Murghab, Turkmenistan

Murghab Archaeological Project

The black sand desert (the Kara Kum) of southern Turkmenistan marks a vast boundary between the Central Asian steppes to the north and the Iranian Plateau to the south, with the Kopet Dagh Mountains running along the plateau’s northern rim. While the region may appear to be an arid wasteland today, as evidenced in the satellite image of Figure 1, characterized by vast stretches of sand dunes, barren salt flats, and wind-weathered rock outcroppings, paleoenvironmental research has illustrated that a very different ecology was in place in the past. The Murghab region is composed of a large alluvial fan, which contains the delta of the Murghab River, one of the two largest (long with the Tedjen) of the rivers that run out of the Kopet Dagh Mountains and disappear into the Kara Kum Desert. The region receives relatively low rates of precipitation and is defined by intercontinental climates and seasonal extremes; the Murghab region, specifically, contains a patchwork of ecological settings, with biologically rich streams and oases contrasting the desert and arid-steppe ecologies. Much of the vegetation in the region today is dominated by saxaul (Haloxylon), camel thorn (Alhagi), and Tamarix, but land within reach of irrigation canals has largely been under cultivation since the Soviet agricultural campaigns. Even with the patches of rich oases scattered across the Murghab, it seems hard to believe that a large density of humans once occupied this region, living in large urban centers and sprawling in small-scale settlements or seasonal camps across the alluvial fan. The archaeological remains of these early occupants are so dense that Philip Kohl referred to the area as “little Central Asian Mesopotamia’’ (1981:xi). The alluvial fans of the Tedjen and Murghab rivers became densely populated during the second and third millennia BC, with large settlements and networks of irrigation canals, allowing farmers to practice a more intensive, higher-yield agriculture.

Karakum Desert

Figure 1. Satelite image of the Kopet Dagh Mountains and Kara Kum Desert of southern Central Asia.

Clearly the ecology of the Murghab region looked very different before the first millennium B.C., and was well-suited for irrigated agriculture on a grand scale. Understanding what this early environment looked like, how and why it changed, and how humans articulated on this dynamic landscape have been topics of debate for decades. Weighing into this ongoing academic discussion, the Joint Italian-Turkmen Project to the Murghab Alluvial Fan (Cattani 2008; Cerasetti 2012), has been conducting archaeological survey and excavation since the early 1990s under the directorship of Barbara Cerasetti (from 2006) from the University of Bologna. In 2010 the Joint Project joined forces with Lynne M. Rouse and ultimately brought in additional international specialists (including Spengler for paleoethnobotany research; Rouse and Cerasetti 2014). Since 2010 the joint project has been excavating domestic sites in order to reconstruct the nature of economy in the region during the second millennium B.C. They have run archaeological excavations at large urban centers or proto-cities as well as small-scale settlements, which appear to be either seasonal encampments or homesteads. These small-scale sites are often argued to have been occupied by a distinct population of people, who engaged more heavily in pastoralism. In this sense, there may have been a distinction between the sedentary Namazga-style populations in the cities and the more mobile or small-scale populations that were scattered across the alluvial fan.

One of the main endeavors of the Joint project has been to understand how these groups of people interacted with each other and how these interactions played into a broader political and economic arena of the Bronze Age. To this end, the team has excavated units at the small-scale sites of Ojakly (Site 1744; Rouse and Cerasetti 2014) and Chopantam (Site 1211-1219; Cattani 2008); they have also excavated at the sedentary village sites of Adji Kui 1 (Spengler et al. 2016) and Togolok 1 (Cerasetti et al. forthcoming). However, certain aspects of the material culture have complicated the story of this region in the past, notably, wheel-made ceramics are often associated with sedentary peoples and are found at small-scale sites, whereas, handmade ceramics, often associated with mobile peoples are found in urban contexts, albeit in lower densities than the wheel made ones. The paleoethnobotany further complicates the situation, showing that agricultural goods were a prominent part of the economy of all peoples across the alluvial fan, and that there might have been some lower-level farming among the small-scale sites out on the alluvial fan.

Archaeobotanical research in the Murghab region in the mid-1990s, at the large urban center of Gonur-tepe (Moore et al. 1994; Miller 1999), illustrated that a wide variety of grains and legumes were cultivated on an expansive scale in irrigated field during the third and second millennia B.C. The excavations by the Joint Project at Adji Kui 1 and Togolok 1 have enhanced this data set from Bronze Age urban centers in the Murghab. People living at Adji Kui 1 had a mixed economy, utilizing meat and dairy from domestic herd animals as well as, wild foraged fruits and nuts, fish, and a wide array of domesticated crops were also consumed (Figure 2; Spengler et al. 2016). These cultivated crops included hulled and naked barley, broomcorn millet, and free-threshing wheat, peas, lentils, grass peas, Lallemantia, bitter vetch (Vicia ervila), and fava bean (Vicia faba). The wild foraged fruits and nuts included Pistachia cf. vera and a stone from Crataegus (or a rosaceous hip-fruit) (Spengler et al. 2016), and bones of small fish were recovered from the flotation samples, showing that people were eating anchovy-sized fish.

Figure 2. Adji Kui

Figure 2. Domesticated grains from Adji Kui 1: a) barley from FS 5.2; b) broomcorn millet
from FS 5.2; c) lax-eared free-threshing wheat from FS 5.2; d) six-rowed naked barley
handpicked during excavations from Trench 1. Figure first published in Spengler et al. 2016.

However, it was a bit unexpected to find such a wide-range of cultivated plant remains at the small-scale, presumably pastoralist, camp sites as well. In 2013, the team, under the directorship of Cerasetti and Rouse, excavated the site of Ojakly (ca. 1600 BC; Rouse and Cerasetti 2014). The domesticated grains identified at the site, including free-threshing wheat (likely hexaploid; Triticum aestivum/turgidum), naked six-row barley (Hordeum vulgare var. nudum), and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum; Spengler et al. 2014). At the nearby site of Chopantam (ca. 1400 BC) a carbonized cache deposit of mixed grains and legumes was recovered, containing over 16,000 free-threshing wheat grains and nearly 9,000 peas (Pisum sativum), with less frequent remains of other crops may have been intrusive, including: both naked and hulled six-row barley varieties; broomcorn millet; lentils (Lens culinaris); grass peas (Lathyrus sativus); and a possible flax seed (cf. Linum).

The Joint Project continues to excavate in the Murghab region, specifically at the sedentary site of Togolok 1, where new discoveries are continually being made. It is clear that the nature of interaction and exchange among peoples in the Murghab region was dynamic and complicated, it is also clear that these social interactions fit into a much larger phenomenon of exchange sweeping across Central Asia at this time – one that would ultimately lead to the Silk Road.

References Cited

Cattani M (2008) Excavations at sites no. 1211 and no. 1219 (Final Bronze Age). In: Salvatori S, Tosi M, Cerasetti B (eds) The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age in the Margiana lowlands: facts and methodological proposals for a redefinition of the research strategies. Archaeopress, Oxford, pp 119–132.

Cerasetti B (2012) Remote sensing and survey of the Murghab alluvial fan, southern Turkmenistan: the coexistence of nomadic herders and sedentary farmers in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. In: Matthews R, Curtis J, Fletcher A (eds) Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East April 2010, the British Museum and UCL, London, vol 1. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, pp 539–558.

Kohl P (1981) The Namazga civilization: an overview. In: Kohl P (ed) The Bronze Age Civilization of Central Asia: recent Soviet discoveries. ME Sharpe, Armonk, pp vii–xxxvii.

Miller NF (1999) Agricultural development in western Central Asia in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8:13–19.

Moore K, Miller NF, Hiebert FT, Meadow RH (1994) Agriculture and herding in early oasis settlements of the Oxus civilization. Antiquity 68:418–427.

Rouse LM and Cerasetti B (2014) Ojakly: a Late Bronze Age mobile pastoralist site in the Murghab region, Turkmenistan. Journal of Field Archaeology 39(1):32–50.

Spengler N. R., Cerasetti B., Tengberg M., Cattani M., Rouse L. M., 2014. Agriculturalist and pastoralist: Bronze Age economy of the Murghab alluvial fan, southern Central Asia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 23: 805–820.

Spengler, Robert N., III; Ilaria de Nigris; Barbara Cerasetti; Marialetizia Carra; and Lynne M. Rouse (2016) The Breadth of Dietary Economy in Bronze Age Central Asia: Case study from Adji Kui in the Murghab region of Turkmenistan. Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, Online First.

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