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27 May 2007
Turkmenistan: a cradle of civilization?

Standing amid sand and rock at the edge of the Karakum desert, it is hard to imagine that a rich civilization once thrived at the Gonur-depe historical site in eastern Turkmenistan. Yet Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has uncovered just that since his expedition began in 1972. He says Gonur-depe was the capital 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 Turkmenistan’s Murgab River society, officially known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, to a more familiar list of cultural cradles of antiquity: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. 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.
     Sarianidi relied on a lot of sleuthing to find Gonur-depe, 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 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-depe.
     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-depe 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 soma-haoma, a mind-bending brew believed to contain opium, ephedra, and a local narcotic.
     The archaeological community has yet to fully accept some of these theories, fascinating as they may be. But academic debates surrounding Gonur-depe may be cut short by more pressing circumstances. In a painful irony, some of the dust that swirls around Gonur-depe 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-depe 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.
     The excavation continues to operate on a shoestring budget, paid mostly by foreign donors. Without a greater commitment from the Turkmen state, funding will dry up, the guide said, and Gonur-depe will slowly return back to the sands of the Karakum.

Source: Eurasianet.org (21 May 2007)

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