Archaeology in 5 pictures, no. 4: Fragments of painted plaster from robber holes near the Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan

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Archaeology in 5 pictures, no. 4: Fragments of painted plaster from robber holes near the Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan; the top right fragment has tiny flecks of gold.

Colour photograph of four fragments of plaster, each flecked with brightly coloured paint.

From The Ebb and Flow of the Ghurid Empire by David Thomas, part of the Adapa Monographs series. 

Tucked away in a narrow, winding valley in the mountains of central Afghanistan is one of the worlds architectural masterpieces the minaret of Jām. The ~65 m high minaret was built by Ghiyāth al-Dīn, ruler of the little known Ghūrid dynasty (543612 AH / 11481215 CE). At its peak, the Ghūrid dynasty claimed territory stretching over 3,000 km from Nīshāpūr in eastern Iran to Benares and Bengal in the west, and from the foothills of the Himalaya south to Sind.(1)

Despite its ornate decoration and soaring height, the minaret lay forgotten to the outside world for over 700 years after Chingiz Khāns Mongol armies overran the region in 617 AH / 1222 CE. Scholars have debated whether Jām is the Ghūrid summer capital of Fīrūzkūh since the rediscovery of the minaret was first announced in the West in 1958.(2) Although the evidence suggests this was the case, the apparent lack of a major settlement around the minaret contrasts with references in the principal contemporary historical source, al-Jūzjānī’s abaḳāt-i-Nāṣirī, to the capital city of Fīrūzkoh [sic].(3) Warwick Ball, the doyen of Afghan archaeology, argues that much of the problem has centred around Western preconceptions of what a capital should look like.(4)

Extensive looting by robbers looking for antiquities, and the dearth of systematic archaeological fieldwork at the site, have further inhibited scholars efforts to form a detailed appreciation of the World Heritage sites nature, characteristics and extent. This, in turn, has impinged upon the sites management.

Ironically, the robber holes which have done such damage provide a means of studying the site without causing further harm to it they can be thought of as scattered test-pits, whose sections in particular provide insights into the sites stratigraphy and access to deposits which can yield samples for scientific analysis. Although this form of rescue archaeology is far from ideal, the assumption that the looting has irrevocably compromised the archaeological remains to the point that they are no longer worth studying runs the risk of compounding the damage that has been done to the site. Rather, if, as Paul Wheatley proposes, the structure of the city can be said to epitomise the pattern of the larger society of which it is a part(5), fieldwork at Jām has the potential to be fundamental to understanding the site itself, its inhabitants, and the broader, seasonally nomadic Ghūrid society ...

Fortunately, the increasing availability, quality and affordability of satellite images have provided archaeologists with valuable new sources of data. Although the archaeological use of satellite images dates back to the 1980s, the launch of the virtual globe Google Earth in 2005 has greatly facilitated these desktop studies of specific sites and whole regions by providing free, georeferenced, high-resolution images of large parts of the world. The importance of these images is likely to increase as more archived and better quality images become available.

The ASAGE project, which forms part of my research on the Ghūrids, is an attempt to expand our knowledge of both known archaeological sites and unexplored parts of Afghanistan, through the detailed study of images available through Google Earth.(6) This innovative research has garnered important new information about a sample of Early Islamic sites across the country, many of which lack even rudimentary site plans. The study of the images available through Google Earth has also enabled us to add detail to the existing plans of sites such as the Ghaznawid winter capital, Lashkar-i Bāzār/Bust, which have only been partly excavated and surveyed.(7)

The most promising aspect of this research, however, is the ability to survey systematically large areas of Afghanistan, and other countries, that have previously been under-explored or ignored. By selecting three regions close to major Ghūrid centres, in a range of environments traditionally exploited by nomads, I have sought new insights into how marginal areas (in an agrarian sense) were utilised in the past, and thus counterbalancehe urban-centric fieldwork that dominates the archaeology of Central Asia.


1 Flood 2005a: 537; I am using the term ‘Ghūrid’ loosely here to refer to the multi-ethnic inhabitants of central Afghanistan, who were ruled by the Shansabānīd dynasty; see Patel (2004a: 12–13) on the Ghūrids’ two short incursions in Gujarāt.

2 Flood 2005a; Habibi 1980; Herberg 1982: 84; Herberg & Davary 1976: 68; Kohzad 1957; Leshnik 1968–69; Maricq 1959c; Maricq & Wiet 1958: 117; Pinder-Wilson 2001: 166–7; Sourdel-Thomine 2004; Vercellin 1976.

3 Ṭabaḳāt-i-Nāṣirī, hereafter ṬN, tr. Raverty 1970 [1881] I: 396.

4 Ball 2002: 43.

5 Wheatley 2001: 228.

6 Thomas & Kidd 2017.

7 Thomas & Zipfel 2008.