A brief history of archaeological research in Turkmenistan from the beginning of the 20th century until the present
Geography of Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan covers 488,100 square kilometers and is located in southwestern Central Asia. It is bordered by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the north and northeast, the Caspian Sea to the west, and Iran, Afghanistan to the south and southeast. The country’s greatest extent from west to east is 1,100 kilometers, and its greatest north-south distance is 650 kilometers.
Around 80% of Turkmenistan is taken up by the Karakum (Garagum, “Black Sands”) Desert, and has very little agricultural potential. Turkmenistan’s mountains include the northern reaches of the Kopetdag (meaning “many mountains”) Range in the south and the western edges of the Pamir Mountain Range in the east.
Turkmenistan’s main rivers are located only in the southern and eastern peripheries. The most important river is the Amudarya, which flows across northeastern Turkmenistan. In the south are other rivers – the Tejen, the Murgab and the Etrek. The Karakum canal (built in the 1950-60s) extends from east (from Amudarya river) to west until the modern town of Bereket (former Kazandjyk) and supplies water to agricultural fields and towns (including a capital of country – Ashgabat) in southern Turkmenistan.
In the second part of the 19th century the territory of modern Turkmenistan was conquered by the Russian Empire. In 1904 the archaeological expedition of the Carnegie Institution (Washington, D.C.) under the direction of R. Pumpelly, with permission from the Russian Imperial Archaeological commission (Saint-Petersburg), conducted archaeological excavations in Anau and in the region of Merv (Erk-kala). These were the first archaeological excavations in Turkmenistan in the 20th century.
Soviet period (1917-1991)
After the October revolution in Russia (1917) Turkmenistan became part of the Turkestan Soviet Socialist Republic. The post-revolutionary development of archaeology in Turkmenistan during the Soviet time can be divided into two periods:
The first period can, moreover, be sub-divided into two stages:
From the year 1917 to the setting up in Turkmenistan of a local archaeological organization. The amateur archaeologist D.D. Bukinich discovered Namazga-depe in 1917, which became later one of the main sites of prehistoric Central Asia. A special organization was set up with responsibility for museums and the preservation of monuments, antiquity, art and nature; an institution that in 1921 assumed the name of “Turkestan Committee for the Preservation of Monuments of Antiquity and Art” (Turkkomstaris). The definition of the frontiers in Central Asia (1924) started a new stage in the exploration of the archaeological monuments of Turkmenistan. In the year 1924, D. Bukinich undertook the second exploration of Namazga-depe and raised the question of special excavations on that site and later in 1926 in Anau.
From the years 1929 to 1946. “The archaeological Section of the Institute of the Turkmen Culture” (Turkmenkult) was founded in 1929. In the early years of its existence the Institute had no expert archaeologists and was obliged to invite them to come from other republics. In the years 1928-1929, the Turkmenkult organized the Khaveran expedition. It was led by A.A. Semyonov who studied archaeological sites of the Kopetdag piedmont. The expedition of the State Academy for the History of Material culture directed by A. Yakubovskiy made an archaeological survey in the Northern Turkmenistan, with special attention to Kone-Urgench, the former capital of Khorezm. The Amateur Society of Archaeologists of Ashgabat explored several archaeological sites.
In the following years, a large role in the investigations of the prehistoric archaeological sites of South Turkmenistan was made by an archaeologist from Ashgabat, A. Marushenko (1904-1976). He worked in the Turkmenkult and in the Institute of History and Linguistics of the Turkmen branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1935 he opened Monjukly-depe and later (1937) discovered Jeitun (28 km north-west of Ashgabat; the local name is Chakmakdash-beyik and Jeitun means a place for collecting water). In 1939 A. Marushenko excavated at Togolok-depe. In his article “Anau” published in 1939, A. Marushenko noted the existence of a Pre-Anau culture phase in South Turkmenistan. In 1934-1936 A. Marushenko excavated in Old and New Nisa and then in 1936-1937 in Merv together with B.B. Piotrovskiy from the State Hermitage Museum. However, the materials assembled by him were not published and were lost. S.P. Tolstov (1907-1976) established in 1937 the Khorezmian Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition for investigation of archeological sites in Khorezm region (which included modern Dashoguz province of Turkmenistan as its southern part), mostly Antique and Medieval time.
The South Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition (YuTAKE) was established by M.E. Masson (1897–1986) in 1946 with its main aim being the periodisation of the history of Turkmenistan. The sector of archaeology of the Institute for history, archaeology and ethnography (later Institute for history named after Sh. Batyrov) of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenian SSR (TSSR) was created in 1951. The 9th brigade of the YuTAKE led by A.P. Okladnikov worked in western Turkmenistan (Krasnovodsk plateau and the broader Balkhan region) mostly on Paleolithic and Mesolithic sites between 1947 and 1952. The brigade worked at Jebel, and examined Dam-dam Cheshme I and II. Later, in the 1960s, G.I. Markov, head of the archaeological-ethnographical expedition of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, excavated Dam-Dam Cheshme II and Oyukly. The 14th brigade of the YuTAKE led by B.A. Kuftin began the first excavation in Jeitun in 1952. Later on (1955-1958) works were continued by V.M. Masson. The new term “Jeitun culture” for the Neolithic period in Central Asia was accepted.
In 1959 V. Masson published the book “Drevnezemledelcheskaya kultura Margiany”[Margiana Ancient culture] with results of a survey in ancient Margiana and excavations of 1954-1956 in Yaz-depe (34 km north-west of Bairamali town). The new term “Yaz culture” for the Iron Age in Central Asia was accepted.
A. Marushenko continued his excavations in several sites, mainly in South Turkmenistan. In 1946 he found Neolithic materials in the desert area of Kepele. The same year in his report he noted that there were two Neolithic cultures in this region: the Neolithic of the desert area and the Neolithic of the piedmont of Kopetdag. In 1967 O. Berdiev made a stratigraphic sounding in Neolithic site Pessejik-depe. In 1969 he discovered a large room with a wall painting, which had preserved polychrome traces The painting was made in red and black colours and presented different scenes of hunting and of animals escaping from beasts, with a hunter depicted in front of them. In 1975 excavations at Pessejik-depe were continued by the Institute of History of Academy of Sciences of TSSR.
In 1946, for the first time in the Soviet archaeology, aeroplanes were used for aerial photography by the Khorezmian expedition. In 1948, S. Tolstov, published the books “Drevniy Horezm” [Ancient Khorezm], and “Po sledam drevnehorezmiyskoy tsivilizatsii” [Traces of the ancient Khorezian civilization], summing up the results of Khorezmian expedition between 1937 and 1947. In 1951 the Khorezmian expedition carried out survey along the dry riverbed of Uzboy, including in the localities, which adjoin the lower flow of ancient river bed. In the course of studies the numerous scattered sites were discovered in essence of the Neolithic and the later epochs.
In 1955, the YuTAKE started the systematic excavations of Chalcolithic sites in the oasis of Geoksyur. Nine sites were opened. In 1952, the prehistoric site of Kara-depe was explored by B.A. Kuftin, and in 1955 the 14th brigade of the YuTAKE started excavations here.
V. Masson and V. Sarianidi published a book (1972) about Central Asian prehistory. V. Masson (1965) conducted excavations in Altyn-depe, one of the key sites for the archaeology of Central Asia. Work here was continued later by L.B. Kircho.
During 1970s the sites located along the former Uzboy river were explored by the expedition of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of TSSR, directed by H. Yusupov. In the 1980s ancient and early mediaeval sites were studied in the Merv oasis. This work was undertaken by the Central Asian expedition of the Institute of Archaeology of the USSR Academy, the Moscow State University and the Turkmen State University directed by G.A. Koshelenko and A. Gubaev. The main goal was to make an archaeological map of the Merv oasis. The excavations of Erk-kala (Merv) were carried out for several years by Z.I. Usmanova, from Tashkent. V. Sarianidi started in the 1970s to excavate sites in the Togolok and Gonur oasis. In 1989-1991 F. Hiebert (USA) worked in cooperation with the Central Asian expedition and made stratigraphic soundings at Yaz-depe and Gonur-depe.
The Parthian expedition of the Institute of History of Academy of Sciences of TSSR (directed by V.N. Pilipko) has been working at the Old and New Nisa sites and in its neighborhood since the early 1960s. This expedition revealed many important details which had not been examined by the YuTAKE. In 1980s V. Pilipko and later A. Burhanov made an archaeological survey in North-Eastern Turkmenistan.
Sites of archaic Dahistan (13th – 6/5 centuries BC) are situated in the Misrian valley (north from Etrek river) and the western part of the Kopetdag piedmont. This region was investigated at the end of the 1920s by M. Masson and in the 1930s by A. Marushenko. He proposed a new Madau culture in the article he published in 1939. According to him, the Madau culture can be dated to the end of the 2nd millennium – beginning of the 1st millennium BC. In 1947 the 10th brigade of YuTAKE (M. Masson) surveyed Dahistan. In 1951-1953 V. Masson made some excavations here. In 1968 joint teams of the Moscow Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of History of the Academy of sciences of TSSR started investigations in Dahistan. In 1968 I. Khlopin and L. Khlopina started excavations in the Sumbar river valley. They found Parhai-depe and during the excavations in 1969 and 1972 they discovered levels of the archaic Dahistan. E. Atagarryev excavated the medieval city of Misrian. In 1979 E. Muradova started excavations at Madau-depe.
Independence period (after 1991)
After the independence of Turkmenistan (October 27, 1991), in 1994 the National Department for protection, research and restoration of historical and cultural monuments of Turkmenistan was created as part of the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan and the National Centre for archaeological investigations replaced the YuTAKE as part of the Institute of History of the Turkmenistan Academy of Sciences. In December 1997 the Centre as well as the Academy were closed. Instead a new Institute of History was created under the Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan. In 1998 in order to co-ordinate the work of archaeological expeditions (both foreign, and local) a special Scientific Council on Archaeological research was created in the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan, which was responsible for examining scientific reports of archaeological missions and issuing permits for excavations. In 2008 it was re-opened the Academy of Sciences in Turkmenistan and under the Academy was established the new Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. Research fellows of this Institute have conducted several excavations, mostly in South Turkmenistan – Ovlia-depe, Akdepe (within Ashgabat), Shahri-Islam, Dashly-depe and Parz-depe.
During this period many joint archaeological projects have been established with foreign colleagues:
- A Turkmen-British-Russian archaeological team conducted excavations in Jeitun, beginning in 1989 and ending after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994. In 1996 one of the team of the British archaeologists carried out a reconnaissance survey in West and South-West Turkmenistan.
- In 1992 a long-term Turkmen-British collaboration in ancient Merv was set up.
- A Turkmen and USA archaeological expedition excavated the site Anau in the 1990s and in the first years of the 2000s.
- A French-Turkmen archaeological expedition started excavations in the Dahistan area (South-west Turkmenistan) and later in Ulug-depe (Kaka district of Ahal province).
- During the 1990s, an Italian-Turkmen-Russian (later in 2000s only Italian-Turkmen) team conducted a survey of the northern part of the Merv oasis, completing an archaeological map of this area. This project provided valuable new data, particularly with respect to the earlier phases of occupation in this oasis. Another Italian-Turkmen team started excavating the famous Parthian site of Old Nisa from the 1990s.
- At Serakhs oasis a Polish-Turkmen team excavated several Late Antique sites and especially the remains of a Sasanian fire temple in Mele Hairam.
- Russian archaeologists excavated in Gobekli-depe, Altyn-depe, and Mansur-depe and continue their works in Yylgynly-depe, New Nisa and Gonur.
- Spanish archaeologists from the Autonomous University of Madrid excavated Iron Age sites in the Dahistan area.
- A German archaeological team excavated the prehistoric site Monjukly-depe in the first half of the 2010s.
- Three sites in Turkmenistan (Merv, Nisa, and Kone-Urgench) were included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
- The new law of Turkmenistan “About Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments” was approved by the Parliament of Turkmenistan on October 19, 2012.
The scientific data, materials and experiences accumulated during the above-mentioned archaeological research have not only broadened our knowledge on many key problems of the cultural heritage of Turkmenistan, but have also raised new challenges for future archaeological excavations.
Chronology of Turkmenistan’s archaeological periods
|Mesolithic (West Turkmenistan)||12000-7000|
|Neolithic of Jeitun type||7000 (?) (6200)-5200|
|Proto-Chalcolithic (Anau IA)||5200-4800|
|Early Chalcolithic (Namazga I)||4800-4000|
|Middle Chalcolithic (Namazga II)||4000-3500|
|Late Chalcolithic (Namazga III)||3500-3000|
|Early Bronze (Namazga IV)||3000-2500|
|Middle Bronze (Namazga V)||2500-2200|
|Late Bronze (Namazga VI)||2200-1500|
|Late Bronze (Margiana, Gonur phase)||2200-1800|
|Late Bronze (Margiana, Togolok phase)||1800-1500|
|Early Iron (Yaz I)||1500-1100|
|Archaic Dahistan (South-west Turkmenistan)||1300-500|
|Pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid period (Yaz II-III)||1100-329|
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Aydogdy Kurbanov is a historian and archaeologist who specializes in the study of Prehistoric (Neolithic and Eneolithic periods) and Late Antique Central Asia. He holds a PhD from the Free University of Berlin, Germany. His PhD work was about the history of the Hephthalites, a nomadic people of Central Asia in the 5th – 6th centuries AD. He is currently an associate research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan.