Investigating Early Agriculture in Central Asia: New Research at Jeitun, Turkmenistan

Article excerpt

The existence of a zone of prehistoric agricultural settlement on the piedmont of southern Turkmenia was first brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by the American geologist-turned-archaeologist, Raphael Pumpelly (1908). In 1904 he partially excavated two large mounds (kurgans, or tells) at Anau on the piedmont near Ashkabad (one of which had been bisected with a large trench in the 1880s by the Russian general, A.V. Komarov). Assisted by a professional archaeologist from Berlin, Hubert Schmidt, Pumpelly was able to demonstrate, in one season of excavation, that the occupants of Anau cultivated wheat and barley by irrigation and herded domestic goats, sheep and cattle. He proposed a 'stratigraphic chronology' for Anau (1908: 50-57) by which he inferred, on geological grounds, that the northern mound was first occupied in the 9th millennium BC. However, it was not until the mid 1950s, when Russian and Turkmenian archaeologists began systematic investigations in southern Turkmenia, that a more securely based, archaeological chronology was established.

Fundamental to this process was the discovery and initial excavation of the site of Jeitun by V.M. Masson (1957) which led to the recognition of the early agricultural 'Jeitun Culture', represented at eight sites in the region and dated -- at first on comparative stylistic grounds and later by radiocarbon -- to the 6th millennium BC. An English-language summary of these new discoveries appeared in ANTIQUITY (Masson 1961) and was later expanded in Central Asia, a volume in the Ancient Peoples and Places series (Masson & Sarianidi 1972).

Excavations at Jeitun in the late 1950s revealed, in the upper part of the site, 19 small (20-35 sq. m) rectangular one-roomed dwellings with hearths, storage structures and adjacent yard areas. The associated stone and bone artefacts and pottery, particularly the flint sickle blades (37% of the stone tools found), implied that the inhabitants were settled agriculturalists; an inference that was confirmed by impressions of barley and wheat grains in the mud bricks and by the presence of bones of domestic goats and sheep. No radiocarbon dates were obtained for Jeitun itself, nor were ancient remains of cereals or other plants recovered at the site. At another site, Chagylli-depe, Late Jeitun levels were dated by radiocarbon to 5050|+ or -~110 b.c., and grains of 2-row barley (reported as Hordeum distichum) and wheat (reported as Triticum vulgare and T. compactum) were identified (Masson & Sarianidi 1972: 33, 42); and, at the site of Togolok-depe, Middle Jeitun levels were radiocarbon-dated to 5370|+ or -~100 b.c. (Mellaart 1975: 212). Thus, by the late 1960s, Soviet archaeologists had demonstrated the existence of a series of Neolithic settlements of the Jeitun Culture (Kohl 1984: 45-55) on the piedmont of southern Turkmenia where cereal agriculture and pastoralism were practised as early as the mid 6th millennium b.c.

These pioneering investigations established a chronological and regional framework for the prehistory of western Central Asia and raised challenging questions about the beginnings of agriculture and settled life there in relation to the 'Neolithic Revolution' in southwest Asia. Masson and his colleagues drew attention to similarities in certain artefact styles between the Jeitun Culture and finds at such southwest Asian Neolithic sites as Jarmo and Jericho, and raised the question of whether the origins of the Jeitun culture should be sought in the Mesolithic of the southern Caspian area and the Turkmeno-Khorassan mountains (Masson 1961: 206). More detailed archaeological and palaeo-environmental work on known sites can help to solve such questions, and it is this approach that has been adopted in the recent revival of research at Jeitun in which British, Russian and Turkmenian archaeologists have collaborated.

The Jeitun Archaeological-Environmental Project 1989-92

The new investigations at Jeitun stem from a visit to the site in 1987 by Professor Peter Ucko, Dr Tim Champion and Professor Masson while on a tour assessing the prospects of British-Soviet collaboration in archaeology. …