The Oxus Civilization: the Bronze Age of central Asia.

Central Asia is dominated by the two great riverine systems that

drain the Hindu Kush: the Syr Darya and the Amur Darya. The Amur Darya,

referred to as the Oxus River in Classical antiquity, flows from east to

west through the region the Greeks called Bactria. These riverine

environments and their numerous tributaries set the conditions for

agricultural development within numerous oases. The distinctive nature

of the ecological setting that characterizes the oasis/steppe

environment of Central Asia is given definition by Moore, Miller,

Hiebert and Meadow in their essay. The recently excavated Bronze Age settlements of the Oxus Civilization (2100-1800 BC), reviewed in this

Special section, are known from the former Soviet republics of

Turkmenistan (particularly in Margiana along the Murghab River),

Tadjikistan, and Uzbekistan/northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria).

It is only 20 years ago that the distinctive nature of the Oxus

Civilization was discovered. To date it remains little known in the west

despite the extensive excavation of numerous sites and the publication

of several monographs and books in Russian. One of the legacies of the

Cold War was that few western archaeologists, denied the opportunity of

collaborative research, equipped themselves with a facility in the

Russian language. The end of the Cold War has done much to facilitate

the opportunities of western scholars to undertake excavations in this

region. In the past decade there has been a dramatic increase in

collaborative research in the newly established states of Central Asia.

Today British, French, Italians, Japanese and American teams sustain

long-term research programmes of major importance throughout Central


On the following pages several authors emphasize the fact that the

subsistence base and technological skills of production that

characterized the Oxus Civilization were identical to those of the rest

of the Middle East; namely, a dependence upon the same cereals and suite

of domestic animals. This similarity contrasts with the fact that the

settlement pattern, monumental architecture and material culture are

utterly different from those of their contemporary neighbours on the

Iranian Plateau, Baluchistan, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Thus, it

is argued that the emergence of the Oxus Civilization offers an

important contrast to the evolution of these adjacent complex societies.

Patterns of interaction, motivated by the desire either to raid or to

trade, brought all of the above regions into contact by the end of the

3rd millennium. Several of the papers that follow attempt to outline the

nature of the Oxus Civilization in terms of its indigenous

characteristics and to compare and contrast these with the better

explored regions of their neighbours.

L. P'yankova summarizes the classic archaeological sequence

derived Best Insulated Water Bottles from 40 years of archaeological research along the foothills of

the Kopet Dagh in Turkmenistan. This Neolithic and Chalcolithic

background forms the foundation upon which the later Bronze Age

civilization of the Oxus is founded. In her essay P'yankova

emphasizes the important role of the steppe nomads and the significance

of their relationship with the later Bronze Age sedentary communities.

Fredrik Hiebert concentrates upon outlining the archaeological

features that characterize the Oxus Civilization. His essay offers

evidence for the local production of the remarkably rich and distinctive

material remains that characterize this civilization. Much of the data

discussed in Dr Hiebert's essay is derived from our recent

collaborative excavations at Gonur Continue Reading depe with Dr Viktor Sarianidi.

Viktor Sarianidi's excavations in the Dashly oases of

Afghanistan and later at Togolok, Taip, Kelleli and Gonur, all in the

Margiana oases of Turkmenistan, provide the principal data of the Oxus

Civilization. In his essay Sarianidi argues that the Best Insulated Water Bottles characteristic

architecture of this civilization is defined by a complex of monumental

temples that contain a distinctive assemblage of ritual objects.

Utilizing ethnographic and historical evidence C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky

attempts to reconstruct the socio-political structure that characterized

the Oxus Civilization. He argues that traditional models of state

formation are of little use in comprehending the specific development of

complex society in the Bronze Age of Central Asia.

Henri-Paul Francfort reviews the rich iconography that characterizes

the greater Central Asian Bronze Age. He offers a new and provocative

interpretation that attempts to discover the 'meaning' of this

art and relates it to a 'naturalistic and shamanistic tonality and

a peripheral form of Elamo-Mesopotamian mythology'.

The contribution by Moore, Miller, Hiebert & Meadow is of special

significance. Previous work on the Bronze Age settlements of Central

Asia has not focused upon environmental and ecological factors. This

article offers an outline of the economic subsistence pattern that

characterized the oasis settlements of the Oxus Civilization.

Virtually all essays suggest that an understanding of the emergence

and nature of the Oxus Civilization offers an important contrast to the

evolution of its contemporary neighbours from the Euphrates to the

Indus. The elucidation of the Oxus Civilization suggests that the region

long famed for being a crossroads on the Classical Silk Road was

performing this function by 2000 BC.

This Special section continues to expand upon an initiative begun in

1979, namely the first USA/USSR archaeological exchange. Under these

auspices symposia were held at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University

in 1981, Samarkand in 1983, the Smithsonian Institution in 1986 and at

Tbilisi, Georgia in 1987. This exchange programme permitted individual

scholars from the USSR to study collections in the USA and

archaeologists from the USA to participate in collaborative excavations


in the USSR. In 1985 it allowed C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Philip Kohl

to undertake the first collaborative excavations between our two

countries at the important Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age site of

Sarazm in Tadjikistan. This was probably the first and most extensive

archaeological exchange between a western nation and the USSR during the

Soviet period. The exchange was sponsored by the Soviet Academy of

Sciences and the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) in the

USA. Rauf Munchaev and C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky chaired their respective

delegations. The French, Italians and British were to follow with their

own programmes of symposia and collaborative excavations. Today the

formality of exchange programmes and symposia is no longer an essential

ingredient in undertaking collaborative excavations in Central Asia. One

can initiate collaborative research programmes throughout Central Asia;

in fact, they are greatly welcomed by the states of Turkmenistan,

Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan et al. Last summer, with the collaboration of Dr

Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov, Director of Iu TAKE in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan,

the American School of Prehistoric Research at the Peabody Museum of

Harvard University initiated a long-term programme of excavations at

Anau in Turkmenistan. This was the first extensively excavated Bronze

Age site in Central Asia; excavations at Anau were initiated in 1903 by

the American geologist Raphael Pumpelly on behalf of the Carnegie

Institute, Washington (DC).

Special appreciation is extended to the Soviet Academy of Sciences

(now the Russian Academy of Sciences), the Institute of Archaeology in

Moscow and St Petersburg (now the Institute for the Study of Material

Culture), the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Culture of

Turkmenistan, and last, but far from least, to Viktor Sarianidi whose

fundamental research and collaborative spirit have been indispensable

assets in promoting an understanding of the archaeology of Central Asia.