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
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.