A 5,000-year-old golden artificial eye that once stared out mesmerisingly from the face of a female soothsayer or priestess in ancient Persia has been unearthed by Iranian and Italian archaeologists.

The eyeball — the earliest artificial eye found — would have transfixed those who saw it, convincing them that the woman — thought to have been strikingly tall — had occult powers and could see into the future, archaeologists said.

It was found by Mansour Sajjadi, leader of the Iranian team, which has been excavating an ancient necropolis at Shahr-i-Sokhta in the Sistan desert on the Iranian-Afghan border for nine years.

Italian archaeologists said yesterday that the prophetess had also been buried with an ornate bronze hand mirror, which she presumably used to check her “startling appearance”.

They said the eyeball consisted of a half-sphere with a diameter of just over an inch. It was made of a lightweight material thought to be derived from bitumen paste. Its surface was meticulously engraved with a pattern consisting of a central circle for the iris and gold lines “like rays of light”.

Lorenzo Costantini, leader of the Italian group, said the eyeball still had traces of the gold that had been applied in a thin layer over the surface. On either side of it two tiny holes had been drilled, through which a fine thread, perhaps also gold, had held the eyeball in place.

Costantini said the woman had been as tall as 6 feet, putting her head and shoulders above most other women of the time. Aged between 25 and 30, she had a high sloping forehead, a “determined” jutting chin and dark skin, suggesting that she was from Arabia. Farad Foruzanfar, an Iranian anthropologist, agreed that the woman’s height and her “Afri-canoid cranial structure” suggested that she came from the Arabian Peninsula.

“She must have been a very striking and exotic figure,” Costantini told Corriere della Sera. He said the team had initially thought the eyeball might have been placed in the woman’s eye at burial. But microscopic examination had found an imprint left on her eye socket by prolonged contact with the golden eye. The socket also bore the marks of the thread, further proving that she had worn the eyeball in life.

Sajjadi said the skeleton had been dated to between 2900 and 2800 BC, when Shahr-i-Sokhta was a bustling, wealthy city and trading post at the crossroads of East and West. He said the woman might have arrived with a caravan from Arabia. Shahr-i-Sokhta means “Burnt City”, a local name referring to the fact that it burnt down and was rebuilt three times during Persia’s turbulent history before being finally destroyed in 2000 BC — about the time that Stonehenge was erected. The archaeologists said it was not clear what caused the woman’s death.

Costantini said the articial eye was clearly not intended to mimic a real eye but had “a special purpose... It must have glittered spectacularly, conferring on the woman a mysterious and supernatural gaze”. This would have been effective for someone who claimed to see into the future, such as a soothsayer or oracle.

Analaysis suggested that the woman may have suffered from an abscess on her eyelid because of long-term contact with the golden eyeball.

The archaeologists earlier unearthed what is believed to be the oldest backgammon set in the world, with 60 pieces made of turquoise and agate and a rectangular ebony board, probably imported from India.