Temples of Bronze Age Margiana: Traditions of Ritual Architecture

By Sarianidi, Viktor | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Temples of Bronze Age Margiana: Traditions of Ritual Architecture


Sarianidi, Viktor, Antiquity


Margiana, a country listed on the Behistun inscription, is thought to be located on the ancient delta of the Murgab river in the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan. Its discovery and exploration by Soviet archaeologists in the last 20 years reveal a previously unknown centre of Near Eastern civilization, the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex. Many seasons of wide-scale excavations have revealed monumental architectural complexes containing areas associated with ritual use of beverages and fire. Three important sites of this type are here discussed.

Gonur south

One of the earliest of these monumental building complexes is located at Gonur depe, the largest site in Margiana and possibly its capital. Gonur depe is more than 20 ha in area and consists of two parts: the north mound, consisting of a large fortified building complex surrounded by many private dwellings, and the southern mound consisting of a large fortress.

Systematic excavations at the south mound have revealed that on a small natural rise, a large fort was constructed with wide defensive walls and thick-walled circular corner towers. Within the exterior wall, which is estimated to have stood 8-10 m tall, are separate buildings and apartments. Along the northern exterior wall of the fort is a large rectangular tower containing three rooms, the northern Tower Complex. In the period following the construction of this fort, another monumental structure, conditionally called a 'fort' as well, was built inside the walls on the ruins of the domestic areas. Also in the southwest corner of the fort, built as part of the original structure, is a large shrine building associated with the nearby domestic areas or 'private houses' which are grouped around a courtyard. The core of the shrine is a rectangular building of two parts: a northern public section and a southern private section. Its layout, with an inner courtyard (room 221) encircled with corridors (rooms 204, 209, 270 and 225), is similar to the ritual areas at other temples in Margiana (Togolok 1 and Togolok 21).

Three large rooms in the shrine (245, 270 and 271) are connected by general passages to a second courtyard (room 295). The lack of pillars suggests that these courtyards were not covered. All of these rooms, except for the court (295), have white gypsum plaster on the walls and floor which is typical of ritual areas in Margiana. During the second main architectural phase, a small round structure built in the courtyard was filled with white ash. It appears to be a 'sacred ash depository' and its existence leads to the assumption of fire ritual taking place near by, similar to what I have suggested for corridor-enclosed courtyards at Togolok 1 and Togolok 21. Similar 'sacred ash depositories' have been documented from a fire temple at Djarkutan in northern Bactria.

In the southern, private part of the complex three rooms (178, 193 and 137) are connected with general passages to each other as well as to the public part of the complex. In the western part of room 137, there is a small mound in which three ceramic vessels have been embedded and coated with the same white gypsum plaster that covers the walls and floor. In gypsum samples taken from inside the bowls and analysed at Moscow University by Professor N.R. Mayer-Melikyan, microscopic traces of large amounts of ephedra and hemp were detected. These plants were used in the preparation of the haoma/soma type hallucinogenic beverages for use in libations (Mayer-Melikan 1990). The passage from this 'white room' leads into a larger room (193) with benches built into the northern wall. On the floor of this room there were found 10 ceramic pot-stands (8 complete and 2 broken) which seem to be associated with the preparation of the hallucinogenic drink and were perhaps used in conjunction with ceramic strainers. I have suggested that the strainer was placed on the ceramic support and used to separate the juice from twigs of ephedra and hemp. …

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