The Oxus Civilization: The Bronze Age of Central Asia

By Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Oxus Civilization: The Bronze Age of Central Asia


Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C., Antiquity


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 Asia.

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 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 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 characteristic architecture of this civilization is defined by a complex of monumental temples that contain a distinctive assemblage of ritual objects.

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