Central Asia in the Bronze Age: Sedentary and Nomadic Cultures

By P'yankova, L. | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Central Asia in the Bronze Age: Sedentary and Nomadic Cultures


P'yankova, L., Antiquity


The Central Asian Bronze Age: discovery, nature, antecedents

In the 1880s A.V. Komarov excavated a trench through the Anau mound near Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. He had hoped to discover a tomb but instead uncovered a variety of ancient ceramics. Such was the first excavation of the Bronze Age in Central Asia. In 1904 the first scientific excavations at Anau were carried out by the Carnegie Expedition which published a two-volume report (Pumpelly 1908), the first description of the Bronze Age culture of the central area, known as the Anau Culture.

Intensive archaeological research of Bronze Age sites in Central Asia began in the 1950s. The earlier Khorezm Archaeological Expedition set up in 1937 by S.P. Tolstov and the South Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition (IuTAKE) set up in 1946 by M.E. Masson were of great importance. At present, surveys and excavations of Bronze Age sites are carried out every year in many of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A large number of reports, papers and monographs have been published on the results of recent investigations.

In a recent Russian summary, the Chalcolithic settlements of southern Turkmenistan are dated to the late 5th millennium--early 3rd millennium BC (Masson 1982a: 14). By calibrated radiocarbon dates, the middle Eneolithic periods (Namazga II-III) range from 3250 to 2750 BC (Kurbansakhatov 1987: 129). The Namazga IV period at Altyn depe dates from 2700 to 2100 BC (Masson 1979: 29). Radiocarbon and palaeomagnetic dating place the Namazga IV period within the chronological range 2900-2200 BC (Kircho 1986: 138). Western and Russian trained archaeologists disagree upon the absolute dates for the Central Asian Bronze Age chronology. This is particularly true for the late 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC. The Namazga V period at Altyn depe, according to V.M. Masson, ranges from 2300 to 1850 BC (1981: 95). There are no detailed reports on the excavations of the later Namazga VI sites in the foothills of the Kopet dag. I.N. Khlopin and L.I. Khlopina, suggest that Namazga VI dates from the 14th to the 10th centuries BC, based on the excavations of the 'tower' at Namazga depe (Khlopina 1981). On the other hand archaeomagnetic dates for the Namazga VI period indicate a range from the 16th to 10th centuries BC. Radiocarbon analyses of Namazga VI levels from Tekkem depe date to the 11th century BC (Zagnii 1984). Western European and American archaeologists tend to push back these dates for the Namazga V and VI periods by some 500 years; however, there is general agreement about the relative internal chronology in Central Asia based on the ceramics.

The earliest village cultures of Central Asia are located in the foothills of the Kopet dag mountains. Settlements depend upon water sources for irrigating the fields. The evolution of irrigation systems and the necessity of regulating the control of water are thought to be the key factors in the concentration of population that led to the growth of large regional centres (Masson 1976: 142-7). The largest settlements in the Kopet dag foothills were Namazga depe (above 50 ha) and Altyn depe (26 ha), Ulug depe (20 ha), Kara depe (15 ha), and Geoksyur (12 ha).

Towards the end of the Chalcolithic (around 2700 BC) ecological problems and the growth of certain settlement regions led to the collapse of settlement in other regions. The Geoksyur oasis was abandoned, and the population may have migrated to the ancient delta of the Tedzhen river (Lisitsyna 1965). At that time (the early Bronze Age) Khapuz depe became an area of concentrated settlement (Sarianidi 1969). On the other hand the settlement of Ilgynly was abandoned in the Chalcolithic, and most of that population appears to have joined the near-by settlement of Altyn depe (Masson 1981: 21). In a similar pattern, the settlement of Kara depe was abandoned and its population joined the large centre of Namazga located near-by. Social changes in the communities led to both an increasing craft production and social stratification. …

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