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Evidence of Early Civilization Discovered in Northern part of the Greater Iran



Thursday, 02 May 2001



A major early civilization -- rivaling in sophistication the ones that emerged in the Indus Valley or Mesopotamia, the famed Cradle of Civilization -- apparently thrived in central Asia between 2200 B.C. and 1800 B.C.

These people, who lived in desert oases in what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, used irrigation to grow wheat and barley, forged distinctive metal axes, carved alabaster and marble into intricate sculptures, and painted pottery with elaborate designs, many with stylized versions of local animals, according to discoveries that have emerged over the past decade or so.

``Who would have thought that now, at the beginning of the third millennium A.D., we'd be discovering a new ancient civilization,'' said Fred Hiebert, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, who has excavated in the region nearly every year since 1988, shortly before the Soviet Union fell.

Some researchers consider writing a criterion for any true civilization, and now Hiebert thinks he may have evidence for that, too -- a tiny stamp seal carrying four letterlike symbols in an unidentified language. He has dated it to 2300 B.C.

On May 12, Hiebert will present his findings at an international meeting on language and archaeology at Harvard University.

``The implication of the seal is incredible,'' he said, because there's no existing evidence that these people had a written language. And the characters engraved in the stone stamp are unlike any ever seen.

``It's not ancient Iranian, not ancient Mesopotamian. I even took it to my Chinese colleagues,'' he said. ``It was not Chinese.''

How could such an advanced culture have been so overlooked?

In the 1970s, Soviet archaeologists working in remote deserts west of Afghanistan came upon vast ruins, each one bigger than a football field. All were built with the same distinct fortress-like pattern -- a central building surrounded by a series of walls.

By the mid-1970s, the Soviet archaeologists had discovered several hundred of these structures in the areas known as Bactria and Margiana.

But their findings remained little known to the outside world because they had been published in Soviet journals and never translated.  No one knows the extent of this civilization, which may reach beyond Margiana, deep in the Kara Kum desert, and Bactria, which straddles the Uzbek-Afghan border.

Hiebert believes that a third area, Anau, near the Iranian border, is connected to this civilization, perhaps even the origin of the culture. It is about 2,000 years older, going back to 4500 B.C., or the Copper Age.

A New Hampshire archaeologist, Raphael Pumpelly, had discovered ancient ruins at Anau in 1904, but the site did not receive much attention from the Soviets. Only now, said Hiebert, are all the pieces, once divided by political boundaries, falling into place.

The oases, built in moist areas, created natural stepping stones on a trading route that reached from China, through the Indus Valley to Mesopotamia -- all Bronze Age civilizations of the third millennium B.C.

The oases ``looked like they were in the middle of nowhere,'' Hiebert said, ``but they are part of the route everyone went on from west to east for thousands of years.''  Moreover, the fortress-like buildings outsize the biggest structures of ancient Mesopotamia or China, said Harvard archaeologist Carl Lambert-Karlovsky. ``The size at the base of some of the buildings is equivalent to the base of the pyramids,'' he said.

The Soviets determined them to be temples because of their size and distinctive layout, but Hiebert, who spent time looking for bone shards, seeds and other remnants of living patterns, came to a different conclusion.  He believes the buildings were more like housing complexes, with areas for ordinary people to live, others for the elite, storage areas, and what appear to be areas for ritual.

Lambert-Karlovsky said that many of the artworks, utensils and jewelry were buried with the dead. In an unusual pattern for other early people, the women were buried with more valuables than the men.






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