Catering to Trade: Hospitality in the Ancient Iranian Site of Godin Tepe

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Once a lively outpost on the early Mesopotamian trade route, Godin Tepe now sits in ruins in Iran. Controversial archaeological excavations in the 1960s and 70s highlighted some of the rich cultural elements of this ancient site. Evidence of beer and wine-making, along with a well-fortified settlement, suggest that weary traders would have found Godin Tepe a pleasant place to rest their heads while on long journeys with their wares.

Controversial Excavations

Godin Tepe is an archaeological site situated in the Kangāvar valley of Luristan, in the western part of central Iran, approximately halfway between Hamadān and Kermānšāh. This site lies in the middle of the Zagros Mountains, and was occupied from around 5000 – 500 BC, with a hiatus from about 1600 to 750 BC.

The site was first discovered in 1961 through an archaeological survey sponsored by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Archaeological work began there in 1965. Excavations continued intermittently over the next three decades, during which archaeologists made numerous important finds that enabled them to gain a better understanding of Godin Tepe’s rich history.  

One of the graves found at the site. ( Stony Brook University )

Godin Tepe rises 32 meters (105 ft.) above virgin soil, and covers an area of about 15 hectares today. It has been suggested that the site was bigger in the past, as the north side was severely eroded by the Ḵorramrud River sometime between 1400 and 750 BC. Estimates suggest that Godin Tepe once covered an area as large as 20 hectares.

Photo of Godin Tepe at the beginning of excavations in 1965.

Photo of Godin Tepe at the beginning of excavations in 1965. ( Stony Brook University )

Following a test sounding that was undertaken in 1965, large scale excavations were conducted in the summers of 1967, 1969, 1971, and 1973. These excavations were sponsored by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and directed by T. Cuyler Young Jr.

Cuyler Young’s deep sounding in 1965 may have caused the destruction of a part of the Median palace, and for that the archaeologist’s work at the site was controversial. Apart from these excavations at Godin Tepe, two other notable archaeological works were carried out in that area during the 1970s – an intensive resurvey of the Kangāvar valley in 1974, and the restoration of some of the architectural remains at the site in 1977.

Cuyler Young measuring the deep sounding at the Godin Tepe ruins, Iran.

Cuyler Young measuring the deep sounding at the Godin Tepe ruins, Iran. ( Royal Ontario Museum )

Distinct Cultural Phases

The excavations at Godin Tepe revealed that the site consisted of 11 distinct cultural phases. Godin Tepe was first occupied in 5000 BC. During that time, it was a Sumerian settlement which consisted of a village and a fortress. The site was continuously occupied until around 1600 BC, when an earthquake destroyed much of the settlement.

The settlement was abandoned and was buried over time. But 800 years later the area was reoccupied, this time by a group of people known as the Medes. These people were apparently nomads from beyond the Zagros who infiltrated and settled in this region of Mesopotamia.

What the Godin Tepe Phase II fortress may have looked like.

What the Godin Tepe Phase II fortress may have looked like. ( Hilary Gopnik, Emory University )

The Medes did not inhabit Godin Tepe for long however, as it was abandoned once more around 500 BC. Once again, the ruins were gradually buried, and the final archaeological layer of the site dates to about 1400 AD, during which a Muslim shrine to the Prophet was erected on the site with a cemetery nearby.

Part of the ruins at Godin Tepe, Iran.

Part of the ruins at Godin Tepe, Iran. (Nourbakhsh/ Google)

On the Trade Route

One of the important aspects of Godin Tepe is its geographical position. The site lies along the Great Khorasan Road (the western end of the Silk Road). As a result, Godin Tepe was able to flourish as a trade center.

Impressed and incised tablet from Godin Tepe, Iran, circa 3100 BC. The circular imprints stood for tens and the wedges for units. The incised figure to the right is a depiction of a jar of oil, and this tablet was a record of, in total, 33 jars of oil.

Impressed and incised tablet from Godin Tepe, Iran, circa 3100 BC. The circular imprints stood for tens and the wedges for units. The incised figure to the right is a depiction of a jar of oil, and this tablet was a record of, in total, 33 jars of oil. ( Denise Schmandt-Besserat and T. Cuyler Young, Jr./Royal Ontario Museum )



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