The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
LONDON, (CAIS) -- In an unexpected benefit of the cold war's end, Russian and American archaeologists say they have discovered an ancient civilization that thrived in Central Asia more than 4,000 years ago, before being lost in the sweep of history.
The people of that area, the archaeologists say, built oasis settlements with imposing mud-brick buildings and fortifications. They herded sheep and goats and grew wheat and barley in irrigated fields. They had bronze axes, fine ceramics, alabaster and bone carvings and jewelry of gold and semiprecious stones. They left luxury goods in the graves of an elite class.
The accomplishments of those ancient Iranian people in what are now there publics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan began to emerge over several decades of excavations by archaeologists of the Soviet Union, who worked diligently but in academic silence behind closed borders. The surprising scope of society suggested a stage of social and economic development generally regarded as civilization. All that seemed lacking was evidence of number or writing systems.
With the end of the cold war, American archaeologists have joined the Russians in exploring the region, and now they are reporting that they have found inscriptions showing that ancient Iranians may have indeed had writing, or at least were experimenting with a form of proto- writing around 2300 B.C.E.
"We are rewriting all the history books about the ancient world because of the new political order in our own time," Dr. Fredrik T. Hiebert, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist involved in the excavation, said in an interview last week.
In the most recent and provocative discovery, Dr. Hiebert uncovered a small stone object engraved with four or fivered-colored symbols or letters that apparently bear no resemblance to any other writing system of the time. Other scholars agreed that the symbols seemed to be unlike contemporary scripts in mainland-Iran, Mesopotamia, or the Indus River valley.
Dr. Hiebert made the discovery last summer in ruins at Annau, a site near the border with mainland-Iran and only eight miles from Ashgabat. He described the findings a week ago at a symposium at Penn and yesterday at a conference on language and archaeology at Harvard.
"You can say we have discovered a new ancient civilization," Dr. Hiebert said. At the same time, the pyramids of Egypt had been standing for three centuries, power in the Tigris and Euphrates valley was shifting from Sumer to Babylon and the Chinese had yet to develop writing.
Dr. Victor H. Mair, a specialist in ancient Asian languages and cultures at Penn, who was not on the research team, said of the inscription, "I definitely think that's writing."
Dr. Mair added that the discovery of ruins of an advanced culture in a region "where there was thought to be just space and emptiness fills an enormous gap" in terms of trade and cultural exchange across Asia in antiquity. It suggested that people in Asia more than 4,000 years ago were not as isolated as once supposed, he said, but probably had continent wide connections.
The dozens of settlement ruins of the new found civilization stretch east from Annau across the Kara-Kum desert into what is nowadays known as Uzbekistan and perhaps the northern part of Afghanistan. It is an area 300 to 400 miles long and 50 miles wide. Archaeologists have unfittingly given the culture the prosaic name of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeology Complex, or BMAC (pronounced BEE-mack), after the ancient Greek names of two regions it encompasses.
Long after the ruins were buried in sand, the area was traversed by the legendary Silk Road, the caravan route linking China and the Mediterranean lands from the second century B.C.E. to the 16th century CE. The oases that served as way stations for rest undersupply on the Silk Road also supported the BMAC civilization, which presumably was trading far and wide over some kind of ancestral Bronze Age Silk Road.
Dr. Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, a Harvard archaeologist, questioned whether the symbols on the artifact represented true writing. Buthe said that Dr. Hiebert's discovery "falls into place with other research showing that this culture was working out some sort of communication system, though it never reached the level of complexity in writing as its neighbours did."
Until the waning days of the Soviet Union, foreign scholars knew almost nothing of the nature and extent of the BMAC culture. Reports of findings were confined to Soviet journals.
In the post-cold-war openness, Russian archaeologists are eagerly sharing their knowledge and inviting collaboration with Westerners. Dr. Hiebert plans to return to Annau, possibly next month, for further excavations to be financed in part by the National Geographic Society.
Dr. Victor Sarianidi of the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow found a distinctive architectural pattern in many of the ruins. The buildings at each site appeared to be erected in one burst of construction according to the design of a single architect. The largest buildings were like huge apartment complexes, each bigger than a football field and divided into dozens and dozens of rooms. They were surrounded by multiple mud- brick walls, some as much as10 feet thick. Beyond lay traces of agricultural fields.
In the 1990's, Dr. Hiebert began digging slowly to deeper, and therefore earlier, levels of occupation. He was rewarded last June while excavating beneath a room in what appeared to be an administrative building at Annau. That was where he found the carved symbols on a piece of shiny black jet stone, a type of coal, less than one inch to a side.
Archaeologists believe that it was a stamp seal, commonly used in ancient commerce to mark containers by their contents and ownership. The site also contained many lumps of clay that were used to seal vessels or parcels.
Scientists analyzing charcoal found with the artifacts dated the material at 2300 B.C.E., before the larger settlements were built. American radiocarbon dates have established that the BMAC culture was present in Central Asia from 2200 B.C.E. to 1800 or 1700 B.C.E., i.e. the Avestan period, Russian research generally underestimated the culture's antiquity by about 500 years.
Back at Penn, Dr. Hiebert showed the symbols to colleagues, and they were stumped. They said the symbols were unlike the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, generally regarded as the earliest writing system, or the proto-Elamite writing on the southern-Iranian plateau.
Dr. Gregory L. Possehl, a specialist in Indus archaeology at Penn, said the artifact's shape was wrong for an Indus stamp seal and only one sign could possibly be construed as related to Indus script.
"It looks as if it is some kind of writing," Dr. Possehl said last week. "It is unique, as far as I can tell."
Dr. Mair assured Dr. Hiebert that the symbols were not Chinese, if the artefact is as early as has been dated. Chinese writing is thought not to have begun until hundreds of years later.
Whatever its origins, Dr. Mair said, the type of symbols and the small number of strokes used to create each one "makes me think the writing system is already fairly abstract, not pictographic."
Dr. Hiebert is not so sure. He cautioned that there was insufficient evidence to determine if this was an evolved writing system, or if these people had become aware of the existence of writing elsewhere and were experimenting on a system of their own. He speculated that the engraved stamp included a prefix symbol, a marker to designate the category of the word to follow, that preceded four symbols for the word or words. These could stand for the name of a commodity and its owner.
The only other example of possible writing by the BMAC people was reported two years ago by Dr. I. S. Klochkov of the Institute of Archaeology in St. Petersburg. He found a pot shard in the ruins at Gonur with what appeared to be four letters of writing in an unknown script and language. Other Russian research has turned up evidence that people of the BMAC culture made notations in pottery and clay.
Scholars have many questions about the new ancient civilization, mainly about where the people came from, what influence they had on their times and what happened to them.
Dr. Hiebert thinks that the culture emerged near Annau, in the foothills along the mainland-Iran frontier, where there is evidence of earlier villages. Dr. Sarianidi contends that the culture's roots lie in Anatolia. Other scholars point to evidence showing that they might have migrated from the north.
The BMAC Iranian culture's decline is equally mysterious. "Why that happens remains unclear," said Dr. Lamberg-Karlovsky of Harvard." The architectural signatures, their fortified buildings, disappear after a few hundred years. Most of the luxury materials disappear. There is a diminution of complexity. Perhaps people revert to smaller settlements, or they leave and are absorbed in other cultures."
But for a while, in a land and a time unsuspected by archaeologists until recently, a civilization flourished and then vanished, leaving crumbling walls of mud brick and some cryptic symbols on a tiny piece of stone.
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