The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is the name given to a Central Asian Bronze Age culture. Dated to ca. 2300–1700 B.C., and centered on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus River), it is located in present-day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. Bactria is the old Greek name for northern Afghanistan and the northeast corner of Iran, while Margiana is further north, in what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Through the region runs the Amu Dar'ya River, which was known in Greek history as the Oxus River. Much of archeological work was done in Soviet era by Soviet scientists.

The Bactria-Margiana civilisation occupied the region from the Neolithic until around 1700 B.C.; archaeological evidence indicates that their civilisation was at its peak at around 2300 – 1700 B.C., boasting significant urban complexes with impressive walls and gates, monumental architecture, wheel-turned pottery, viticulture, and complex ceramics, tools and jewellery.

The Bactria Margiana Archeology Complex, began in the foothills around Ashgabat in 2300 B.C.—about three centuries after the pyramids were finished and at the time power in Mesopotamia was shifting from Sumner to Babylon and China had yet to develop writing—and spread to much of modern Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan around 2200 B.C. and then disappeared a few centuries later.

Bactria Margiana was a resourceful agricultural society that thrived around oases in the harsh Kara-kum Desert. It; 1) established large urban centers; 2) built mud-brick fortifications, large buildings and monumental arches; 3) established extensive irrigation systems to grow wheat and barley; 4) raised goats and sheep; 5) produced fine ceramics, bronze goods, alabaster and bone carvings and jewelry made with gold and semiprecious stones; 6) buried luxury goods with the dead; and 7) may have developed writing or proto-writing.

Early Central Asian Polities

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Urban settlements that served as centres of commerce and craftsmanship were present in Central Asia in the early Bronze Age, circa 3000 BC. The influence of ancient civilisations in the region was complemented by the constant interaction between sedentary and nomadic cultures. In the beginning of the second millennium BC the Indo-Iranian tribes penetrated Central Asia. The onslaught of these steppe herdsmen was a lengthy process and it was not until five centuries later that they succeeded in assimilating the local peoples, adopting the latter’s achievements and giving up to a considerable extent their pastoral way of life. As a result, a number of mixed-type cultures emerged, which combined highly developed arable farming with cattle-breeding and extensive use of the horse for military purposes and transportation. The Aryans had laid the foundation for the formation of the Iranian ethnos and culture in the region; language continuity became a decisive factor in this process. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

“Prior to the rise of the Achaemenid Empire, centres such as Khorezm, Soghd and Bactria dominated in the region, while a number of lesser principalities such as Khuttal (contemporary Kulob) retained independence and ruling dynasties of their own; however, despite the ethnic homogeneity of the population and close cultural and economic bonds, these territories had not merged into a centralised state with a complex government machine. There still remained localised autonomies that once in a while recognised the supremacy of one over the others, for a short time only.”

Bactria Margiana Sites

Many BMAC sites were discovered and named by the Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (1976). Bactria was the Greek name for the area of Bactra (modern Balkh) and Margiana was the Greek name for the Persian satrapy of Margu, the capital of which was Merv, in modern-day southeastern Turkmenistan. Sarianidi's excavations from the late 1970s onward revealed numerous monumental structures in many sites, fortified by impressive walls and gates but word of them was mostly confined to Soviet journals and little in known in the west until Sarianidi's work began to be translated in the 1990s. [Source: Wikipedia]

Margiana (50 miles north of Merv, Turkmenistan) is the site of a Bronze Age civilization that thrived around the 2nd millennium B.C. and ranks with ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley as one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Its inhabitants built mud-wall fortresses and crafted bronze seals, lovely ceramics, jewelry and ceremonial items and drank a potion made with opium, cannabis and ephedra plants. Some historians believe that Zoroaster may have lived here. [Source: New York Times]

Two of the most important sites are Anau and Gonur. Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “ Sarianidi sees the settlers of the Oxus region as traders, not just in goods but also in faith. For him, Gonur is the capital of a people who came from the West with a religion that evolved into Zoroastrianism. In the long, still desert evenings at his camp, he speaks of migrants fleeing from drought-plagued Mesopotamia to this virgin land, bringing a conviction that fire is holy, as well as techniques for brewing a hallucinogenic drink called soma. Eventually, some wandered farther east, part of the migration of Aryans on horseback who conquered India about 3,500 years ago. This theory of his finds little support, however.” "Sarianidi has persuaded few if any archaeologists of his strongly held opinions," says Harvard University archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsk. [Source: Andrew Lawler,Discover magazine, November 30, 2006]

Kopet-Dag Culture

The most ancient Bactria–Margiana civilization is called the Kopet-Dag culture. Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “The ancient Oxus culture may have arisen at sites like Anau, a settlement at the base of the Kopet-Dag mountains, which dates back to 6500 B.C. Later settlements like Gonur, roughly 4,000 years old, may have been founded by people from the Kopet-Dag cultures. By 3000 B.C., the people of the Kopet-Dag had organized into walled towns. They used carts drawn by domesticated animals, and their pottery resembles the kind later found in Gonur. Many Soviet and Western archaeologists suspect that the Oxus civilization—at least in Margiana, the region in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—evolved from this Kopet-Dag culture. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^] ▪ “What prompted the settlers to abandon the Kopet-Dag and migrate into the area around Gonur? One possibility is drought, says Yale University archaeologist Harvey Weiss. He theorizes that the same drought that he claims destroyed the world's first empire—the Akkadians in Mesopotamia—around 2100 B.C. also drove the Kopet-Dag peoples from their homes. If the small streams that poured out of the mountains stopped flowing, life in the arid climate would have been impossible. That would have forced the people of Kopet-Dag to head toward Gonur and settle by the Murgab River, the only reliable source of water in the Kara-Kum. With its headwaters in distant Hindu Kush glaciers, the river would have continued flowing even in the hottest summers or longest droughts. ^|^

“Another possibility is that population growth forced people down from the mountain slopes and onto the plains, where the Murgab then flowed lazily into a delta, creating an oasis of dense brush teeming with game, fish, and birds. That could explain why so many Oxus sites are built on virgin soil, as if carefully planned in advance. "The people came from the foothills of the Kopet-Dag with baggage, a knowledge of agriculture, irrigation systems, metal, ceramics, and jewelry making," says Iminjan Masimov, a retired Russian archaeologist who once excavated Oxus sites in Margiana. Indeed, many Kopet-Dag sites appear to have been abandoned about 2000 B.C., just around the time Gonur and nearby sites took root. Hiebert's excavation at Anau, however, shows that it at least remained inhabited even as Gonur flourished.” ^|^

Writing from Ancient Turkmenistan?

In 2001, archaeologists found a thumbnail-size stone object from Bactria Margiana inscribed with three or four red symbols that may be an ancient form of writing. The symbols are different from those used in the writing of Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley. The scientists speculate the object may have been a seal, with a measure of units of grain, and was used in the accounting of commodities as was the case with seals in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. [Source: New York Times]

The symbols resemble an ancient form of Chinese writing that was used until about 200 B.C. A similar-sized seal found in Xinjiang, dated to the Han Period (206 B.C. to A.D. 9) has almost identical symbols. If there is a link between the newly-discovered symbols and the ancient Chinese writing it suggests that the Chinese writing was influenced by the writing of Turkmenistan’s ancient civilization.

The verdict is still out on whether the symbols are a true writing based on a spoken language. Critics claim the symbols are simply too limited to link them with a language. Dr. Fredrik T. Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania, one the discoverer of the inscription, told the New York Times, “What is super significant to me, this is the first time that three or four signs have been found in relation to each there this long ago in Central Asia. At some basic level, this seems to be writing. These are not just a series of random signs, potter’s marks or decorations. Of course, with only one seal, it is premature to talk about how it was used, what the symbols meant or what kind of language it was.”

Cannabis, Soma and Ephedra in Bactria Margiana

Oxus or Bactria-Margiana civilisation, which was at its peak from around 2300 to 1700 B.C. in parts of preset-day Turkmenistan, produced pottery with what some have said are impressions made by hemp seeds, but this conclusion has been disputed. The Scythians, who lived in various parts the Eurasian steppe were first recorded to use cannabis in around 700 B.C.. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds -]

According to Sensi Seeds:“The Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (1929-2013) discovered the remnants of the Oxus civilisation during excavations near the Oxus River (Amu Darya) in 1976, and was the source for the claim that traces of cannabis were found in pottery stored in rooms apparently intended for purposes of ritual worship. It is thought that the religion of the civilisation was a form of fire-worship that later developed into Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Persian Empire. He claimed that cannabis (along with opium and ephedra, other entheogenic plants indigenous to the region) was used to make an intoxicating beverage, known as haoma to the Zoroastrians and soma to the Vedic priests of India. He also observed modern cannabis plants growing in the vicinity of the temples.-

“According to Sarianidi, three ceramic bowls with traces of cannabis and ephedra were discovered, as well as a basin containing a considerable quantity of cannabis, and several items apparently used for extracting and straining the juices from the plants. It was reported that analysis of the samples confirmed the presence of cannabis and ephedra. The ceramic pots also contained layers of gypsum that had settled over the years and retained the impressions of small seeds stated to be from the hemp plant.-

“However, the positive identification of the substances could not be replicated in the laboratory, although attempts were made by later researchers. Furthermore, the identification of the seed impressions as being hemp has also been disputed, with some arguing that they are too small. This in turn has been countered by others who argue that ancient strains of cannabis produced generally smaller seeds, which has been demonstrated by other prehistoric excavations such as the Scythian burial sites in Pazyryk, which were unearthed between 1925 and 1949 by the Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. Furthermore, crosses of modern indica varieties with the wild-type ruderalis that is still found in the region of the excavations have produced varieties thought similar to the dominant ancient phenotype; some of these varieties are notable for their exceptionally small seeds.-

“It is not possible to state with certainty that the substances found at the Oxus excavation sites were cannabis and ephedra, and the identity of haoma/soma remains a mystery. It is likely that, rather than any one plant, the drink was a mixture of plants with psychoactive properties, and that the plants themselves may have varied with locality or point in time—which, of course, does that preclude the likelihood that cannabis would have been among them. It is worth noting that at the point at which the Zoroastrian religion became formally established (circa 575 BCE), references to haoma cease and references to bhanga, which certainly refers to cannabis, suddenly begin to appear. Revered as the ‘bhanga of Zoroaster’, cannabis was used extensively in ritual from that point on, and was said to transport the soul to the heavens and reveal the higher mysteries.-


The Bactria Margiana site of Anau is in Turkmenistan near the Iran border only eight miles from Ashgabat, the Turkmenistan capital. Other sites have been found in a stretch of the Kara-kum Desert measuring 650 kilometers long and 80 kilometers wide. The oases where they established settlements were later used by Silk Road caravans.

Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, Kopet-Dag sites are mostly “mound settlements bordering the rugged Kopet-Dag mountains to the south, which rise up to form the vast Iranian plateau. The most prominent settlement there” called Anau consists of three ancient mounds that “poke up from the plains.” [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

“While scholars debate the relationship between the Oxus culture and other early urban settlements, there is no dispute about the importance of the Kopet-Dag as a natural highway for nomads, traders, and armies between the Central Asian steppes and the Iranian highlands. The evidence is unmistakable...around the ruins of a medieval mosque on the summit of one of Anau's mounds. Damaged by time and earthquakes, the edifice is still famous for the two serpent-dragon mosaics—showing more the influence of China than of Mecca—that once guarded its facade. Around us are hundreds of mysterious little constructions, Stonehenge-like, each made of three small bricks. Hairpins and bits of cloth—probably linked to Central Asian shamanism—are scattered about the hilltop. Women come here to pray for children. One family, three generations of women, sits silently in a row by a tomb.Hiebert casually picks up glazed Iranian ware and a bit of Chinese blue pottery. "Here is your Silk Road," he says.” ^|^


Gonur is another important BMAC site that is considerably older than those associated with the Kopet-Dag culture. Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “This barren place... was once the heart of a vast archipelago of settlements that stretched across 1,000 square miles of Central Asian plains. Although unknown to most Western scholars, this ancient civilization dates back 4,000 years—to the time when the first great societies along the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers were flourishing. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

“Thousands of people lived in towns like Gonur with carefully designed streets, drains, temples, and homes. To water their orchards and fields, they dug lengthy canals to channel glacier-fed rivers that were impervious to drought. They traded with distant cities for ivory, gold, and silver, creating what may have been the first commercial link between the East and the West. They buried their dead in elaborate graves filled with fine jewelry, wheeled carts, and animal sacrifices. Then, within a few centuries, they vanished.” ^|^

With Gonur “is a central citadel—nearly 350 by 600 feet—surrounded by a high wall and towers, set within another vast wall with square bastions, which in turn is surrounded by an oval wall enclosing large water basins and many buildings. Canals from the Murgab River, which once flowed nearby, provided water for drinking and irrigation. The scale and organization of this construction was unmatched in Central Asia until the Persians' arrival in the sixth century B.C. ^|^

“Sarianidi's team has also turned up intricate jewelry incorporating gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. The prowess of the Oxus metalworkers—who used tin alloys and delicate combinations of gold and silver—were on par with the skills of their more famous contemporaries in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, Lamberg-Karlovsky says. Their creations display a rich repertoire of geometric designs, mythic monsters, and other creatures. Among them are striking humanoid statues with small heads and wide skirts, as well as horses, lions, snakes, and scorpions. ^|^

“Wares in this distinctive style had long been found in regions as distant as Mesopotamia to the west, the shores of the Persian Gulf to the south, the Russian steppes to the north, and the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, which once flourished to the east—on the banks of the Indus River of today's Pakistan. Archaeologists had puzzled over their origin. Sarianidi's excavations seem to solve the puzzle: These items originated in the region around Gonur. ^|^

“The archaeological record shows that the site was inhabited for only a few centuries. The people of Gonur may simply have followed the shifting course of the Murgab River to found new towns located to the south and west. Their descendants may have built the fabled city of Merv to the south, for millennia a key stop along the Silk Road. Warfare among the Oxus people could have undermined the fragile system of oasis farming, or nomads from the steppes may have attacked the rich settlements. Sarianidi has found evidence that extensive fires destroyed some of Gonur's central buildings and that they were never rebuilt. Whatever the cause, within a short period Oxus settlements declined in number and size, and the Oxus pottery and jewelry styles vanished from the archaeological record. The large and square mud-brick architecture of the Gonur people may live on, however, in the clan compounds of Afghanistan and in the old caravansaries—rest stops for caravans—that dot the landscape from Syria to China. ^|^

“The find dovetails with Sarianidi's work at Gonur, where he has found a Mesopotamian cuneiform seal not far from an Indus Valley stamp bearing symbols above an etched elephant. Both lay near small stone boxes similar to those manufactured in southeastern Iran. These items provide tantalizing hints of commercial traffic on a Silk Road predating by two millennia the trading route that eventually linked China to Europe in the early centuries A.D. Hiebert likens the Oxus civilization to Polynesia—a scattered but common culture held together by camels rather than canoes.” ^|^

Tepe Fullol and Its Golden Bowls

Tepe Fullol is site dated to 2200 B.C. in northern Afghanistan. Jean-François Jarrige, director of Paris' Guimet Museum and a Bronze Age specialist, has said craftsmanship of some of the artifacts links it the Bronze Age Oxus culture, which existed within a large geographic area in Central Asia encompassing what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Afghanistan's natural resources—gold, copper, tin, lapis lazuli, garnet, and carnelian—drew settlers who brought farming to the fertile foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains more than six thousand years ago. By the early part of the Bronze Age (ca. 2200 B.C.), an urban culture had developed in northern Afghanistan with its own distinctive style of architecture. Bronze Age towns featured massive fortified buildings with towers constructed of unbaked bricks. This architectural tradition continued for centuries. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

“As this Bronze Age culture had no known writing, its original name is lost, but archaeologists call it the Oxus civilization, after the Oxus River (modern Amu Darya) that flows through the region. In 1966 farmers near the northern Afghan village of Fullol accidentally discovered a burial cache that contained the first evidence of the Oxus civilization in Afghanistan. The grave contained several bowls, which are made of gold that probably came from the Oxus riverbed. Their designs include animal imagery—a boar and bearded bulls (the latter derived from distant Mesopotamia)—indicating that at this early date Afghanistan was already part of an extensive network of trade and cultural exchanges. The grave goods from Tepe Fullol attest to the existence of elites whose wealth was the result of a very active role in the trade of precious materials, particularly lapis lazuli, that were mined in the nearby mountains of Badakhshan and exported to the major cities of Mesopotamia and further west to Syria and Egypt.

Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, Tepe Fullol was found in July 1966, “when farmers there accidentally plowed up a Bronze Age grave, then began divvying up the priceless artifacts with an ax. Local authorities managed to salvage a dozen gold and silver cups and bowls (along with some gold and silver fragments), which they turned over to the National Museum. The geometric "stepped-square" motifs on one goblet, for instance, resemble designs uncovered in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the gold itself likely came from Central Asia's Amu Darya River (known in antiquity as the Oxus). But although these bowls have something of a local character, says Jarrige, "they also show signs of outside particular the representation of bearded bulls reminiscent of a generally recognized theme from Mesopotamia." The designs on these bowls, write the curators, "include animal imagery from distant Mesopotamian and Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) cultures, indicating that already at this early date, Afghanistan was part of an extensive trade network." [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008]

Bactria Margiana Archeology

Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) is still regarded as relatively minor ancient culture but until that last few decades it was virtually unknown. Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “News of this lost civilization began leaking out in the 1970s, when archaeologists came to dig in the southern reaches of the Soviet Union and in Afghanistan. Their findings, which were published only in obscure Russian-language journals....Western scholars subsequently used that landmark to dub the newly found culture the Oxus civilization. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

“The initial trickle of information dried up in 1979 when the revolution in Iran and war in Afghanistan locked away the southern half of the Oxus. Later, with the 1990 fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian archaeologists withdrew from Central Asia. Undeterred, Sarianidi and a handful of other archaeologists soldiered on, unearthing additional elaborate structures and artifacts. Because of what they have found, scholars can no longer regard ancient Central Asia as a wasteland notable primarily as the origin of nomads like Genghis Khan. ^|^

“With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a handful of Western researchers got word of Sarianidi's finds and began to investigate for themselves. Fredrik Hiebert, a young American graduate student, learned Russian, visited Gonur in 1988, and then a few years later returned with his Harvard adviser, Lamberg-Karlovksy. A team of Italians followed to dig at nearby sites and to examine Gonur's extensive cemetery. The Westerners brought an array of modern archaeological techniques, from radiocarbon dating to archaeobotany. U.S. labs determined that the early phase of the Gonur settlement dated to 2000 B.C.—five centuries earlier than Sarianidi had initially postulated—and that the people grew a wide variety of crops, including wheat, barley, lentils, grapes, and fleshy fruits.” ^|^

Raphael Pumpelly

The American Raphael Pumpelly is credited with making the first discoveries at BMAC. Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “Trained in geology, the elder Pumpelly believed that Central Asia in ancient times was wetter and more fertile that it is now. He hypothesized a century ago that "the fundamentals of European civilization—organized village life, agriculture, domestication of animals, weaving, etc.—were originated on the oases of Central Asia long before the time of Babylon." Such assertions sounded radical—even outlandish—at that time, but Raphael Pumpelly was persuasive. An adventurer and son of an upstate New York surveyor, he convinced industrialist Andrew Carnegie to fund his expedition, charmed the authorities in Saint Petersburg into granting permission for a dig in 1903, and was even provided with a private railcar. He was 65 years old when he arrived. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

“The mounds at Anau, just off the Trans-Caspian railway, immediately caught Raphael Pumpelly's eye. A Russian general searching for treasure had already cut through the oldest of them, so Pumpelly and his son began there, using methods that were surprisingly modern in an era when most archaeologists were fixated on finding spectacular artifacts. "A close watch was kept to save every object, large and small . . . and to note its relation to its surroundings," Pumpelly wrote in his memoirs. "I insisted that every shovelful contained a story if it could be interpreted." ^|^

“The close scrutiny paid off. One shovelful yielded material later determined to be ancient wheat, prompting Pumpelly to declare that Central Asian oases were the original source of domesticated grain. Although that claim later proved false—subsequent Near Eastern finds of wheat date back even earlier—it was the first recorded instance of serious paleobotany. In 1904 a plague of locusts "filled the trenches faster than they could be shoveled," Pumpelly wrote, and plunged the area into famine, forcing him to abandon the dig. Traveling east, he noted the mounds dotting the foothills of the Kopet-Dag, indicating the sites of ancient towns similar to Anau that had survived on the water flowing down the slopes. Venturing northeast into the forbidding Kara-Kum desert, he examined locales along the ancient course of the Murgab River but turned back amid heat so brutal, he wrote, that "I gasped for breath." He had come just a few miles short of where Sarianidi would later find Gonur. ^|^

“Pumpelly clung to his vision of an early civilization that thrived along the rivers flowing down from the Kopet-Dag. Years later, Soviet archaeologists working along the mountain foothills confirmed that as early as 6500 B.C., small bands of people were living in the Kopet-Dag, raising wheat and barley and grazing their sheep and goats on the mountains' foothills and slopes. That's a few thousand years after these grains were domesticated in the Near East but much earlier than most researchers had thought likely, supporting Pumpelly's view that Central Asian culture developed much sooner than commonly believed.” ^|^

Pumpelli's son, also named Raphael Pumpelly, also did archeological work in the region and recently his great granddaughter Lisa Pumpelli worked there as a volunteer in the mid 2000s in a trench at the top of a large mound with a spectacular view of the Kopet-Dag mountains. "I'm digging in my great-grandfather's back dirt," Pumpelli told Discover magazine. ^|^

Viktor Sarianid

The most important discoveries related to BMAC and ancient Central Asia — including the “Golden Hoard of Bactria” were made by Viktor Sarianidi, who did his groundbreaking work as a Soviet archeologist. Describing him at a Gonur in the mid 2000s, Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “Sarianidi, barefoot at dawn, surveys the treeless landscape from a battered lawn chair in the Kara-Kum desert of Turkmenistan. "The mornings here are beautiful," he says, gesturing regally with his cane, his white hair wild from sleep. "No wife, no children, just the silence, God, and the ruins." Where others see only sand and scrub, Sarianidi has turned up the remnants of a wealthy town protected by high walls and battlements.” [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

To some researchers, “Sarianidi seems more desert eccentric than dispassionate scholar. For starters, his techniques strike many colleagues as brutish and old-fashioned. These days Western archaeologists typically unearth sites with dental instruments and mesh screens, meticulously sifting soil for traces of pollen, seeds, and ceramics. Sarianidi uses bulldozers to expose old foundations, largely ignores botanical finds, and publishes few details on layers, ceramics, and other mainstays of modern archaeology. His abrasive personality hasn't helped his cause, either. "Everyone opposes me because I alone have found these artifacts," he thunders during a midday break. "No one believed anyone lived here until I came!" He bangs the table with his cane for emphasis. ^|^

“Sarianidi is accustomed to the role of outsider. As a Greek growing up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under Stalinist rule, he was denied training in law and turned to history instead. Ultimately, it proved too full of groupthink for his taste, so he opted for archaeology. "It was more free because it was more ancient," he says. During the 1950s he drifted, spending seasons between digs unemployed. He refused to join the Communist Party, despite the ways it might have helped his career. ^|^

“Sarianidi may be the last archaeologist in the mold of the 19th-century adventurer, with a larger-than-life swagger, a sharp tongue, and a thick stubborn streak. Few researchers today can claim to have laid bare acres of ancient settlements virtually unknown a generation ago. The desert freed Sarianidi from the repression of the Soviet Union. In return, he uncovered the lost history of the desert...On the excavation team's last night at Gonur for the season, we picnic in the desert, reclining on rugs and pillows like Turkomans, toasting with vodka like Russians, and enjoying roast lamb as Oxus shepherds no doubt did four millennia ago. "Here you understand who you are," Sarianidi says, lying like a pasha on his cushions. A stocky and robust man, he looks worn, almost frail, in the twilight. "I am one of those who cannot go on living without the desert. There is no place like this in the world. I want to be buried here." ^|^

Viktor Sarianid’s Archeological Work

Andrew Lawler wrote in Discover magazine, “In Sarianidi's view, this harsh land of desert, marsh, and steppe may instead have served as a center in a broad, early trading network, the hub of a wheel connecting goods, ideas, and technologies among the earliest of urban peoples. Harvard University archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky believes the excavation at Gonur is "a major event of the late 20th century," adding that Sarianidi deserves credit for discovering the lost Oxus culture and for his "30 consecutive years of indefatigable excavations." [Source: Andrew Lawler, Discover magazine, November 30, 2006 ^|^]

“In 1959, his skill and tenacity earned him a coveted position at the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow, but it was years before he was allowed to direct a dig. When he finally received permission to run his own excavations, Sarianidi worked in northern Afghanistan during the relatively peaceful decades of the 1960s and 1970s. His most famous discovery there came just before the Soviet invasion in 1979. His team uncovered an astounding hoard of gold jewelry in the graves of Bactrian nomads who lived around the first century A.D. But the region's mysterious Bronze Age sites, dating to the second and third millennia B.C., intrigued Sarianidi more. His excavations revealed thick-walled structures built with regular proportions and a distinctive style of art. Most scholars had thought that such sophisticated settlements had not taken root in the region until more than 1,000 years later. ^|^

“Sarianidi had long suspected that similar sites might be found beneath a collection of strange mounds he had glimpsed during a 1950s trip in the Kara-Kum desert, a barren region in the middle of eastern Turkmenistan. Later, during a brief visit to a colleague's dig in that area in the mid-1970s, he commandeered a car and driver to investigate the site more closely. It was June, he recalled, and the heat was so overpowering he had to overcome an urge to turn back. Then, not far from the rough road, he spotted mounds rising up from the plain. In treeless areas, such geographic features often indicate ancient settlements formed from mud-brick structures that later human occupation has compressed over time into artificial hills. The site covered so much land that Sarianidi assumed it dated from medieval times. So he was astonished to find pottery resembling what he had found in ancient Bactria. When the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced him and other archaeologists to relocate to other areas of interest, Sarianidi remembered this site, which locals call Gonur, and determined to return. In the early 1980s, he came back to Turkmenistan, working at Gonur and other sites.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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