Project overview

March 16, 2014

Cheshmeh Ali is a small Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement excavated by Erich Schmidt as part of a joint project between the University Museum in Philadelphia and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1934 and 1936. Erich Schmidt was a prolific field archaeologist and he worked at a number of other projects in Iran, including the excavation of medieval Rayy, Persepolis, Tepe Hissar, as well as conducting a general aerial survey of Iran from his airplane. While the bulk of Schmidt’s energy in his later years was spent on the publication of the Achaemenid center of Persepolis, post-excavation work on the prehistoric Cheshmeh Ali records languished and the final reports were unfinished at Schmidt’s death in 1964. Although Schmidt published a small selection of the more spectacular of the painted pottery vessels from the site, no architectural plans,no detailed stratigraphic sections, nor comprehensive catalogue of finds were ever published.

Despite this paucity of published details, Cheshmeh Ali figures prominently in the culture historical schemes of northern Iran. For example, Cheshmeh Ali, along with Tepe Sialk, formed a significant part of McCown’s landmark chronological studies of Iran in 1942. Having examined the Cheshmeh Ali painted pottery housed in Philadelphia, McCown delineated three successive painted pottery traditions for northern Iran: the Sialk horizon, the Cheshmeh Ali horizon, and the Hissar horizon. This scheme has, with modification, endured. In a more recent synthesis of Iranian chronology, Voigt and Dyson (1992) defined the Cheshmeh Ali ceramic horizon as extending over a number of geographical regions and characterized by the presence of high-fired black-on-red painted ware, as found at the north-central Iranian sites of Zagheh, Sialk, Kara Tepe and Ismailabad (Tepe Moushelan), as well as the type site of Cheshmeh Ali. Thus, following McCown’s lead, the “Cheshmeh Ali ceramic horizon” became synonymous with what is now termed the early Transitional Chalcolithic period, and the site is still frequently cited in the literature.


Cheshmeh Ali is located in north-central Iran, south of the Elburz mountains and within the suburbs of modern-day Tehran. In Schmidt’s time, Cheshmeh Ali lay well outside the modern city, which engulfed the site in the succeeding decades.

The site itself sits atop a high ridge seen here with the Elburz Mountains in the background. The prehistoric tell was, during the Medieval period, covered by the famous city of Rayy (Rhages), the

excavation of which was Schmidt’s original objective in starting work here. Cheshmeh Ali was a small settlement, with a maximum size of just under 3 hectares, although the lateral movement of the village over the course of the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods means that at any one time, the village was probably notably smaller than this maximum.

The small prehistoric village of Cheshmeh Ali was located within the enormous medieval city of Rayy, as seen in this plan. The ridge on which Cheshmeh Ali sits at the northern edge of sprawling medieval Rayy was incorporated into the medieval fortification system as outlined by Schmidt.


Much of the fieldwork conducted during his 1934-1936 campaigns was expended on the medieval remains, but nonetheless Schmidt’s team opened up 5,200 square meters on prehistoric Cheshmeh Ali, in seven different morphological areas.

At its highest point, the mound rises some 19m above the southern, interior portion of the medieval city and the northern plains. Schmidt’s work, for the most part, concentrated on two areas. The first was a prominent knoll on the northwestern corner of the mound north of the fortification wall. The second was an extensive area in the largest flat spot on the Cheshmeh Ali mound in the southeastern part of the site. Although nearly contiguous, the grid squares were excavated sporadically over the course of three seasons, so it has been necessary to piece back together the broader picture of the architecture of the site from his field diaries, plans, and catalogues.

A recent reworking of the chronology of northern Iran has been completed by Hassan Fazeli, who conducted brief excavations at Cheshmeh Ali in 1997. Fazeli dug two stratigraphic soundings at Cheshmeh Ali with a goal towards clarifying the ceramic sequence of the site. The ceramic sequence at Cheshmeh Ali is exceedingly long, showing perhaps two millennia of occupation from the Late Neolithic through the Late Chalcolithic.

At other times, due to the extension of the excavations over three seasons, materials from the same stratigraphic level were recorded on separate drawings and needed to be recombined. Individual features, such as walls, pits or graves, can be assigned a level based on their location within the overall stratigraphic sequence and their associated artifacts.

Area F is located in a flat area in the southeastern part of the site. Area F comprises roughly half of the total excavated area of prehistoric Cheshmeh Ali. The northern part of Area F is the area with the most complete building plans, the clearest stratified sequence, and the largest number of small finds. The northern part of Area F was excavated across all three field seasons, during which time Schmidt recorded six levels of architecture. At times, Schmidt's architect has conflated different stratigraphic or chronological level, forcing us to separate them into distinct layers. This separation was done on the basis of the sketch plans, diaries, and assessments of the small finds.

The plan above shows some of the remains of the small Transitional Chalcolithic village of Cheshmeh Ali. Briefly, the architecture shows that the houses at Cheshmeh Ali were built directly abutting one another. There is no clear indication in that there were alleyways or streets between discrete houses. The orientation of walls follows a generally similar orientation, but there is nothing to suggest any sort of planning or the presence of public buildings. In short, the architecture is wholly unremarkable, showing an organic plan and the use of common building techniques employed widely across the ancient Near East at this time.

Schmidt’s field diaries report that, in at least one instance, patches of a red-painted plaster floor were discovered, and it is quite possible that the floors and walls of the prehistoric houses at Cheshmeh Ali would have been constructed in a similar fashion. A few interior hearths were discovered marked here by grey ovals. The small triangles mark the location of either individual small finds or complete vessels which can now be put back into stratigraphic order. The rooms are small, averaging around 6 square meters and, unfortunately, the preservation of architectural details such as doorways was poor. Burials were found below the floors, or in the spaces between the houses.


A sizable collection of ceramics were drawn and briefly described by Schmidt and these vessels formed, as noted earlier, the ceramic horizon for which the site is well known. Nearly one hundred complete or restorable prehistoric vessels or profiles were recovered and a collection of just over 5,100 sherds are held in the museums at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. As part of our research, these have all now been photographed and systematically described in a database compiled by Hamid Valipour and Jessica Weston.

It has been possible through this work to delineate stylistic groups for the complete vessels based on recurrent painted motifs. Most of the forms recovered are simple open bowls like these. Interestingly, although we see similar structural layouts in the painted design – for example the pottery vessels shown below have a common double horizontal line at the rims and centers of the vessels and single vertical lines below the horizontal running to the bases, the “filling motifs” are unique and, in the corpus as a whole, very few vessels duplicate one another exactly.

Edna Wong has conducted petrographic and geochemical analyses of a selection of sherds from Cheshmeh Ali. The suite of mineral and rock composition used in the Cheshmeh Ali ceramics is similar across all periods and is consistent with the local geology. While organic temper is present in all the samples from the Late Neolithic period, it is only present in some of the samples from the Transitional Chalcolithic period. This suggested to Wong a gradual change in ceramic production during the Transitional Chalcolithic period. The spectrographic results show that the Early and Middle Chalcolithic pottery groups form a separate cluster from the Late Neolithic and Transitional Chalcolithic pottery groups. The differences are attributable to a number of factors including temper, levigation, mixing of clay and firing, all of which would impact on the chemical content, in a addition to a shifting of local clay sources.


The small finds from Cheshmeh Ali have been studied by a number of specialists. The bulk of the work on the small finds was undertaken by Holly Pittman and Christopher Thornton.

The spindle whorls have been analyzed by Irene Good who has shown that spindle whorl form varies considerably by region. In the Tehran Plain, she suggests that broadly there is a predominance of bell-shaped whorls and hemispheric whorls with discontinuous shaftholes . Her study of the whorls from Cheshmeh Ali revealed a wide variety of forms, materials, sizes, weights and types dating to the prehistoric phases. This suggested to Good that the spinning craft coalesced through time of various highly localized traditions, perhaps due to an extended exogamic system bringing in women with their spinning kits from around the greater Iranian Plateau and possibly beyond.

Michael Glascock has completed analyses of the chipped flint and obsidian artifacts from Cheshmeh Ali respectfully. Glascock notes that obsidian was not locally available to the people of Cheshmeh Ali. The nearest sources were located about 1000 km distance in Eastern Anatolia and Armenia. The Nemrut Dağ source was apparently the most popular source as 75% of the obsidian artifacts analyzed in this study came from Nemrut. The remaining artifacts came from the Armenian sources at Mets Arteni and Gutansar. Cheshmeh Ali sits along an important trade route running just south of the Elburz Mountains, known popularly in later periods as the Silk Road. Glascock suggests that passing traders may have brought obsidian to Cheshmeh Ali from the east, demonstrating the interconnectedness of northern Iran during the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.


Thirty-one prehistoric human burials were recovered by Schmidt’s team at Cheshmeh Ali. Lucy Gustavel completed a basic inventory and description of these for our publication project. In the Late Neolithic and Transitional Chalcolithic levels, inhumations appear to have been intramural and subfloor. Single burials in simple, unlined pits are the rule. The bodies were placed on their sides, usually the right side, often with flexed legs and arms bent so that the hands were in front of the face. Schmidt recorded the direction that each skeleton was facing.

The chart below plots the direction each skeleton was facing. All but one burial was facing north, northeast, east, northwest, or west. Only a single burial was facing south, and none were oriented either to the southwest or southeast. Of the skeletons that could be sexed, the ration of males to females was 1.75:1. Similarly, Schmidt found a preponderance of male skeletons at contemporary Tepe Hissar.

Grave goods included jewelry and ceramic vessels. About two-thirds of the graves had offerings, including all three of the youngest infant burials, suggested a system of ascribed status at birth. Although our population size is too small for statistic analysis, there does not appear to be any strong correlation between the presence/absence of grave goods and either age or sex. The placement of ceramic vessels is typically near the head, sometimes above it, or beneath the feet.

The records that Schmidt left us are a tribute to his exacting field methods, such as the state-of-the-art was back in the mid-1930s. For nearly eight decades, Cheshmeh Ali has maintained a pivotal position in our understanding of the prehistory of the northern Iranian plateau in part because Schmidt excavated on a scale that is no longer feasible.

This overview was excerpted from a paper delivered by Timothy Matney at the 2012 Annual Meetings of the Society of American Archaeology in Memphis, TN.