Thursday, July 28, 2016

The 1968 Wertime Pyrotechnological Expedition to Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey

In 1968, Theodore Wertime (diplomat, ancient metallurgy expert - and possible CIA agent) led an expedition to Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey to study ancient pyrotechnological sites. The expedition was funded by National Geographic and the Smithsonian. Archaeologist and ceramics expert Fred Matson and ancient glass expert Robert Brill participated in the expedition along with several other team members. No official report was ever written and most of the expedition participants didn't publish anything about it either.

In 2002, an archaeology student had a chance conversation with one of the expedition participants at a conference. As a result of that encounter, she ended up creating a website devoted to the exhibition. She also retrieved artifacts and catalogued them for future researchers.

The website includes the email correspondence between this student and the expedition participants that she was able to contact, as well as original letters from Wertime and images of the artifacts. It's a pretty amazing look at this region in the late 1960s as seen through the eyes of ancient technologies experts and their memories of the expedition - and unanswered questions about it - 30+ years later.

Here's an excerpt from a 2004 article co-authored by the student, Roya Arab:

At the time that this survey took place roads were built in Afghanistan mile for mile by the Americans and the Russians, in their attempts to win favour with the government. Wertime mentioned to Brill that the Russians had constructed a tunnel that happened to be wide enough to accommodate two passing columns of the largest Soviet tanks (Brill 2003, F2). When not busy exporting wars there are all the other products of modern culture. Matson mentions the replacements of many pottery forms with plastic substitutes. He goes on to comment on the life ways encountered on the journey “Entering Turkey you can see modernisation but still evidence of older ways....with Iran under the Shah less oriented towards western ways” (Matson 1968: 9). The exportation of democracy is changing ancient life ways, which inadvertently make one a potential consumer in the global market, be it through the purchase of plastics, ammunition or suits to wear to the big boys’ tables and be heard. At the same time in the West ceramics become again cutting edge of technology, organic foods increase in value, old life ways become more attractive again, questioning the logic of mass-produced industrial products which the West exports with increasing aggression, with us all affected by their profit driven ways.

The survey of 1968 was clearly done by a mixed group. We were trying to establish which member may have been interested in more than the ancient world. As we collected more documents, the story became more and more interesting. Various members both in the past and present voiced their suspicions of the interests of different members, in letters and communications archived at the IoA (Arab 2003).

Theodore Wertime was the Cultural Attaché to Iran in the early 1960s. It is in his son’s Richard memoirs that we get a hint of Wertime’s other interests. His son Charlie on a trip to India had discovered a book written in English and published in China entitled ‘Who’s who in the American CIA’, with one Theodore Allen Wertime mentioned (Wertime 2000: 4). This has never been proven, but is of interest to us (Arab 2003). In a conversation in 2003 with Professor Matson on the subject of spying, he said he was unaware of Wertime having links with the US intelligence service, but went on to say that he (Professor Matson) made a point of never giving names of persons he met abroad. It would seem Professor Matson was well aware of his government’s interest in other nations and their structures and systems.

It is intriguing that Wertime, during his time as cultural attaché in Iran in pursuit of his scholarly interest (which are in no doubt), managed to survey a large part of the country. It would seem in the 1968 survey that Klinger was the unintentional ‘spy’, not so much because of his intent but that of the US Geological Survey, who paid for the most conclusive report to come out of this pyrotechnological survey. After the pyrotechnological survey, the only funding available for analysis happened to be for the geological report, which covers potential for minerals used in antiquity “and of use in the present development of the economies of the three countries” (Domenico et al. 1978: 5). Presently the US government is ensuring that certain countries do not achieve nuclear capability; meanwhile the Russians are helping to build a nuclear power station in Iran. The geological report happens to also mention sources for uranium, which is presently being extracted at one of the sites covered in this survey and is no longer accessible to archaeologists.

From: Arab, R., & Rehren, T. (2004). The Wertime pyrotechnological expedition of 1968. Institute of Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies, (24), 29-34. (Available here:

More links:

The website on the exhibition:

Biography of Theodore Wertime:

Richard Wertime, one of Thedore's sons, wrote a memoir about his father (Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son, 2003) - here are a couple articles about it:

New York Times book review:

The Philadelphia Inquirer article:

No comments: