Gonur Tepe: A Visit to Bronze Age Turkmenistan

Bronze belt stud, 2200-1800 BC, Northern Afghanistan Bronze Age, depicting a winged female figure poised between two griffins.

A pit grave in the necropolis. Ceramic vessels and a bronze mirror lie next to the skull.  Afghanistan Bronze Age Talc head of a composite statue.

Turkoman archeologist T. Khojanijazoff at work at Gonur North. Russian archeologist Victor Sarianidi plays at backgammon with a local Turkoman farmer under the meal tent.

Jane and Kate Fitz Gibbon and Aq Kiz, displaying her embroidery work. Aq Kiz, a Tekke Turkoman wizard of a cook, made fine soups, complex stuffed breads and even crepes with camel's cream - all on a single gas burner, working without refrigerator or ready access to supplies.  Aq Kiz's brother Muhammad prepares the fire pit for roasting a lamb.

Gonur Tepe - A Visit to Bronze Age Turkmenistan   

Only in the last quarter century, has the culture of Bronze Age Central Asia become widely known in the West. Since 1972, the work of excavation and analysis of this contemporary of the Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilizations has in large part been accomplished by the Margianan Archeological Expedition, directed today by the Russian archeologist Victor Sarianidi. Dr. Sarianidi's recent work has focused on the Late Bronze Age sites, dating to the first half of the second millennium BC, located in the ancient delta of the Murgab River, in the southeastern part of present day Turkmenistan. Gonur Tepe was the largest of dozens of scattered Bronze Age sites established here in the early second millennium. Gonur appears to have served as an administrative and religious center for the region, and as a hub for long distance trade. Its sophisticated, monumental architecture, and elegant material remains in art and ornament indicate the high culture achieved before a variety of factors led to the movement of its peoples further south and east. A recent trip to the site brought Kate and Jane Fitz Gibbon first to Ashkabad, capital of Turkmenistan, then five hours northeast by paved road to Mary, and finally, across the open desert in an antique Russian military vehicle
It is evening, and a Greek popular song reeds from a cheap cassette. The mud-brick guest house, the shower hut and even the distant, low walls of the Gents and Ladies outhouses are framed and tipped with gold by the setting sun. Rough laughter sounds from the tents of the Turkoman diggers as they prepare their evening meal. The youngest haul water in buckets from an aging Russian tanker. The older men show off their cooking skills, and tease the young ones about the brides they hope to earn with their digger's wages. We are deep in the Karakum Desert, 70 kilometers from ancient Merv, and even further from the boys' homes in Mary and its surrounding villages. Russian archeologist Victor Sarianidi's camp is so far from settled lands that we see no one but an occasional herdsman with his flock, or a roaming Bactrian camel, yet we are within fifteen minutes walk of three important sites of the ancient Bronze Age. To the east is the low hill that holds Gonur North, an enormous palace and administrative center. The bulldozer will work all night under generator lights to clear away the dirt hauled to the surface today. Gonur North grows every day under the digger's shovels, and there are indications that still another set of buildings lies eastward of the main walls. Four thousand years ago, this was a rich trading center and the seat of kings. Though all that remains are its baked brick walls, it is easy to identify the large halls where rulers may have held audience; these are wide portaled, elegantly proportioned rooms. In one especially large one there are voids in the corners and along the walls where stood columns or statues of wood that have long since rotted away.

     My mother and I are drawn here again and again, wandering through the rooms, trying to make sense of their arrangement, to piece together this ancient puzzle. Here our "job" - preparing the finds for photography, brushing the dirt gently from skeletons unearthed by the diggers - is difficult, for we find mostly small children buried in pots. Their tiny, newborn bones are so fragile that they crumble at a touch. The beautiful Bronze Age beads from plundered sites in Afghanistan have long fascinated me. Most often, buried bead materials are found in vessels placed close to the body, and as any stringing material has long since disintegrated with age, it is not even possible to guess how they were worn. In the Gonur Tepe palace, an unexpected find of a youth buried inside a large ceramic vessel included not only rich grave goods, but also clues as to how some beads were worn. Skull and neck vertebrae were held together with hardened mud, and as the dirt was removed, lapis, talc and a single, inch and a half long carnelian bead carved in chevron patterns were found encircling the neck. A single gold earring was embedded near the ear, and a half-dozen large, finely polished banded agate beads lay in the bottom of the vessel in which the youth was buried. My mother and I spent most of our days at Gonur in the large necropolis to the west of the palace site. We used fine brushes to remove the last of the dirt from the whitened bones and grave goods uncovered by the diggers. Each day, three or four grave pits were uncovered and cleared of dirt to the undisturbed earth - about four feet below the present surface. After each day's excavations at the necropolis, the pits were photographed and partially filled in again. Most skeletons appeared still to lie as they were buried; knees and elbows flexed, the head often resting on or near a small pile of ceramic and stone vessels. It was clear, however, that the necropolis had been robbed in antiquity. Very few items of jewelry were found, and in one grave, a fine, carved alabaster cylinder seal was unearthed under just a few inches of surface soil. A too hasty grave plunderer had apparently dropped it, several thousand years before.

    Sasha, the young archeologist who supervised the diggers (and who scandalized the conservative Turkomans with his scanty site-dress of swimming bikini and crucifix) called Sarianidi over to the necropolis to see the seal. Dr. Sarianidi examined it closely, said "Who found this?" and when the digger came forward, Sarianidi pulled off his own watch, handed it over to the boy, and slapped him on the back. The stone cylinder contained a rendering of a seated figure wearing a garment of the Sumerian "kaunakes" type The tongue shaped lappets of these garments may have been of cloth or felt, or they may. represent a long fleeced skin. In a very rich tomb at north Gonur which contained not human remains, but those of a lamb, Sarianidi found a huge scepter and a long pin of silver with an elegant seated female figure at its base, wearing this same type of garment. The same lappet-formed garment is found in the so-called "composite statues" that have been found in Margiana and in southern Bactria.
    A small stone head of alabaster, presumably related to these objects, was found at Gonur. Typically the torso is made of dark steatite, carved into the tongue-like lappets, the head and hands carved from white stone, and at times the figures wear turban-like caps of dark stone. Most graves, however, contained only ceramic bowls and large, long-stemmed goblets, undecorated, but with the elegant, refined forms characteristic of the period. Long spouted vessels and ceramic strainers were also found. At times, a bronze mirror lay near the skull, a poignant reminder of fleeting beauty. Perhaps because of the extensive looting in antiquity, only a few examples of the so-called "compartmented seals" have been found in the necropolis. These stud-like ornaments were probably worn on belts. While most patterns are geometric designs set within roundels, some studs contain sophisticated renderings of animals and humans or god-like figures. A short walk over fine dry dirt - scattered with thousands of potsherds - took us to Gonur South, where excavations were completed a few years before. This was the temenos, as Sarianidi names it, a great religious complex that may have served the entire region in the later Bronze Age.

    In it are spaces that housed the scared fires, storage areas for the pure white ash removed from the hearths, and several large rooms for sacred ritual, perhaps for the seating of the gods. Filling most of the area within the eight-foot thick walls of the complex are many small rooms for the servitors of the temple. These servitors' rooms are like ordinary dwelling spaces except for an unusual architectural element; a large mud brick shelf, covered in white plaster and often holding a large clay vessel. The vessels appear to contain the remnants of an ancient narcotic drink. Chemical analysis has shown that they held a potent mix of hemp, poppy and ephedra, a heady cocktail that Sarianidi thinks may be the precursor to the soma of the Avesta (and of Aldous Huxley). It is the discovery of fire temples in close conjunction with the ritual use of a hallucinogenic drink, which Sarianidi finds so exciting. This joining prefigures elements of the texts of the Avesta, and according to Sarianidi, may be the first appearance of rites associated with later Zoroastrian tradition. In this religious edifice, and in what Sarianidi calls "ritual contexts" in other sites, he has found miniature columns made of various marble-like stones.

    Their exact function is not yet clear, but Sarianidi believes that there is a connection between these objects and the cult libation of the hallucinogenic beverage produced in the temenos. Our own brief stay in Gonur Tepe ended with libations of a modern kind, and a ritual feast. Under the watchful eyes of Aq Kiz, the Tekke Turkoman camp cook, her two brothers built an enclosure of thorn and saksaul, laid carpets round the edges, and dug a pit for a fire. While we took our last walk through the sites with Sarianidi, the Turkomans spitted a whole sheep, doused it liberally with homemade Turkoman brandy, and placed in on the fire. As darkness closed in, Russians, Turkomans and Americans sat together eating the crackling meat, and toasted the land, the people and the ancient history of Margiana until we could toast no more.

Copyright © Kate Fitz Gibbon