In our programme we focus research questions based on the following main topics:

Resilience is a term, originally from materials physics with use in various disciplines (systems ecology, psychology, environmental studies, sustainability; political economy, etc.). There is a controversial debate in research about using the term resilience as a substitute for a physical phenomenon from materials physics in cultural studies (Walker / Cooper 2011, Olsson et al. 2015, Bröckling 2017 etc. etc.). In a disciplinary perspective like archaeology, resilience proves to be a beneficial theoretical approach for large scales and for prehistory. Our Iranian Highlands research group is equally aware of the theoretical burden of resilience in a cultural studies perspective. In our international and interdisciplinary research group constellation as a priority programme, we are deliberately on the lookout for possible solutions to relieve this burden of resilience at the theoretical level. Therefore, in our understanding of Iranian Highlands resilience theory, we consciously accept the risk of the boundary concept (boundary objects; connected/entangled histories). With our specific Iranian Highlands boundary concept of resilience, we are at the same time linking to broad theoretical debates, e.g., in the sense of principle openness and incommensurability of the fields of interaction and operations between agency and system, or system-environment relation in network theory, system theory and of course also theoretical directions of risk and resilience such as in ecology, economics, archaeology etc.

With our specific Iranian Highlands -resilience concept, we thus represent an in-between theoretical position. On two levels, first on an individual basis, and second as a coordination programme as a whole, our aim is to construct a viable theoretical basis for an analytical descriptive category with normative action orientation under the umbrella organisation of the archaeological discipline. This is one of the objectives of the Iranian Highlands Data Repository / Thesaurus (e.g., joining RUB and DBM resources and infrastructure). Such a theoretical basis, which we would like to further integrate and develop within the Iranian Highlands Data Repository before a submission for extension (sept), will be extended to the other three central priority programme research fields: raw material regimes, institutional relationships and mobility of the inhabitants.

In the first three-year funding phase, despite the well-known political and covid-related obstacles, we have already achieved some foundational work: initial definitions of terms; outline of a glossary; Data Repository website; the individual publications of Iranian Highlands members and a conference book publication on resilience. In fact, we have already set up the website and technical infrastructure for the most part. Therefore, we will continue to develop this foundational work in the second funding phase of the CoPro with the aim of specifying the content of the concepts and terminology on a meta-level within the framework of our strongly interdisciplinary publications, as well as making the result available to the public in the form of a database. In concrete terms, this means that in the Iranian Highlands CoPro (RUB and DBM Bochum, DAI Berlin), in parallel to coordinating the research project, we also aim to contribute to the debates on theory in cultural studies by setting up and integrating an Iranian Highlands Data Repository. This would be a “by-product” of our main research in the 12 SPP projects for the conclusion of the second SPP funding phase, as a transdisciplinary offering to contemporary cultural studies, philology and historical studies.

Iranian highlands shall be examined in diachronic manner and in its diversity and shall be analyzed according to its effects on economic and social practices. Which highland-specific resource regimes could develop in the pre-historic until pre-modern highland societies and which effects did they have on the social institutions and networks?The resource richness of the Iranian highlands is coupled with extreme conditions of landscape and climate that partly restrict accessibility to raw materials such as minerals. However, resource visibility is outstanding because of a sparse vegetation cover. These conditions resulted in resource regimes whose characteristics developed from an interaction with surrounding regions and from the challenging conditions around “resource hotspots” such as mineral deposits (Momenzadeh 2004; Vatandoust et al.2011; Aali, Stöllner 2015). In these circumstances, routes played a role equal to forms of subsistence, allowing access to resources that were also desired on supra-regional levels. This constellation seems to have been favourable for technological innovations, as evident in technologies concerning the use of water and wind. This basic constant of the Iranian “highlandscapes” shall be examined in a diachronic manner and these “scapes” in their diversity, contextualizing them in their economic and social setting.

The beginnings of a specific regime of raw material acquisition can be traced back to the Upper Palaeolithic foraging groups whose lithic inventories display an astonishing diversity (Biglari, Shidrang 2013; Ghasidian 2014). One may question whether this is associated with the diversity of appropriation strategies of the highland inhabitants, or whether it is a natural consequence of new technologies brought into the region.

The special role of highland societies in the early use of metallic raw materials is evident. Since the end of the 5th millennium BCE, significant metallurgic centres developed with their own metallurgic knowledge and procedures developed in the region itself (Pigott 1999; Helwing 2013). Exchange relations with Mesopotamia, later with the Indus valley and the Oxus civilization (BMAC) may have played important roles in this early metallurgy in Iran. However, it is still not clear how technical knowledge was obtained and passed on, and how raw material regimes, often based on semi-mobile groups, could develop in a stable manner.

One of the main questions concerns the sharp drop in settlement numbers in highlands Iran since the middle of the third millennium and the early second millennium BCE. Some chronological and typological studies (e.g. Piller 2005) show that habitation gaps are not as abrupt and widespread as initially supposed. In addition, the traditional explanation of an increase of pastoral nomadism remains an unproved hypothesis. Therefore it is important to understand raw material regimes as a contribution to explain this sharp drop down.

In the early 1st mill. BCE, raw material supply networks seem to be organized more stably and permanently, but the detail of how traditional mechanisms and new “state control” formed remains unclear. Important insights including routes and stock–keeping, are expected to emerge from research the rich corpus of the Achaemenid “Persepolis Fortification archive” (Azzoni et al. 2017; Henkelman 2017). In the same period, we see sustainable large-scale exploitation and distribution of raw materials such as sodium chloride (salt). Are they a symptom of new forms of resource procurement that endured until the early/middle Islamic period?

The exploitation of ubiquitous resources such as ground water left extended monuments everywhere on the high plateau. Water but also wind were managed by technically sophisticated installations. Among them are Sasanian-period qanats that resulted in dense settlement of hitherto undeveloped regions (Goblot 1979; Weisgerber 2004). Understanding the introduction of such technologies with respect to their influence on landscape-based agricultural regimes is one of the pending questions. 

Current understandings in the social sciences regard not only political, religious, economic or military establishments as institutions but also kinship units and some forms of short-term cooperation that are anchored in daily life. From a long-term perspective, the institutional structures of highland societies changed fundamentally. There is a general question of whether highland-specific configurations developed that produced particular social relationships. Here, social structures must be examined for their spatiotemporal scales and the question of economic and social resilience.

A main interest concerns the extent to which current standard narratives of increasing differentiation (“specialization”) of institutions and their consolidation correspond to a (pre-) historic reality anchored in the societies of the highlands.

Archaeological approaches remain too often simplistic in their assumptions of uniform neolithization, urbanisation or state-formation processes. A dearth of Neolithic material symbolism makes a significant difference with respect to Anatolia and the Levant (Matthews/Fazeli Nashli 2013; Matthews et al. 2013; Pollock/Bernbeck 2010). This might be due to specific, village-internal social and political configurations.

An examination of the variable structures and formation processes of early highland states is necessary as part of an evaluation of the range and variability of state formation processes in the Iranian highlands. For example, Aidan Southall (1988) has argued that religious and political institutions should be analysed for potential differences in their geographic reaches. “Segmentary states” may be characterized by special resilience against external military attacks (Bernbeck 2003/04). Other polities, especially the Sasanian Empire, show a strong interconnectedness of political and religious institutions; many facets of their geographic, economic and administrative relations still elude us.

Other problems in the field of institutional history concern a traditional over-focus on contents of institutions to the detriment of formalities. David Kertzer’s (1988) analysis of political rituals can be creatively integrated into historic comparative studies, with less attention paid to specific meanings of rituals and more to their formal character as a sequence of actions. Clifford Geertz’s (1981) model of a “theatre state” may be applicable to aspects of governmental practice in great empires such as the Achaemenids (see Briant 2002).

In previous research on Iranian highland societies, examinations of the interaction between public institutions and subsistence practices has remained largely undeveloped, although this aspect of political economy is an imperative element of every permanent state form. Much is known about the distribution and consumption at the Middle Elamite, Achaemenid or Sassanian courts, partly also about the origin of the goods distributed (Henkelman 2010). But we have nearly no knowledge about local village-level civil organization (settlement, economy, daily life) of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian periods. To improve this situation, micro-regions need to be examined systematically, as has been undertaken in a few areas (e.g. Darre-ye Bolaghi; Mamasani: Potts et al. 2009; Tappeh Rivi: Thomalsky et al. 2016). A unique project focuses on the rural Achaemenid until early Islamic economies in the Talkherud basin (Mahneshan) in the surrounding of the mineral salt mine of Douzlakh/Chehrābād (Āali, Stöllner 2015).

In landscapes with difficult and unstable environmental conditions, mobility often plays a vital role. Despite its topographic diversity and variety of ecological niches (for example the oases of the central plateau or the mountain valleys of the Zagros), the Iranian highlands are a region of heightened mobility and with integrative capacities for external groups. Regional and local mobility are closely tied to economic strategies and the routine use of variable ecological systems, whereas interregional mobility and migration are matters of trade but also of one-time moves such as chain migrations. Here again, multi-scalarity is an essential research element.

Mobility structures are already visible in the polydirectional spread of different groups at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, for example at Ghar-e Boof in the Zagros (Ghasidian 2014; Heydari-Guran 2015).

Hypotheses of migraton are connected to a debate on Neolithization in certain regions of southwestern Iran (e.g. Zeidi et al. 2012). Early indications of a spread of a Neolithic way of life are found along the Zagros Mountains, whereas such societies appear only later on the central plateau.

Evidence for considerable mobility has been identified as of considerable significance for 4th mill. BCE sites on the central plateau. Unlike the situation in major lowland plains such as Mesopotamia, evidence of complex social, political, and economic configurations in highland Iran are at least partially coupled with reduced settlement and population densities. These observations raise a series of as yet unanswered questions regarding the forms and roles of mobility in connection with emerging states.

Beginning in the early 3rd mill. BCE, we see a clear change in northern and western Iran as well as the central plateau, caused by intrusions from the northwest that are Trans-Caucasian in character. These groups took possession of settled landscapes (e.g. Kangavar valley, Qazvin plain), but also inserted themselves into pre-existing Late Chalcolithic economic systems. However, this “Kura-Araxes expansion” also brought about new forms of transhumance and extensive herd keeping (Summers 2014). The precise balance between integration and takeover as well as the social and economic mechanisms by which these took place are in need of more detailed investigation.

The narrative of the “Indo-Iranian migration” from Central Asia into the Iranian highlands was once a central theme of the population history of Iran. Today, it belongs to a set of out-dated mobility discourses that tied pottery – here a grey ware – to linguistic groups (Young 1967; but see Kramer 1977). Current research suggests that the origin of “grey wares” may date back to the 3rd mill. BCE, but the extent of regional differentiation is still debated (Piller 2005; Malek Shamirzadi 2011).


At present, ideas concerning the origins and importance of pastoral nomadism are promoted by Abbas Alizadeh (2006, 2010) who posits an exceptional development of Iranian highland societies towards state organization based on tribal nomadic structures. His proposals have been rejected by Daniel Potts (2014) on the grounds that they lack supporting evidence. New methods as well as conceptual developments in archaeology and archaeometry now enable us to empirically text the hypotheses, using isotope analysis of faunal and human remains and micro-archaeological examinations of artifact distributions and disposal.