A quick glance at the history of archaeology and the archaeological institutions in Iran before the rise of Reza Shah

Archaeology and the French monopoly

Since the Renaissance, Western artists have been captivated by the mystery of the great Oriental civilizations, and some ancient Persian sites mentioned in Greek, Roman, and Biblical texts have attracted their attention. This fascination was increasingly reinforced by European travellers who, for different reasons, visited Iran between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and described the ancient sites in their travel accounts using illustrations and engravings. Among these travellers, several of them brought ancient Persian objects - results of commercial excavations carried out by the Iranians - to the West in order to enrich their “cabinets of curiosities” or to sell them to collectors who wanted to invest in Oriental art and archaeology.

This passion for the Orient in general and for Persia in particular is also due to European romanticism, which in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries led several Western writers, artists, and scientists to visit Persia. French Orientalists, painters, archaeologists, and politicians such as Pascal-Xavier Coste (1787-1879) and Eugene Flandin (1809-89) created and published beautiful drawings of monuments and ancient Persian ruins in the first half of the nineteenth century.1

Although these French explorers studied the western, northern, and central parts of Persia thoroughly, the south-western areas of the country, with the archaeological site of Susa and its 6000 years of history, escaped their attention. It was explored for the first time in 1850 by the British geologist William Kennett Loftus (1821-58).2 But the British scientific world, much more fascinated by the archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia, did not pay enough attention to Loftus’ explorations. Thus, after a few years, he abandoned Susa and handed it over to French archaeologists who, led by Marcel Dieulafoy (1844-1920), carried out excavations there from 1884.3 These excavations were undertaken in accordance with the first Franco-Persian archaeological convention, based on the equitable sharing of discoveries, ratified in November 1884 by Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, who had a passionate interest in art and archaeology. Dieulafoy’s mission was brought to an end after only two years in 1886 because he had violated the convention and had taken all of his discoveries to Paris.4 This violation interrupted the French archaeological activities at Susa for almost ten years. Finally, on 12 May 1895, Naser al-Din Shah pardoned Dieulafoy’s actions and signed a second archaeological convention with the French government. This new document, still based on the equitable sharing of discoveries, permitted France to carry out excavations and initiate digs all over Iran. One year after signing this monopoly, on 1 May 1896, Naser al-Din Shah was assassinated. This assassination again delayed the return of French archaeologists to Iran. Finally, in 1897, instead of Dieulafoy’s mission, an archaeological delegation under Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924) was sent to Iran. Received in audience on 19 October 1897 by the new monarch Mozaffar al-Din Shah, Jacques de Morgan obtained a royal decree (farman) endorsing the second Franco-Persian archaeological convention of 1895. But Jacques de Morgan falsified the translation of this farman and violated the archaeological convention as well by sending some of his discoveries secretly to Paris in diplomatic bags or via the French consulate in Baghdad. Despite his agreement with the Persian authorities to share excavated objects at the end of each season, he stored the discoveries of his three excavation seasons in Susa (1897-1900) in the castle built for this purpose and waited for a good moment to transfer all of them to Paris.5 This chance arose earlier than expected, when on 11 August 1900, Mozaffar al-Din Shah, travelling in France at that time during his first tour to Europe, signed the third Franco-Persian archaeological convention. This document made the French monopoly perpetual and guaranteed France all of the discoveries from Susa, including gold or silver artefacts for which the French delegation only had to pay the equivalent of the respective metal weight to the Persian government. In the rest of Iran, France could carry out excavations based on the principle of equitable sharing of the discoveries. In 1901, counting on this third convention - which was however not retroactive - Jacques de Morgan sent all the archaeological discoveries excavated in Susa since 1897 to the Louvre.6

After the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, the French archaeological privilege was threatened by a surge of national pride in Persia questioning the exclusive role of foreigners, sentiments which were partly fanned by German intrigues. The constitutionalists accused the French delegation of limiting their excavations to Susa, where they were able to exercise exclusive control and all discoveries belonged to the French government, instead of organizing excavations also in other places. There of course, the French would have had to share objects and discoveries equally. These criticisms had an indirect impact on French archaeological activities in Persia. On the other hand, between 1906 and 1908, Jacques de Morgan was involved in a financial scandal in Paris. Although he was finally acquitted, he resigned in October 1912 and the delegation was abolished.7 Shortly thereafter, the French Organization for Public Enlightenment sent several missions to Persia in order to explore various archaeological sites in the four corners of the country and thus to maintain the French monopoly. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 prevented these missions from succeeding in their task. The War interrupted all the French archaeological activities in Persia, and it was only after 1920 that Roland de Mecquenem, who succeeded Jacques de Morgan as head of the archaeological mission at Susa, restarted the French excavations in this region with reduced funding.

After the coup d’etat by Reza Khan on 21 February 1921, the French archaeological monopoly was increasingly threatened. In 1924, when Reza Khan, then prime minister and commander-in-chief of the army, personally led a military campaign into Khuzestan against Sheykh Khaz’al, he also visited Susa, and to his great dismay learned about the French archaeological monopoly. Only three years after this visit, on 18 October 1927, the French monopoly was abolished. But before approaching this issue, let us re-examine the history of two institutions in Iran dealing with excavations, archaeology, and artefacts under Qajar rule, especially at the time of the French archaeological monopoly: the Antiquities Service and the Archaeological Museum. Crucial for an understanding of Pahlavi politics in the field of antiquities and archaeology, however, are other institutions that were already established, albeit in a different form, under Qajar rule. Amongst these are the Antiquities Service, the forerunner of the present-day Sazman-e Miras-e Farhangi, and the precursors to the National Archaeological Museum of Iran, usually considered to have been an original invention of Reza Shah.

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