5 Questions: Daniel Potts

Daniel PottsDaniel Potts, who lives in Garrison, is a professor at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. He will discuss his expeditions in Iran at the Desmond-Fish Public Library at 3 p.m. on Sunday (March 19). 

What sparked your interest in archaeology in Iran?
I got exposed in my freshman year at Harvard. Originally, my interest was pretty specific: the archaeology of eastern Iran in the third millennium B.C., during the Bronze Age. But the more I learned, the more I found all periods fascinating. I also felt that, within the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, Iran was on the margin compared to, let’s say, Egypt and Mesopotamia. I had the chance to go to Iran the following year and have been there about a dozen times. I have always found it fascinating — amazing landscapes and amazing people. 

Why do you think Iran has been on the margins?
Because of the Persian wars with the Greeks, there’s been this longstanding European prejudice against the ancient side of Iran at the expense of the classical Greek and, later, Roman, world. There are a lot of stereotypes in Herodotus’ description of the Persians and King Xerxes is presented as effete and effeminate and as a big loser because the Persians lost their two wars.

Where was your first trip?
There was a Harvard excavation at Tepe Yahya, way out in the southeastern part of the country in a remote area where we lived in a tiny hamlet — just mud-brick houses, no electricity, no running water, no paved road. It wasn’t always comfortable, but you got the feeling while you were there that this was an immense culture. We found written tablets that date to about 3100 B.C. 

What other sites have you visited?
From 2003 to 2010, while I was teaching in Australia through the University of Sydney, I excavated three sites about two hours west of Shiraz, which is not far from Persepolis. One site, Jinjun, is from the Persian Empire, from the fifth or sixth century B.C., and had monumental architecture and columns like Persepolis. When the Persian Empire was at its height, and couriers, the king and the armies were moving, they would go along this route. There are sites that were clearly meant for the royals to be able to stay at where the architecture is palatial. 

Why excavate this ancient history?
It’s important that modern humans understand their history. We have been preceded by a lot of intelligent people who have figured out all kinds of things — how to deal with water shortages, how to erect buildings that don’t fall in an earthquake. I don’t think you need to be ethnically related to a specific population for it to be important to learn about and appreciate.

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