Agriculture and Herding in the Early Oasis Settlements of the Oxus Civilization

By Moore, Katherine M.; Miller, Naomi F. et al. | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview
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Agriculture and Herding in the Early Oasis Settlements of the Oxus Civilization


Moore, Katherine M., Miller, Naomi F., Hiebert, Fredrik T., Meadow, Richard H., Antiquity


Gonur tepe: excavations and samples

Collaborative research at the site of Gonur depe in Turkmenistan was initiated in 1989 to collect materials for palaeoethnobotanical and zooarchaeological research. Our goal was to reconstruct the systems of crop and animal production and distribution by examining remains from household and workshop refuse. Similar analyses have been carried out in other parts of Turkmenistan by Turkmen and Russian expeditions (Lisitsyna 1965; 1978; 1992; Ermolova 1970; Masson 1972). Our approach sought to combine these standard analytical techniques with different recovery techniques and rigorous attention to archaeological and chronological context.

Materials described in this paper were recovered by Moore and Hiebert during the spring 1989 season of excavation at Gonur depe, Turkmenistan, in cooperation with the expedition led by V.I. Sarianidi (Moore 1993; Miller 1993; Hiebert 1993a; Meadow 1993). Animal-bone remains were recovered by grab-sampling selected deposits from room fill, floors, and features. Small samples of feature fill and stratified midden deposits were screened through 1/8-inch mesh to recover small bones. In addition, animal bones recovered by casual grab-sampling in previous seasons at Gonur were scanned for rarely occurring species. Remains were cleaned, sorted and preliminarily identified in the field, with some bones removed from the field collection for further comparison and analysis. Comparisons were made with modern collections at the Museum of Zoology, Moscow State University and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. Charred plant remains were recovered by screening vessel and feature fill and midden deposits through 2-mm mesh. This sampling technique provided an adequate sample of larger-seeded taxa such as grains. Field conditions did not allow water flotation. Two samples were separated by bucket flotation, which provided our only adequate sample of small seeds. Charred seeds from the screened samples were analysed by Miller using comparative materials at the University Museum, Philadelphia.

Contemporary and Bronze Age environments

The area surrounding Gonur depe today is arid desert with scattered saxaul scrub and patches of low herbs and sedges interspersed with barren mudflats (takyr) and stabilized sand dunes. Several kilometres to the south, shallow seeps and springs are overgrown with tamarisk, and modern irrigation canals have provided water for tamarisk and poplar trees near herder camp-sites. At the outskirts of the nearest permanent settlements to the south, camelthorn forms low thickets around tamarisk and saxaul groves (Gel'dikhanov 1992). The largest wild animal common in the area today is the gazelle, but in the past the onager would also have grazed. There is a rich and varied rodent, lizard and snake fauna (Suslov 1961).

An examination of the historical and archaeological data allows us to reconstruct several distinct patterns in the past. Our evidence suggests that the oasis environment created at Gonur was different both from the current desert conditions and from the natural delta vegetation (tugai thickets) and fauna that would have confronted the first colonists from the Kopet Dag foothills. Rather, the oasis ecology represents a human-modified micro-climate and resource base (Suslov 1961: 509-12).

Traditional agricultural production in the oasis had two planting seasons (Encyclopedia of Turkmenistan 1984: 217), and this system may pre-date the regulation of river water through large-scale dams which modified the oasis environment from at least the 11th century AD (Le Strange 1905: 402). Palaeoethnobotanical results from 6th-7th centuries AD levels at Gyaur-kala in Merv indicate that both winter crops of wheat and barley (sown in winter or early spring and harvested in early summer), and summer crops such as cotton and melons were grown in the oasis (Nesbitt 1993), probably without the aid of large dams to regulate the river water.

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