The Helmand Sistan Project

The Helmand Sistan Project (HSP) represents the only long-term, comprehensive survey and excavation project ever conducted in southwestern Afghanistan. In the field in the 1970s and sponsored jointly by the Smithsonian Institution and the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, HSP identified almost 200 sites in the Sistan region of the lower Helmand Valley, in the adjoining Sar-o-Tar basin, and elsewhere along the southwestern Afghan border. We excavated 15 of them to establish the first cultural history for the entire region from the Bronze Age to the present. Further work was prevented by the Soviet invasion of 1979 and subsequent political and military conflicts, so our data and findings remain the only comprehensive source of archaeological information for this region. The project was multidisciplinary: linking the archaeology to ethnography, ecology, climatology, hydrology, and geology. Also unusual for its time was a collaborative effort with a locally-trained Afghan anthropologist who conducted an ethnographic study of Baluch villages as part of our work. Among our key findings were 1) a multi-cultural, multi-religious population living in this region in the early centuries of the modern era, including Greek shrines, Buddhist stupas, and Zoroastrian temples; 2) a previously unknown Early Iron Age culture advanced enough to construct and maintain hundreds of miles of irrigation canals; 3) the sources, production areas, and methods of an enormous ancient copper industry; 4) an entire rural settlement system of the 14th century CE, still standing untouched in what is now a dune-covered desert.

Publication of the project is being led by William B. Trousdale, Curator Emeritus of Anthropology from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) of the Smithsonian Institution, and Mitchell Allen, Research Associate at the Smithsonian and UC Berkeley. An ethnographic companion volume has been published: https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/AmiriHelmand

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Small perfume bottles of the Parthian period from the first centuries CE, probably used in funerary contexts. Photo M Allen

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Local Baluch villager removing dirt to the spoil pile at the excavation of Sehyak, a Hellenistic temple overlooking the Helmand Valley, excavated in 1975. Photo RK Vincent Jr