Production Evidence for the Origins of the Oxus Civilization

By Hiebert, Fredrik T. | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Production Evidence for the Origins of the Oxus Civilization


Hiebert, Fredrik T., Antiquity


The Oxus Civilization defined

An important recent development in the archaeology of the ancient Near East has been the discovery and exploration of hundreds of settlements in the desert oases of northern Afghanistan (Sarianidi 1977), Uzbekistan (Askarov 1977) and Turkmenistan (Sarianidi 1990). The oasis settlements of Central Asia are broadly referred to here as the 'Oxus Civilization' indicating the distinctive social, economic and material culture traditions of the region, from Bronze Age origins through the Classical and medieval occupations of the oases.

The 'invention' (see the article by C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky below, pages 396-405) of the Oxus Civilization is today considered to have taken place in the Margiana oasis of Turkmenistan. The long-term coherence of the oases settlements through time may be due to the particular constraints of the oasis adaptation. Its cultural requirements include the ability to organize the initial occupation in clearing uninhabitable natural deltas, the organization necessary to construct and maintain large canal systems, and the administration of a complex production system in an area lacking many natural resources.

The earliest appearance of the Oxus Civilization is the initial occupation of the oases during the Bronze Age. These sites are the context for the 'Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex' (BMAC), an archaeological culture with a distinctive iconography and style depicted on small stone objects, terracotta friezes on ceramics, bronze compartmented seals, cylinder seals, metal vessels and other ceremonial and administrative objects.

The motifs include a new set of images with human figures, isolated heads, desert animals and plants, and fantastic dragons (Sarianidi 1981; Amiet 1986; 1989; Francfort, below, pages 406-18). Specific attributes of these images appear in the later iconography and myths of Iran, South Asia, and even the eastern Mediterranean TABULAR DATA OMITTED (Mitanni). Archaeologists, art historians, and linguists (Erdosy n.d.) suggest that this group of symbols is associated with a shared Indo-Iranian mythology reflected in both Vedic Indian and Avestan (Persian) myths (Sarianidi 1986b; 1990; Parpola 1988; Wilhelm 1989). Other precursors of Indo-Iranian mythology and Persian religion, e.g. Zoroastrianism, include narrative scenes of power and domination, images of narcotic plants, and the use of amulets on bullae. The symbolism of black/white (steatite/alabaster) in the BMAC evokes the structural dichotomy of good/evil and purity/pollution which emerges in Zoroastrian ideology (Choksy 1989).

Archaeological context

For many years the artefacts of the BMAC were known from outside the Central Asian oases, not recognized as Central Asian per se, but often classified as from Luristan or from a variety of periods. Amiet recognized these artefacts as distinct from the artefacts of the local cultures on the Iranian plateau. Without knowing about their source area in Central Asia, he proposed that they represented the elite objects of a trans-Elamite culture, possibly made by itinerant artisans (Amiet 1989).

Sarianidi (1977) first identified the archaeological context from his excavations at Dashli in northern Bactria. Many similar artefacts from clandestine digs appearing in the markets of Afghanistan appeared to confirm this (Pottier 1984). Sarianidi noted their similarity to the types of artefacts found in the desert oasis of Margiana. In both areas the complexes were associated with large, planned and fortified building complexes. The best known of these are Dashli, Sapalli, Togolok 21 and Gonur, and this type of architecture represents the common context where the BMAC artefact assemblage has been found.

In 1988, collaborative field research was initiated by the Peabody Museum at the ongoing excavations at Gonur depe being conducted by the Institute of Archaeology Moscow and the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan. …

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