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BMAC: Making a Bid for Cradle of Civilisation Status


22 May 2007




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The extent of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC)



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A person walks through the ruins of Gonur-Tappeh, the capital of a Bronze Age state in eastern Turkmenistan. Some consider the settlement, which dates to the 3rd millennium BC, to be a peer of the four great centers of ancient civilization: China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India. The archaeologist who has been excavating the desert site since 1972 theorizes that the Zoroastrian religion was born in the city.


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Melted glaze and other waste cakes the remains of one of the many kilns that are scattered throughout the site. Pottery production was important for both mundane and religious use.


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Remains of urns - once filled with soma-haoma, a narcotic potion that was one of the three pillars of Margush religious practice - have crumbled in a former storage facility. Residents also paid homage to fire and water at separate temple sites adjacent to the main palace complex.


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Mud and hay walls complete a reconstructed section of the royal palace. Archaeologists would prefer to rebuild the site than let it continue to crumble, even if the resulting right angles and smooth surfaces are rather bleak.


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Thousands of pottery shards are scattered across the Gonur-Tappeh excavation site. The site is strewn with pieces of clay big and small, far too many for archaeologists to reassemble on their shoestring budget.


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A sole tree pokes from the soil at the Gonur-Tappeh excavation site. The site lies in the Karakum desert, long abandoned by the wandering Murgab river. As the river drifted south, human civilization followed, resulting in the Silk Road city of Merv and the modern regional capital, Mary.


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pipe for bringing clean water into the ruler's palace is uncovered at the site. The Murgab civilization's capital had a sophisticated plumbing system that included two separate sewage networks, one for ordinary waste-water and one for the ritual washing of bodies during funerals.


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LONDON, (CAIS) -- Even in mid-spring, a stark landscape greets visitors to the Gonur-depe historical site in eastern Turkmenistan. Standing amid sand and rock at the edge of the Karakum desert, it is hard to imagine that a rich civilization once thrived here, built around a lush oasis fed by the Murgab River.

Yet Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has uncovered just that since his expedition began in 1972. He says Gonur-Tappeh was the capital – or imperial city, as he prefers to call it – of a complex, Bronze Age state – one that stretched at least a thousand square miles and encompassing hundreds of satellite settlements.

Sarianidi claims that this society was so sophisticated that it should be considered the world’s fifth center of ancient civilization. This would add Murgab River society, officially known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, to a more familiar list of cultural cradles of antiquity. Although the debate continues, Sarianidi’s views have gained credence, particularly once his work became more accessible to the world upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Unsurprisingly for such a parched region, the area’s early history was dictated not by humans, but by the vagaries of the wandering Murgab River. Proto-Iranian civilization followed the Murgab’s course as it meandered south and west, abandoning the Gonur-Tappeh site and, later, the Silk Road city of Margiana (Merv). The river currently flows through the modern regional capital of Mary, situated about 40 miles from the archaeological site.

As with many detective stories, Sarianidi relied on a lot of sleuthing to find Gonur-Tappeh, which dates to the late 3rd millennium BCE. According to a local guide who worked at the site with Sarianidi, the team began to notice that minor ruins to the north of Merv – itself established in the 6th century BCE by Achaemenid Persians – got progressively older the deeper one pushed into the Karakum. Tipped off in part by herders who spoke of desert mounds covered with smashed pottery, Sarianidi’s researchers followed the trail to Gonur-Tappeh.

After 35 years, excavations at the sprawling maze of sun-baked adobe have revealed much of the Murgab civilization’s way of life. An agricultural and herding community, residents grew grain, raised sheep, built sophisticated irrigation and sewage systems, and produced ceramics in the many kilns that dot the landscape. The main city was fortified by thick walls and packed with one-story buildings that included a vast palace featuring living quarters, funeral chambers, and what researchers believe are a pair of observatories. Cemetery digs have revealed exquisite objects of both local and foreign origin, the latter indicating trade with cultures as far off as Egypt and the Indus Valley.

Religious life in Gonur-Tappeh appears to have been complex, with ritual sheep sacrifices and separate temples dedicated to the elements of fire and water. According to Sarianidi, these rituals included the drinking of haoma. It was likely this beverage that Prophet Zoroaster criticized as he promoted his eponymous new religion, considered by many to be the world’s first monotheistic faith. Based on the haoma connection and other links between Murgab society and descriptions in Zoroastrian texts, Sarianidi proposes that Gonur-Tappeh was possibly the religion’s birthplace.

The archaeological community has yet to fully accept some of these theories, fascinating as they may be. But academic debates surrounding Gonur-Tappeh may be cut short by more pressing circumstances.

In a painful irony, some of the dust that swirls around Gonur-Tappeh comes from the crumbling walls themselves. To study the city, Sarianidi’s team had to remove the protective earthen shield laid down over millennia, thereby exposing the structures beneath to the desert sun and wind. Indeed, today’s photographs of Gonur-Tappeh show a significant deterioration when compared to those of the 1970s and 1980s.

The archaeologists must therefore make the difficult decision whether to preserve and partially rebuild the ruins – thus altering their current state, even if they are true to ancient techniques – or to let them continue to crumble. An added consideration from a tourist’s perspective is that the right angles and smooth surfaces of the new areas, while perhaps giving a more complete picture of life at Gonur-Tappeh, lack the mystery of the unreconstructed ruins.

Nonetheless, according to the local guide, most of the archaeologists working the site would prefer to rebuild, if only they had the funds. The excavation continues to operate on a shoestring budget, paid mostly by foreign donors.But the site’s most critical dilemma may be its least solvable: the mortality of Gonur-Tappeh’s main champion, Viktor Sarianidi. At 77 years old, he is still active, but a time will come when he can no longer work, nor carry on equally important fundraising in the off-season. Sarianidi has no obvious successors, and there is fear that the project will expire soon after he does. If so, Gonur-Tappeh may indeed return back to the sands of the Karakum.



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