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Excavations of Staraia Nisa

(Parthian Nisa)


By: V. N. Pilipko



European scholars, who first learned of Parthian Nisa from the works of Greco-Roman writers, were particularly intrigued by a report on royal tombs from Isidore of Charax. In the nineteenth century, several sites for Parthaunisa were suggested, but since there was no precise information concerning the geography and archaeological monuments of the area, these identifications were not reliable,[1] and, for the most part, locations were proposed on the basis of the consonance of names. Russia's conquest of Northern Iranian provinces in early 19th century, and the annexation Turkmenia, offered European scholars the first true opportunity to become acquainted with one of the possible sites, the ruins of the city of Nisa, near Bagir.[2] A. V Komarov gave the initial account of the ruins at a meeting of the Imperial Archaeological Commission in 1888; in 1896, V A. Zhukovskii visited Nisa,[3] but as he was not impressed by the site as a historical monument, there were no excavations before the 1917 [Russian] revolution.


The situation remained unchanged during the early Soviet years. By then, however, local investigators had become convinced that Nisa was indeed Parthaunisa and that the fortified site of Novaia (New) Nisa was most likely to be its remains. In 1930, A. A. Marushchenko and A. S. Bashkirov conducted trial excavations. Since the first probes at the citadel revealed a mixture of medieval deposits,[4] Marushchenko was certain that Novaia Nisa was the remains of a city that had existed only during the Middle Ages,[5] and he shifted his attention to Staraia (Old) Nisa.[6] Here, in one of the first probes, archaeologists discovered a four-lobed column of fired brick. They also found fragments of terra-cotta tiles with Hellenistic-style decorations in relief that persuaded them that Staraia Nisa was, in fact, the citadel of Parthaunisa. Further excavations and finds of painted clay sculpture, fragments of mural painting, and terra-cotta tiles depicting Heracles' club and a Seleucid anchor confirmed the Classical antiquity of the monument. At the Third International Congress on Iranian Archaeology and Art, held in Leningrad in 1935, Marushchenko gave a well-grounded description of Staraia Nisa as a fortress dating from the Arsacid period. He was certain that the ruins of Bagir indeed were the Parthaunisa of Isidore of Charax, and his conviction significantly influenced the interpretation of the architectural monuments that were recovered. The most important find, the Building with the Square Hall, was described as a mausoleum of Arsacid rulers. It was also decided that a nearby structure /the small eastern turret of the Tower-like Structure) was a kata used to expose the dead.


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Fig. 1. General Plan of Staraia Nisa. 1. Large Square Building; 2. Wine storehouse; 3. Northeast construction; 4. Building with the Square Hall; 5. Tower-like Structure; 6. Building with the Round Hall; 7. Ancient water reservoirs. (Click to enlarge)


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Fig. 2. Greek origin marble sculpture. Large Square Building. (Click to enlarge)


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Fig. 3, 4. Ivory rhyton. Large Square Building.

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Fig. 5. Building with the Square Hall. 1. Plan during the initial stage; 2. Plan during the final stage. [When these plans were drawn, the White Room, shown in the northeast corner, was not thought to have an opening that led outside the building; later excavations revealed that the niche shown on the plan must be, in fact, an aperture.]  

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Fig. 6. Modeled imitation of an Ionic capital. Building with the Square Hall. (Click to enlarge)


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Fig. 7. Parthian clay sculpture. White Room, Building with the Square Hall. (Click to enlarge)


Fig. 8. Ostraca from the Central Complex.

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Fig. 9. Parthian wall painting. Tower-like Structure. (Click to enlarge)

Excavations during the pre-war years were carried out in two stages. In 1930-1931, there were exploratory probes at the Building with the Square Hall, and a medieval structure above it was excavated. From 1934 to 1936, work proceeded on a broader scale. Probes and trenches were dug in various parts of the site, establishing the existence of storage rooms in the Northern Complex and of four structures in the Central Complex (fig. 1). Investigations during those years were only preliminary, however: extensive areas remained unexplored, and the stratigraphy and plan of the site were not well defined. The contours of the Round Hall, for example, were determined from a small trench that fixed the location of the upper sections of its walls, so that only the broadest outline of the architectural plan was understood. At times, insufficient information was supplemented by arbitrary reconstructions based on the assumption that the Nisa buildings were symmetrical, with distinctly geometrical configurations, but even these provisional plans were not published.[7]


After World War II, a new research organzation, the South Turkmen Archaeological Complex Expedition (IUTAKE),[8] resumed excavations under the direction of M. E. Masson. The work of the Expedition took place over a longer period of time and in greater scope than had been undertaken previously and led to major discoveries. IUTAKE excavated the Large Square Building, exposing its plan in full and tracing the sequence of alterations that had been made to it over several centuries and also locating important hoards within the walled-up rooms.[9] Over thirty silver coins of Seleucid, Bactrian, Parthian, Sogdian, and even Pontic (the coinage of Amisos) origins were found, along with fragments of silver vessels and objects fashioned of cloth-of-gold. All the finds demonstrate that a significant collection of articles of great value was stored in the Large Square Building, including small pieces of sculpture, marble sculpture of Greek origin (figs. 2, 3),[10] and richly carved ivory rhytons (fig. 4).[11] The complex of finds and the custom of walling up rooms after they were filled suggested that the building was a royal treasury, and perhaps associated with the funeral cult of Parthian kings.[12] Beside the Large Square Building there was a wine storehouse consisting of large rectangular rooms filled with rows of clay jars, where excavations revealed 2,751 ostraca with Parthian inscriptions that were primarily records reflecting the activity of the storehouse.[13]


Additional work in the Central Complex included the four structures that had been discovered earlier. In particular, the Square and Round halls were completely excavated. The observations and finds (fragments of clay sculpture, mural painting, and details of architectural decoration) led to a graphic reconstruction of the appearance of their interiors.[14] The most active work at Nisa took place during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Later, when IUTAKE began to concentrate its efforts on Merv, the scale of investigation at Nisa declined and from 1967 virtually ceased, although none of the structures in the Central Complex had been completely excavated.


The Parthian Expedition of the Institute of History of the Turkmen Academy of Sciences (headed by V N. Pilipko) began a new cycle of archaeological work at Staraia Nisa in 1979. Their basic task was to complete excavations of the Building with the Square Hall and the Towerlike Structure. The excavation of the Building with the Square Hall has been virtually completed, while that of the Tower-like Structure is still in progress. In 1982-1986, an expedition of the Leningrad Section of the Institute of Archaeology (LOIA) worked at Nisa under the general supervision of V M. Masson (with practical work carried out by V A. Zav'ialov, S. D. Loginov, and M. N. Pshenitsina) and investigated the northeast section of the Central Complex, which tentatively had been called the "Palace." Marushchenko had discovered the remains of two large courtyards with porticos and some domestic rooms and had begun to dig them out. The IUTAKE team, chiefly N. I. Krasheninnikova, further investigated this section, but the results remained unpublished; only the plan of the exposed buildings was reproduced, without commentary, in a summarizing work by G. A. Pugachenkova.[15] The Leningrad expedition partially excavated another courtyard, the walls of which were decorated with semidetached columns of sun-dried brick, and a number of domestic rooms adjoining it on the outer, northeast side. (An ostracon ordering that flour be issued to persons listed by name was found in one of these rooms.)


In 1985-1986 and 1990-1991, yet another expedition worked at Nisa and under the general supervision of G. A. Koshelenko brought together a team from the Institute of Archaeology, Moscow State University, and the Turkmen State University. This expedition concentrated on the structure that included the Round Hall and excavated several rooms adjoining it. In 1990-1991, a team of Italian archaeologists from the University of Turin took part in these investigations. In 1992-1994, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Italian team headed by Antonio Invernizzi continued its investigation of the Building with the Round Hall independently.


What follows is an overview of the results of the excavations of the Parthian Expedition that I carried out directly. In the investigation of the Building with the Square Hall, begun by Marushchenko and continued by IUTAKE, the Square Hall had been excavated completely, revealing an approximate outline of the outer contours of the building. In several probes, Marushchenko had discovered remnants of walls of earlier structures that approximately coincided with the location of its outer walls. He had concluded erroneously that, initially, the Building with the Square Hall had been a tower-like structure containing a high, blind-walled lower floor that served as a base and entrances to the main rooms on the second floor set high above the ground. Thus, he declared that the building was a mausoleum.[16] Mme. Pugachenkova also misunderstood its plan. Actually, the IUTAKE expedition explored only the Square Hall and did not expose its outer contours. Pugachenkova, suspicious of Marushchenko's data, decided that the structure had been a palace, rather than a temple (after a certain hesitation in her early publications),[17] and determined that the Square Hall was part of a large structure that occupied the northeast section of the Central Complex.[18]


Determinations of the period in which the structure was in use also differed. Marushchenko believed that the Building with the Square Hall was built by the first Arsacids, functioned for several centuries, and was, so to speak, "put in mothballs" under the later Arsacids. Pugachenkova thought that the Square Hall had been built at the order of Mithridates I, had undergone extensive repairs, some at the end of the first century CE but primarily in the century following, and had remained in use until the demise of the Parthian Empire.[19]


The work of the Parthian Expedition, which completed the excavation of the unexplored sections of the structure and of adjacent areas, led to conclusions that differed from the views of both Marushchenko and Pugachenkova. First, it established that the Building with the Square Hall was not among the earliest structures at Staraia Nisa. Excavations of the southeast facade and the section adjacent to it revealed that two older buildings had preceded it in succession. Judging from a small number of ceramic artifacts and building materials (square dried bricks 38-45 cm long on a side), they were built during the Arsacid era. The great thickness of the walls, the large size of the rooms, and the presence of porticos with the remains of the stone column bases indicate that these were monumental edifices covering a considerable area. Erected on the natural slope of a hill, presumably they were constructed in terraces. During the construction of the Building with the Square Hall, a portion of the walls of these structures was cut off and some of it used as fill for a newly created level platform. The contours of the platform basically conformed to those of the new structure; only on the southwest was a sizable additional projection built. The height of the platform, following the relief of the hill, reaches 3-4 m on the southeast but is only about 1.5 m on the northwest.[20] Its basic purpose was to create a foundation for the Building with the Square Hall at the level of the courtyard that united all the structures of the Central Complex.


During the long period of its use, the Building with the Square Hall was altered and repaired repeatedly. It is not possible to remark on and substantiate all these changes in this brief overview, and therefore the plan of the Building with the Square Hall will be described only at the completion of the initial construction and during the final stage in which the building functioned.


In the initial stage, the configuration of the building was a somewhat irregular quadrangle (clockwise from the northwest, 36 X 30.7 X 36.2 x 29.1 m/ (fig. 5, no. 1). Built of square dried bricks, 39-44 cm on a side and 12-16 cm thick, the outer walls varied in thickness from 3.6 to 6m. More than half of the area was occupied by a large hall that presumably had been intended to be square; actually, the length on each side fluctuated from 19.2 to 20 m. The lower faces f the walls of the halls were smooth, and at the corners there were two-step reinforcing projections. Additional supports for the ceiling are thought to have been provided by four round columns of fired bricks arranged in a square in the center of the hall.


Three passages in the northwest wall led out of the building: a center passage 2.8 m wide and those at either side 1.2-1.3m. Along the northeast side were two rooms on a single axis, the almost square White Room (3.95 x 4 m) and a corridor-like room 19.6 m long and 3.2 to 4m wide. The White Room was open to the outside, while the corridor-like room communicated with the Square Hall. In the southeast wall of the Square Hall there was a fifth aperture. Exactly where it led is not known. During the final stage of the building, three auxiliary rooms were situated on this side, but it is thought that they appeared comparatively late.[21] Initially, there might have been a portico facing southeast here, but there is nod reliable evidence confirming this.


Substantial alterations took place in the plan and interior decoration of the Building with the Square Hall during its final stage (fig. 5, no. 2). The northwest facade of the building took on a new decorative scheme in the form of eight stepped piers. Two of the three passages in the northwest wall were blocked up, the easternmost one completely; in place of the central passage, a two-stepped niche 0.85m deep was left in the inner wall. The conjectural portico on the southeast side was replaced by three auxiliary rooms extending in a row along the southeast wall of the hall. The central room served as a vestibule of sorts, with passages in all four walls, one of which served as a link to the Square Hall. The aperture opposite it led outside the building and opened onto the edge of the platform, which at this point had a vertical surface about 3.5m high. This passage could only have been reached by ladder. There may have been a small balcony here as well. The two other apertures communicated with the lateral rooms extending along the southeast wall.


Twenty-four decorative half-columns were built into the inner walls of the Square Hall, six to a side and from 1.65 to 3.3m apart. There is a difference in space between the columns because the apertures that broke up the plane of three of the walls prevented a uniform distribution. The half-columns included a rectangular plinth, a scotia and torus, and a shaft 42-48 cm in diameter, constructed with both fired bricks and wooden uprights coated with alabaster. Four massive, four-lobed piers of fired brick with gypsum mortar formed a square in the center of the hall. The profile of the bases of these piers was the same as that of the half-columns on the walls: deep fascia, sharply concave scotia, and torus. In the corridor-like room on the northeast, where there was a pavement of fired brick, the lower section of the walls and the floor were coated with a special red plaster of large-grained sand, brick dust, and gypsum. The southwest projection of the platform was further expanded and several rooms and a columned portico built on it.


The final work on the Building with the Square Hall not only established the plan of the edifice and the sequence of reconstructions more accurately but also revealed many important finds. The most valuable of these took place during the clearing of the newly discovered White Room and the collapsed materials adjacent to the building on the southwest and southeast. When the structure was repaired, the construction debris was thrown outside the building through an opening in the southeast wall or from the southwest side of the platform, and was left inside the Central Complex. Along with the usual debris, artifacts of aesthetic and scientific value ended up in these heaps: large and small pieces of plaster bearing paintings that had been knocked off the walls, small fragments of clay sculpture, decorative architectural details in terra-cotta and unfired clay, sherds of the vessels used by the construction workers for mixing paints and mortars, and even a few ostraca with Parthian inscriptions.


Some of these articles, such as metope tiles, merlons, and terra-cotta acanthi, were familiar from earlier excavations. Among the architectural details are sculpted imitations of Ionic-type capitals. Marushchenko had found a large fragment of the middle portion of one of these objects (probably in a trench on the southeast side of the building) and had described it as the upper portion of a gravestone; O. Reuther suggested that it might be the back of the throne of a seated statue;[22] while Pugachenkova saw it as the top of a votive or commemorative stele.[23] The discovery of new fragments of similar objects made it possible to reconstruct their shape with some degree of confidence (fig. 6/. It is likely that these modeled imitations of capitals came from the half-columns in the walls of the Square Hall.


Material from the piles of debris significantly broadened our understanding of the mural painting found in the Square Hall. In different sections and at different periods, the paintings had a gypsum or loess foundation. The technique may be described as that of tempera, using a rich selection of mineral pigments, the most common of which was ocher of various shades. Carbon black, vermilion, Alexandrian frit, etc., were used as well, and perhaps organic pigments. The use of various pigments and mixtures of pigments provided the paintings with an extraordinary wealth of colors. Black, white, red, brown, and yellow were the most popular, with gray, light blue, and pink used less often and green extremely rare. It is difficult to determine the subject matter of the paintings from the scattered fragments; it can only be noted that it was exclusively ornamental in character. The paintings were found only on the upper sections of the walls and probably took the form of friezes and separate decorative panels. The greatest number of fragments are painted with parallel polychrome stripes from 1 to 30 cm wide. At times, the stripes form rectangles or squares, apparently inscribed one within another. Some of the "striped" painting is framed with meanders, curling waves, or chains of triangles.


The few fragments of clay sculpture discovered in the debris are very small. The most significant accumulation was found in the White Room, which occupies the northern corner of the building. The sculpture from Nisa has been described repeatedly in the literature.[24] The first finds, made by Marushchenko, were fragments of a bearded head and a male torso clad in Greek-style armor. The IUTAKE excavations considerably increased the number of finds, including numerous fragments of arms and legs and an almost intact female torso loosely draped in a mantle in a thoroughly Greek style.[25] Whether the figure depicted a deity or a secular figure is uncertain, and other finds offered no answer to the problem since almost all of the heads were missing. Therefore, what this sculpture was seen to represent depended to a marked degree on the individual scholar's definition of the purpose of the Building with the Square Hall. To those who viewed it as a secular edifice, the figure was a depiction of Parthian royalty, while to those who viewed it as a temple, it was a deity. Dating the sculpture also presented difficulties. For many years, the opinion of L. I. Rempel' that the Nisa clay sculpture dated from the second century CE was accepted.[26]


New finds expanded our idea of the way the statues from Nisa must have looked. For the first time, there were heads in a comparatively good state of preservation. Among other remains of clay sculpture, excavations of the White Room yielded four such heads. The importance of these finds lies in the fact that previous excavations yielded only small fragments of heads; at one time it was even proposed that they had been deliberately destroyed during a period of neglect. One was that of a man whose advanced age is indicated by the sharply delineated folds running from the nose to the edge of the lips. The face had suffered a strong frontal blow. In contrast, a second head depicts a young man with child-like puffy lips and a nascent growth of beard but a stern, tense expression (fig. 7). The third head, depicting a male with a handsome, noble face and a luxuriant beard, is the best preserved. His aloof, distracted gaze contrasts with the meticulously detailed helmet, typical of the Greco-Macedonian milieu of the Hellenistic period, on which the cheek flap bears a thunderbolt, an emblem of Zeus (fig. 8).[27] The fourth male head, bearded, is also shown with a helmet, which appears to be of the same type. On the cheek flap of this helmet, however, there is a particular emblem with a representation of a fantastic winged figure whose legs are shown in the form of vegetal sprouts.


These heads provided further confirmation of the high degree of professionalism of the Nisa sculptors. They are rendered in the best traditions of Hellenistic art, in a realistic manner with a careful treatment of detail. The similar appearance of the Nisa heads, the helmet, and other traits entirely corroborate the early date of these sculptures, which, according to the date of the Building with the Square Hall, falls between the second and the early first centuries BCE It appears that the statues adorning the Square Hall were all of a type: full-length sculptures in the round, over 2m high. Fabricated on the site from unfired clay, some pieces, particularly a number of heads and torsos, were molded in special matrices. While the identity of the statues is not known at this point, since it has not been possible to restore any of the statues completely, it is quite unlikely that they are portrayals of Parthian kings and queens. In the first place, the realistic physical features of the heads show no likeness to the portraits of Arsacid kings on Parthian coins. Second, among the rather numerous finds there are no insignias of royal authority such as diadems or torques. Third, there are fragments depicting bare shins, which is contrary to the aesthetic norms of the Parthian milieu.


A few words should be said about the ostraca (fig. 9). During earlier excavations, they were found only in the area of the wine storerooms and dealt primarily with the work of those enterprises. No such finds were made during the extensive digs at the Central Complex,[28] but when the heaps of debris created by repairs to the Building with the Square Hall and the Towerlike Structure were cleared away, fifteen ostraca, so badly preserved that they may have been broken deliberately, were found. Because of their fragmentary state and the still incomprehensible abbreviations they bear, they are extremely difficult to decipher. According to V A. Livshits' preliminary determination, most bear lists of items received and issued to named persons, with the identity of the items obscured by the enigmatic abbreviations. Ostracon no. 3, which carries an ambiguous royal command, is of special interest. The information on the ostracon has been tentatively connected with the activities of construction teams carrying out repairs in the Central Complex; it should be noted that ostraca have been discovered only in the piles of debris and that some of them bear paint smudges indicating that they were handled by the craftsmen who painted the building's walls.


Excavations of the Tower-like Structure[29] were begun by Marushchenko. His explorations were limited in scope, however, and provided no exact plan of the building. In particular, he was not aware of the existence of the inner corridor and the portico. He viewed the structure as a massive, rectangular block of dried brick masonry encircled by a vaulted corridor. On top of this block were several rooms, in one of which stood a large clay statue. According to Marushchenko, the small east tower (see below) was a separate architectural structure used to expose the dead in accordance with Zoroastrian custom. However, the plan of the tower was only partially explained. IUTAKE excavations established the presence of an inner peripheral corridor and revealed the plan of the northeast face of the structure only in general terms. The expedition's researchers advanced a proposition, which in my opinion is incorrect, that the Tower-like Structure was built in stages: at first consisting of a central "pedestal" and a single (inner) peripheral corridor, with the later addition of the exterior corridor.[30]


Excavations are still far from complete, and many details of the plan are not fully clarified. At present, there is only general information. The Tower-like Structure was built at the same time as the Building with the Square Hall and the Building with the Round Hall, as demonstrated by the existence of a single leveling platform and the homogeneity of construction techniques and architectural decorations of all three structures. Were it not for the turret-like projections at the corners, the Tower-like Structure would be a rectangular building about 1800 m2 in area, with one of its short sides facing the common courtyard of the Central Complex. If one ignores the level platform, which is nearly 4 m high on the south, the Tower-like Structure can be seen as a two-story structure. Its ground floor comprised a solid, almost square pedestal of dried bricks (20 X 19.5 x 7.5 m) and two vaulted corridors. The inner corridor encircled the pedestal, while the outer corridor was broken on the northeast facade by the portico with two columns at the entrance. In addition, there were identical auxiliary rooms to either side of the portico (fig. 1). The outer peripheral corridor led to two similar turrets, occupying the east and south corners of the building, that contained freestanding inner staircases to the second floor. The well-preserved rooms of the east turret made it possible to determine the construction of the door and window openings, which were lit by window-like embrasures; similar windows were evenly distributed along the outer peripheral corridor except in the northwest sector, which shared a wall with the Building with the Round Hall. Only individual sections of the walls of the second-floor rooms have been preserved, and they give no idea of its plan. Over its long period of use, the plan of the Tower-like Structure was altered, but the sequence of these reconstructions will be difficult to assess until the excavations are finished.


The peripheral corridors of the Tower-like Structure were found to be essentially empty and the rooms of the second floor almost completely destroyed, so the number of finds from the structure is negligible. This situation changed somewhat after the discovery of a heap of construction debris at the foundation of the southeast face of the platform. Like the debris from repairs found at the Building with the Square Hall, it had been dumped at the foot of the structure. The composition of these piles of debris provides some idea of the architectural decor of the rooms on the second floor. As in the Square Hall, they were formally decorated. The piles contain a large collection of molded fired bricks and terra-cotta acanthus leaves, evidence of the existence of columns or half-columns. There are great numbers of terra-cotta tiles with relief decoration and also merlons with centered arrow-shaped slits. A significant collection of pieces of painted plaster was found, and there were small fragments of painted clay statues, of approximately the same type as those from the Building with the Square Hall.

In range of color and technique, the remnants of wall painting correspond to work from the Building with the Square Hall, and many ornamental motifs are the same. The "striped" painting bordered by rows of red triangles appears often, but there are also motifs that are unknown at the Building with the Square Hall, in particular the guilloche and egg-and-dart designs.


However, the most important finds associated with the Tower-like Structure are fragments of mural painting with pictorial subjects. In the clearing of the heaps of debris at the foot of the structure, about twenty fragments of plaster with depictions of people and animals were found. It is not known whether they decorated one formal room or several rooms, each with a different type of subject matter. Most of the images are small, with the size of a full-length human figure only 30 cm, which indicates the intimate character of the paintings. Apparently, the ornamental panels were located in a relatively small room at not much above floor level. Battle scenes were the most popular subject. Fragments depicting bareheaded horsemen in the light nomadic garb of a short jacket and long trousers predominate.


Two finds are among the most effective. One fragment presents the central section of a scene in which two groups of horsemen approach each other, while on the other a fleeing horseman with a severe wound to his neck bends toward the neck of his horse and protects himself with a shield against the arrows of his pursuers. There is no clue to the identity of the horsemen. They resemble Central Asian nomads, among them the Parthians,[31] yet the most complete and vivid find, the depiction of a "fugitive;" raises serious doubts as to whether these figures can be interpreted as Parthians. It is hard to imagine that in a Parthian cult center such as Nisa, designed to glorify the ruling dynasty and people, Parthians would be depicted in this manner. In addition, the finds include several small fragments with riders of a different appearance who are presented as self-confident and dignified. The "fugitive" and other horsemen like him are most probably not Parthians but, on the contrary, their adversaries from among the Central Asian nomads. An unsubstantiated hypothesis identifies them as Sakas, who waged fierce wars against the Parthians during the last third of the second century BCE[32]


A small fragment preserves a lively, attractive image of a female (?) head skillfully rendered in a few strokes as well as the remains of a Greek inscription fig. 10). The Hellenistic technique and the three-dimensional effect indicate that the artist was probably Greek. Another fragment, which depicts a torso wrapped in a pink shawl, is also worth noting. The non-traditional nature of the painting and the larger scale of the figure indicate that this may be a deity. Along with human figures, there are animals, both real and fantastic, for the most part shown against a sky-blue background-for example, griffins and two lions shown opposite one another. In the main, the zoomorphic images were employed to fill areas between pictorial panels.


The long and painstaking labor of investigating Nisa is still far from being completed, and new excavations lead to continual changes in our conception of the monument. While it is generally accepted that it dates to the Arsacid era, more exact dating has not been determined. The sparsity of finds from the lower stratum makes it impossible to date the construction of the fortress more precisely than to the period between the second half of the third and first half of the second century BCE Attempts to specify a more exact date are based on logical conjectures rather than on archaeological materials. In particular, extrapolating from the ancient name of the town site, Mihrdatkirt, which is known from the ostraca, it has often been concluded that the fortress was founded by the Parthian king Mithridates I (171-138 BCE). It is quite possible, but there is no strict evidence to support this. It may be that the citadel was built earlier and then renamed in honor of Mithradates.


When the citadel ceased to function is equally unclear. It has been suggested that the Sasanians were to blame for the destruction of Nisa, yet at this point no strata dating from the second/third centuries CE have been recorded. A number of pieces of evidence testify that the last period of active use of the Central Complex dates to the first century CE After that time, the citadel structures were neglected, and their final destruction was not the result of a massacre but of an earthquake. Therefore, while the chronological limits of the Parthian state mark the outer limits of the existence of the fortress, its actual history was evidently briefer.


Views differ as to the functions of most of the architectural structures discovered at Staraia Nisa. The only one not subject to debate is the wine storehouse, where a great number of clay casks and ostraca were found that reflect its activities. Most of the ostraca are aide-memoires indicating the receipt and distribution of wine. The Large Square Building is also almost unanimously thought to be a treasury, although it is not known whether it is a royal treasury, temple treasury, or a special depository of the funerary relics of the Arsacid kings. Among the four buildings of the Central Complex, the Tower-like Structure and the Building with the Round Hall are recognized as unquestionably religious,[33] but the nature of the religion and the specific purpose of these sanctuaries has yet to be established. The Tower-like Structure contains certain elements characteristic of Iranian religious architecture such as peripheral corridors and auxiliary rooms to the sides of the main entrance, but, on the whole, its plan is original and no close analogues are known. A significant portion of the Building with the Round Hall remains unexcavated, and attempts to define the Hall as an independent architectural structure must be acknowledged to be incorrect. Excavation of the northeast construction, the so-called "Palace;" is also far from complete, and no residential rooms have been found; therefore, the name must be regarded as provisional. Opinions about the use of the Building with the Square Hall have been reviewed above, but G. A. Koshelenko's suggestion that it was a fire temple should also be mentioned.[34] However, the plan of the Building with the Square Hall does not correspond to that of Iranian fire temples,[35] and there are no traces of the constant burning of fires. Therefore, it can only be said that the building is a religious structure of some sort.


The problem of the purpose of the Nisa complex as a whole is very complicated and far from being resolved definitively. During the early stage of investigation, attempts were made to declare it one of the capital cities of Parthia. Its definition as a "sacred fortress of the Parthian kings" is too vague. Staraia Nisa is often called a royal residence in which, along with secular buildings, there were sacral ones associated with a funeral cult of the Parthian kings. This is based entirely on the common identification of both Staraia and Novaia Nisa with the Parthaunisa of Isidore of Charax, an identification that lacks strict argumentation.[36] Discovery of royal tombs within the boundaries of Staraia Nisa would, of course, furnish indisputable proof. However, there has been no successful attempt to declare one of the Staraia Nisa structures a mausoleum. In the same way, it has not been established that the fortress is a royal residence; the central area of the site is occupied by religious buildings rather than royal ones. It is my opinion, based on the available data, that Staraia Nisa can be best described as a Parthian dynastic or general religious center, for which Surkh Kotal may serve as a distant analogue.

[1] For example, on the map supplied with the Russian translation of the volume containing G. Drouville's description of his travels in Persia (Puteshestvie v Persiiu [Moscow, 1826]), in which the identification of Nisa/Bagir with Parthaunisa is suggested, Nisa is located slightly to the east of Abiverd.

[2] The village of Bagir is about 10 km west of Ashkhabad. The fortified site of Staraia (Old) Nisa is situated on the southeastern fringe of Bagir, while Novaia (New) Nisa is on the southwestern fringe. The distance between the two sites is 1.5 km.

[3] Otchet Imperatorskol arkheologicheskoi komissi za 1896 g. (St. Petersburg, 1898), p. 105. A detailed history of the exploration of Nisa is outlined in M. E. Masson, "Gorodishcha Nisy v selenii Bagir i ikh izuchenie" (A study of Nisa fortified sites in the village of Bagir), TIUTAKE, vol. 1 (1949).

[4] Material of the Parthian period was, of course, present in the trial trenches, but the investigators simply were not able to distinguish it because they were not familiar with this material.

[5] As early as 1935, after he discovered artifacts of obviously ancient date at Novaia Nisa, A. A. Marushchenko suggested that they had been carried there from Staraia Nisa by treasure hunters. It was only after the discovery of a necropolis of the Arsacid period that additional work confirmed the existence of a stratum dating from the period of the Parthian state.

[6] Archaeological/topographical data regarding Staraia Nisa is pertinent. The fortress is situated on the flattened top of a natural hill shaped like an irregular pentagon, and this determined the configuration of the fortress walls. The hill is about 25 ha at the base, and the enclosed space at the top includes about 13 ha. Inside the fortress, archaeologists have distinguished two main areas of development: the north, or domestic, block, which occupies the northern part of the site; and the central block, situated in the broad area of the fortress closer to the west wall. Large hollows that correspond to ancient reservoirs are located east of the Central Complex. Along the east and south walls, the remains of an ancient structure can be detected in microrelief (fig. 1).

[7] A. A. Marushchenko presented information about these excavations at the Third International Congress on Iranian Art and Archaeology, but the report was never published. The most detailed discussion of the excavations is outlined in the work by M. E. Masson (see n. 3, above). Material from Marushchenko's paper was also used by O. Reuther in "Parthian Architecture," in SPA, vol. 1, p. 444.

[8] S. A. Ershov, E. A. Davidovich, M. S. Mershchiev, and N. I. Krasheninnikova were among the most active participants of the expedition excavating Staraia Nisa.

[9] The results of excavations at the Large Square Building are most fully detailed in the following works: M. E. Masson, "Novye dannye po istorii rabovladel'cheskogo obshchestva na territorii IUzhnogo Turkmenistana" (New data on the history of a slaveowning society in the territory of southern Turkmenistan), VDI (1951.1); M. E. Masson and G. A. Pugachenkova, Parfianskie ritony Nisy, TIUTAKE, vol. 4 (Ashkhabad, 1959); G. A. Pugachenkova, Iskusstvo Turkmenistana: Ocherk s drevneishikh vremen do 1917 g. (Moscow, 1967).

[10] M. E. Masson and G. A. Pugachenkova, "Mramornye statui parfianskogo vremeni iz Staroi Nisy" (Marble statues of the Parthian period from Staraia [Old] Nisa) [review], Bibliotheca classica orientalis 7.4 (1962), cols. 220-23.

[11] The rhytons were discovered by a team led by E. A. Davidovich. M. E. Masson and G. A. Pugachenkova, The Parthian Rhytons of Nisa (Florence, 1982); R. Ghirshman, "Notes iraniennes XI: Le rhyton en Iran;" ArtAs 25 (1962); P Bernard, "Les rhytons de Nisa: 1. Poetesses grecques;" Journal des savants (1985).

[12] Masson and Pugachenkova, Parfianskie ritony Nisy, p. 233.

[13] I. M. Diakonoff and V A. Livshits, Parthian Economic Documents from Nisa, ed. D. N. MacKenzie, CIIr, pt. 2, vol. 2, text 1 (London, [1977]).

[14] Pugachenkova, Iskusstvo Turkmenistana, pp. 3 7-41.

[15] Ibid., p. 36.

[16] See items from Marushcenko's personal archive.

[17] G. A. Pugachenkova, "Arkhitekturnye pamiatniki Nisy" (Architectural monuments of Nisa), TI UTAKE, vol. 1 (1949), pp. 239-40.

[18] She continues to defend this viewpoint; see, for example, G. A. Pugachenkova, "K interpretatsii i tipologii nekotorykh arkhitekturnykh pamiatnikov Merva i Nisy" (On the interpretation and typology of several architectural monuments of Merv and Nisa), TIUTAKE, vol. 16 (1978), pp. 19-21.

[19] G. A. Pugachenkova, Puti razvitiia arkhitektury IUzhnogo Turkmenistana pory rabovladeniia i feodalizma, TIUTAKE, vol. 6 (Moscow, 1958), pp. 78109.

[20] Farther west, masonry replaced the earth fill that leveled the surface of the courtyard adjacent to the building.

[21] E. A. Davidovich, "Otchet o raskopkakh 1947 g. na ploshchadi kvadratnogo zala Staroi Nisy" (Report on the excavations of 1947 in the area of the Square Hall in Staraia [Old] Nisa), TIUTAKE, vol. 2 (1953), pp. 117-19.

[22] Reuther, "Parthian Architecture," p. 444.

[23] Pugachenkova, "Arkhitekturnye pamiatniki Nisy," p. 229.

[24] L. I. Rempel', "Terrakoty Merva i glinianye statui Nisy" (The terra-cottas of Merv and the clay statues of Nisa), TIUTAKE, vol. 1 (1949); idem, "Novye materialy k izucheniiu drevnei skul'ptury IUzhnoi Turkmenii" (New materials toward the investigation of the ancient sculpture of southern Turkmenia), TI UTAKE, vol. 2 (1953 ); Pugachenkova, Iskusstvo Turkmenistana, pp. 50-51.

[25] Pugachenkova, Puti razvitiia arkhitektury, figs. on pp. 91 and 92; D. Schlumberger, Ellinizirovannyi Vostok (Moscow, 1985), p. 42.

[26] Rempel', "Terrakoty Merva" (The terra-cottas of Merv), pp. 361-62.

[27] For more details, see V N. Pilipko, "Golova v shleme iz Staroi Nisy" (A helmeted head from Staraia [Old] Nisa), VDI (1989.3).

[28] During prewar excavations, A. A. Marushchenko found a single ostracon but did not publish his finding. The circumstances of its discovery have not been accurately established.

[29] This structure is often referred to as the Tower Temple or, simply, the Tower.

[30] N. I. Krasheninnikova, "K voprosu o vzaimosviazi 'Kruglogo Khrama' s tak nazyvaemoi 'Bashnei' Staroi Nisy" (On the interrelationship of the "Round Temple" and the so-called "Tower" of Staraia [Old] Nisa), Izvestiia AN TurkmenSSR, Seriia obshchestvennykh nauk (1960.4).

[31] Here and below, the ethnonym "Parthians" is used provisionally. Actually, these might have been Parni, not Parthians.

[32] V N. Pilipko, "The Horsemen of Nisa," Science in the USSR (1988.1).

[33] Pugachenkova, Puti razvitiia arkhitektury, pp. 102-3; N. I. Krasheninnikova and G. A. Pugachenkova, "Kruglyi Khram parfianskoi Nisy" (The Round Temple of Parthian Nisa), SA (1964.4); G. A. Koshelenko, Rodina parfian (Moscow, 1977), pp. 57-65.

[34] Koshelenko, Rodina parflan, pp. 54-56.

[35] I. R. Pichikian, "The Oxus Temple Composition in the Context of Architectural Comparison;" Information Bulletin, IASCCA, no. 12 (Moscow, 1987).

[36] V N. Pilipko, "K voprosu o lokalizatsii Parfavnisy" (The problem of establishing the location of Parthaunisa), Izvestiia AN Turkmen SSR, Seriia obshchestvennykh nauk (1989.2).




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