaeology is limited. But we've started to change this in the past 4 years, and things are getting better. We need scientific knowledge and time to do more than just salvage archaeology.

    We also have to change the image of cultural heritage. It has been in the shadows; it is time to put it in the sun. Once it was perhaps the 15th or 20th important issue in the country. Now it is perhaps among the first three.

    Q: Why are you pressing for foreign archaeologists to return?

    A: This started 4 years ago, and now we have cooperation with many nations. We are quite aware that Iran is an important place archaeologically. Therefore it is our duty to provide facilities and possibilities for such work. We have to become part of the larger international system of archaeology; otherwise we will be left behind. So it is good to have this cooperation, but we have our own terms and standards. If there is to be scientific cooperation, it should be real cooperation. That means 50-50.

    Q: But are there enough trained Iranian archaeologists for this to work?

    A: We do have some knowledge foreign delegations don't, because this is our land. A foreigner might try to understand mud-brick structures, but we are still living in mud-brick structures. Our knowledge could be very constructive and informative for foreign archaeologists. There is the chance for learning on both sides.

    Q: Are there conservative factions here who oppose the return of foreigners?

    A: Nobody in the country has any problem with people coming here for scientific purposes.

    Q: Could that change?

    A: I am worried about what's happening in America. I'm worried that 11 September could happen again. But on the eve of the American attack on Iraq, we had U.S. archaeologists working very close to the Iraqi border.

    Q: Has the budget for archaeological work here increased substantially?

    A: We now spend $1.3 million a year on archaeology. Compared to 10 years ago, it has increased 70-fold. It is still not enough, but it is much better than it was. I think it will increase much more in the next 5 years, as the image of cultural heritage changes, as people come closer to understanding the importance and value of our work.

    Q: Does Iran have plans to reconstruct ancient sites for tourism purposes?

    A: We are very strict about our methods. Of course there are sites tourists want to go to, so we need services there to forge a new quality of tourism. We will do this, but we won't reconstruct. And we will invite tourists to visit sites under archaeological excavation or restoration.

    Q: Won't archaeologists object?

    A: At the start they were very unhappy—as would be any archaeologist anywhere—but we pushed them to this. We convinced them this is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a good development, since it allows us to bring cultural heritage out of the shadows. And it also doubles and triples protection of sites, since locals see them as valuable, and they are made part of the team protecting them.

    Q: How are you coping with looters?

    A: The army and the police all contribute, but the most important factor is the attitude of the people. If you compare coverage in the mass media to 10 years ago, there is perhaps 10 times as much coverage about looting of archaeological sites, but perhaps in reality actual looting is much less. People are simply talking about it more.

    In Jiroft, there are many efforts going at the local and national levels to stop illicit excavations, paving the way for us to expand our scientific activities there. What happened in Jiroft (see p. 974) has become an example for what other regions do not want to have happen. We are working with Interpol and are pursuing legal claims in foreign countries. If we can stop the hunger for artifacts internationally, perhaps we can stop the illicit excavations. What we need is international awareness. We expect those in Western countries to speak out against this trade. This material belongs to humanity, not just Iran.


    Uruk: Spreading Fashion or Empire?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Current theory holds that Uruk peddled its wares by imperial domination. New access to Iran is painting a more complex picture

    TEHRAN—The Bronze Age Middle East may not have had international retail giants like Ikea, but for a while it did have something similar. Around 5000 years ago, large numbers of people in a vast area stretching from Anatolia to Iran to the Arabian Peninsula were eating and drinking from the same kinds of bowls and cups, all of which incorporated a style set by the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk.

    How Uruk's influence spread so far and wide is a contentious issue among Near Eastern archaeologists. Was this ubiquity, known as the Uruk expansion, simply a successful trading network or was it a proto-empire? The prevailing theory holds that Mesopotamian imperialists dominated large parts of the region, including the ancient city of Susa and its surrounding plain, in modern-day Iran, and exerted control as far as Iran's central plateau to the east. New access to these sites will allow Western archaeologists and their Iranian colleagues to put this theory to the test. “The opening of Iran will have a revolutionary effect on our understanding of the Uruk expansion,” says Gilbert Stein, director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

    Uruk-style pottery began to appear throughout the Middle East from 3500 B.C.E. By this time, exciting technological advances were taking place in the region around Uruk. Artisans were using a fast potter's wheel, making mass production of pottery more tenable; farmers were starting to use plows and wheeled carts; and scribes were experimenting with ways to record trade. The archaeological record there shows a growing appetite for copper, lapis lazuli, and other goods found only in the distant highlands of today's Syria, Turkey, and Iran. At the same time, Uruk material culture—primarily in the form of pottery—appears in settlements or quarters within towns in those highlands.

    Clean sweep?

    Guillermo Algaze believes that Uruk's influence was spread through waves of empire building.

    In the 1980s, Guillermo Algaze, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, first put forward the idea that Uruk organized colonies and established an informal empire to ensure a steady flow of goods. Research in the past decade shows that in some areas, such as today's Syria, Urukian control took the form of trading quarters in existing towns. In others, such as the plain of Susa east of Uruk, that control was more forceful. “I argue they took Susiana lock, stock, and barrel,” dominating the local peoples, says Algaze. That influence, he maintains, was felt far to the east, in trading outposts such as Sialk and Godine in the central highlands, which some scholars believe were staffed by merchants from Susa.

    But Algaze's theory came to the fore only after the 1979 revolution closed Iran to foreign researchers. “The recent theoretical debate has largely passed Iran by,” says Barbara Helwing of Berlin's German Archaeological Institute. Now, however, researchers are finally able to examine some of the sites that will reveal the eastern extent of Uruk's control. Early results from Iran paint a more complex picture than simple domination. Helwing and Iranian colleagues have excavated for the past 2 years the site of an ancient highland mine at Arisman on the same plain as Sialk. Neither site, she says, can be considered a trading post, and she believes that Arisman's production was primarily for local use. “Neither does anything within the material record of these two sites justify the label ‘Uruk.’” It is high time, she adds, “to reconsider the merchants-of-Susa scenario,” because “nothing attests to the presence of Uruk-affiliated foreigners in the highlands.”

    Helwing proposes instead that pastoralists were the key to trade between the plain and the plateau. She notes evidence that between 4000 B.C.E. and 3000 B.C.E., village life in the Zagros Mountains, which separate the Susa plain from the eastern plateau, became more mobile and pastoral. Instead of merchants shuttling back and forth, carrying finished goods such as cloth made in Uruk and bringing back metals and precious stones, Helwing and a few other scholars see nomads as the main means of trade between the highlands and the plains below. That more decentralized network allowed the highlands to maintain their culture, she believes.

    Roger Matthews of University College London and Hassan Fazeli of the University of Tehran draw similar conclusions from a survey of spindles used in weaving. Those found across the highlands were not of a Mesopotamian type, suggesting that if Mesopotamian male traders were present, they did not bring their wives, who would have brought along spindles favored by lowland women. And they agree with Helwing that metal production in the highlands was used to fuel local needs first, with foreign exports a secondary matter. Although Stein believes that Helwing may go too far in her interpretation, he says that “a very interesting pattern is emerging, with the highlands as a cultural entity in their own right. They didn't live or die by what happened in Mesopotamia.”

    Even the notion of Susa as an Uruk-dominated colony is coming under fire. Abbas Alizadeh, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago who is working near Susa, argues that the marshes and dunes between Uruk and Susa made travel extremely difficult. He notes the profound differences in writing systems and religious pantheons as evidence that Uruk's position in Susa was one of influence rather than domination. That view, however, has yet to convince many. In Susa, “they are participating entirely in an Uruk way of life,” says Holly Pittman, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “They are not culturally distinct; the material culture of Susa is a regional variation of that on the Mesopotamian plain.”

    Stein, who excavated an Uruk site in Anatolia, cautions that the Susa data are based on a very small sample from the 1970s. And, he says, ideas about Uruk's influence are changing across the region: An expansion once thought to have lasted less than 200 years now apparently went on for 700 years. “It is hard to think of any colonial system lasting that long,” he says.

    New excavations on the plateau and in the Zagros promise to paint a much richer and more complex picture of the first state societies in the Uruk expansion. Given that complexity, Stein suggests that “we might want to abandon the term ['expansion'] altogether.” Algaze isn't ready to do that, but he says, “I'm perfectly willing to say I'm wrong.” The opening of Iran, he adds, will give scientists a chance to test his hypothesis. After all, if Ikea can achieve trading domination without the use of force, so perhaps could Uruk. Says Stein: “The spread of Uruk material is not evidence of Uruk domination; it could be local choice.”


    Chicago Scholar Is Keystone in Bridging Two Worlds

    1. Andrew Lawler

    For the past decade, Abbas Alizadeh has used his Iranian origins to persuade the authorities to let him dig. Now his persistence has beaten a path for others

    PERSEPOLIS—Abbas Alizadeh's love of Iranian archaeology has led him to some strange places in the past decade. The University of Chicago researcher has followed nomads in the Zagros Mountains, attempted to survey mine-strewn land near the Iraqi border, and reorganized nearly a million pottery shards in the cavernous basement of the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran. Those efforts at building trust with Iranian officials are now paying off: Other Western-based researchers are following in his footsteps, and his university and the Iranian government hope to sign a sweeping agreement in the coming months that will allow for an unprecedented exchange of scholars and joint digs in Iran.

    A quarter-century of suspicion separates Iranians and Americans, and that gulf is a major hurdle in reconnecting researchers in the two countries. Now those who were born in Iran but work at U.S. universities are providing the grease necessary for the wheels of cooperation to start turning, paving the way for a new generation of scholars from both nations to work together.

    No one has worked harder at this than Alizadeh, a wiry 52-year-old who is graying at the temples but remains as energetic as a college student. Outspoken and determined, he initially studied psychology at the University of Tehran, the country's premier institution, during the early 1970s. But most of his fellow players on the soccer team were in the archaeology department, so he switched majors. “I didn't have much feeling for it,” he said during a recent visit to the ancient capital of Persepolis. “It just seemed romantic.”

    But when he encountered a professor from Chicago at a dig site on the central Iranian plateau, he made a beeline for the United States. Three years later, the shah's regime collapsed, the universities closed, and archaeology in Iran seemed all but dead. After getting his Ph.D. at Chicago in 1987, Alizadeh went to Harvard to teach about ancient nomadism rather than go back to Iran, then he returned to Chicago as a research associate. “Culturally, I'm a Midwesterner,” he says. When he finally went to Iran for a family visit in the early 1990s, he found that most of the best researchers had left the country or retired, and he chafed at being treated as a foreigner in his own native land. But shortly after, he heard that the head of archaeology in the southern province of Fars was open-minded about foreign cooperation. Armed with a small grant from Chicago, he won permission to travel for a month with a nomadic tribe in that area, gathering ethnoarchaeological data. “After that, I realized it was possible to do something in Iran, so I kept coming back.”

    Hundred-year plan.

    Through hard work and determination, Chicago's Abbas Alizadeh won Iranian trust.


    After innumerable delays, frustrations, and cups of tea in Tehran offices, he finally received permission in 1996 to excavate a site in Khuzistan in the country's southwest, but without the help of any American colleagues. In 2001, after much coaxing, he won approval to dig and survey in Elam, the region north of Khuzistan on the Iraqi border in which the earliest literate civilization in that area developed, and this time he could bring a team from the United States. “It was really terra incognita,” he says, following the revolution and disastrous Iran-Iraq war.

    With money from Chicago and a U.S. National Science Foundation grant, the team members set off. But they soon discovered that a survey was impossible. “When the Iraqis left, they planted mines all over the place,” Alizadeh recalls. “Work was impossible and extremely risky.” Instead, he and his team relocated to Khuzistan, where they stumbled on rare evidence of an ancient nomadic encampment. He and his colleagues now are working on a 5-year excavation and survey project in the region.

    At the same time, Alizadeh took up the challenge of organizing the Bastan Museum's important pottery collection at the request of the senior staff. Giant bags of shards were stored in a damp cellar, and museum staff were on the verge of throwing away the unorganized material. But Alizadeh intervened, and today the museum boasts an impressive collection of nearly a million shards, cataloged according to region and type, in a basement newly renovated with government money. “So many of these sites no longer exist,” says University of Chicago anthropologist Nicholas Kouchoukos, who helped with the work. “This was an irreplaceable collection which we assumed was all lost.”

    In the course of the reorganization, Alizadeh was able to train Iranian students in the important art of shard recognition. Given Iran's long period of isolation, such training is critical. And newer methods are slowly gaining attention. “Before I came to Iran, nobody collected bones or seeds at all. They had not heard about ethnobotany,” he says. “They just collected objects and pottery. Now at least they feel it is very shameful not to collect these things.”

    After his years of devotion to Iranian archaeology, officials here clearly trust Alizadeh, although he says some still suspect him of being a double agent. “The fact that I'm Iranian and American has helped immensely, and they use me for that purpose.” During the recent Tehran conference, Alizadeh was all movement, introducing foreign archaeologists to Iranian colleagues and escorting a delegation of Chicago academics to a series of appointments with senior Iranian officials. “If things continue this way, I think foreigners can come and apply independently; you won't have to have an Iranian name.”

    Kouchoukos gives him credit for smoothing the way for others. “Come hell or high water, he's been here,” he says. “He's made a difference through his sheer force of presence and will.” Alizadeh's next project will be to help Iranian archaeologists conduct a comprehensive survey of the Persepolis region, one of the richest archaeological areas in all of Iran. But he remains a realist about the future of this politically volatile region. “Tomorrow, everything could be ruined. I work as if there is no tomorrow; I plan as if I can be here for another 100 years.”


    Neglected Civilization Grabs Limelight

    1. Andrew Lawler

    New access to Iranian sites will allow Western researchers to shed light on a little-known culture that once dominated the Asian steppes

    Four thousand years ago along the banks of the ancient Oxus River, which now separates Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, there were people who lived in vast compounds protected by high walls, produced their own bronzes, ceramics, and stone seals, and traded their wares as far as the Persian Gulf and Palestine. Although these people would have been key players in Bronze Age Central Asia, their civilization remains an enigma because of 20th century politics. For decades Soviet archaeologists labored in this region but revealed little to their Western colleagues, and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution closed off those countries for study.

    Now a growing number of scientists are focusing their attention on what is dubbed the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) to understand its extent and its influence on the neighboring Mesopotamian and Indus civilizations. The homeland of the BMAC culture was on the plains of northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan, near the ancient Oxus—now the Amu Darya—to the east of Iran. Its origin and extent remain a mystery. The collapse of the Soviet Union and now the cautious reopening of Iran give Western scientists a chance to explore this neglected culture, which left traces across the Middle East and likely reached far beyond the confines of the Asian steppes. “We are redefining the boundary of Central Asia,” says Fredrik Hiebert, who led excavations this summer near the Oxus.

    BMAC bastion.

    A fortress of Bronze Age Margiana at Gonur South in Turkmenistan.


    Material from the BMAC had long been found in archaeological sites across the region, but researchers did not know where it originated. During excavations in northern Afghanistan in the 1970s, Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi uncovered evidence of a culturally cohesive civilization. The BMAC appears around 2200 B.C.E., only to fade some 500 years later. In its heyday, people crammed into compounds measuring 100 meters on a side that dotted the landscape. “It looks like a single culture,” with cities spread over hundreds of kilometers, says Hiebert, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

    Metal appears to have come to the BMAC from as far afield as Kazakhstan and Siberia and other locations across the northern steppes. The presence of BMAC artifacts to the south and west hints strongly at regional trade. What theBMAC got in return from the older Indus and Mesopotamian cultures is unclear: BMAC peoples appear not to have adopted foreign styles or have bought many foreign goods—or at least, goods that would have left a material trace.

    “There is abundant evidence of BMAC contact” with Iran, Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky, a Harvard University archaeologist, told a conference in Tehran last August. “This is a challenge for Iranian archaeologists to tackle.” Lamberg-Karlovsky hopes to get in on the action himself; he is interested in digging at a possible BMAC site near the Iranian border with Turkmenistan.