Also known as Annau, village, in S Turkmenistan, 5 mi (8 km) SE of Ashgabat (Persian for 'lovely place'), near the Iranian border and just north of Kopet Dag mountain range. Unshaded summer temperatures have been known to reach 172 degrees F at mid-day (only 2.5% of the land in the country is arable, despite a massive Soviet-built canal). Now a center for Caspian Sea oil and inland natural gas exploration. This desert region has been home to many cultures: the first was Margiana (called so by the Perisans) whose capital was Merv, an ancient, cosmopolitan crossroads, which was destroyed and rebuilt by Alexander the Great c. 350 BC. It was also the heart of the Parthian Empire, home to its capital Nyssa from 200 BC to c. 100 AD. The Seljuk Turks also ruled Central Asia from here, from the 11th - 13th centuries, until the Mongols erased it from the desert plain.1 However, 'new' discoveries in the region indicate it may have been home to a 'lost civilization' even earlier, possibly as old as Sumer.
In 1903, a relatively quiet lull rested over Central Asia, as the Great Game wore down. World events were more centered upon Europe and England, as King George V brought Britain to its imperial and territorial apex. At the same time, however, a largely unnoticed US expedition led by reknowned American geologist Raphael Pumpelly (who’d made his fortune identifying promising mineral deposits) was exploring Central Asia. One of the first scientific expeditions backed by the Carnegie Foundation, the team included agronomists, geologists, paleontologists, and archeologists. Pumpelly had specifically selected the arid region just north of Iran, knowing it had not always been a bleak and blasted terrain. Four thousand years beforehand, much of it had been covered with large lakes and grasslands. Therefore, the explorers were convinced evidence of human activity was to be expected. Through archeological digs at a Silk Road site called Anau near Ashabat, the present day capital of Turkmenistan, Pumpelly uncovered artifacts from a civilization contemporaneous with early Mesopotamian and Indus Valley cultures.
Unfortunately, because Pumpelly lacked official archeologist credentials, and the Anau dig a passion of his later years, the archeological community widely discounted or ignored his evidence. Then, as revolutionary chaos erupted, Russia effectively sealed its borders in 1905 to Westerners. As a result, no other archeologists could be sent to the site to investigate. Pumpelly published his work in two major reports that simply collected dust in the libraries of Anglo-American academe while most of his field notes and artifacts were destroyed in an unexplained house fire in Newport, RI shortly after his death in 1923. Anau was again reclaimed by a shroud of obscurity.
Nearly seventy eight years pass. Cut to October 10, 2001. After three years of excavations at Anau, in the swirling dusts of the Kara Kum desert (Kara Kum means 'black sand), an international team (headed by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert) rediscovers the site of the thriving Bronze Age culture. The site may be the epicenter of a complex pre-Silk Road civilization, circa 2300 B.C., featuring towns, cities, rulers, production, trade and written language.
As they built upon Pumpelly’s work, most exciting was the unearthing of a stone stamp seal while excavating the ruins of a very large, surprisingly well-built building – still structurally intact 4,300 years later. The seal is tiny – a 1.3 by 1.4 cm piece of shiny black jet with four characters engraved on one side – which resemble a trident, a sideways ‘E’, a backwards ‘S’ and an hourglass. If the seal's markings are indeed an early form of writing, as its discoverer has suggested, it is strong evidence for a previously unknown civilization that began about 2300 B.C. across much of modern Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. An even more puzzling aspect of the discovery has been raised by specialists in ancient Chinese writing - one that was practiced in the Western Han dynasty of 206 B.C. to A.D. 9
Archaeologists had said the room in which the inscription was found appeared to have been part of an administrative center for the agricultural society. Anau was one of several settlements in the foothills that preceded the culture's expansion around 2200 B.C. out into the arid basin, where the residents practiced irrigated farming at oases, built large urban centers with fortifications, had the administrative skills to develop extensive irrigation systems and produced surpluses to pay for fine ceramics, jewelry and bronze goods. The oases, built in moist areas, created natural stepping stones on a trading route that reached from China through the Indus Valley to Mesopotamia -- all Bronze Age civilizations of the third millennium BC. The fortress-like buildings of the civilization are larger than the biggest structures of ancient Mesopotamia or China. Also indicative of the culture’s complexity is the lack of local metals, yet the Anau ruins contained elaborate works in alabaster, marble and bronze.
1 In 1221, nearby Merv was also laid to waste, when Tuluy (Tolui), Genghis Khan's most brutal son, broke an accepted surrender by the town inhabitants, and ordered each of his soldiers not to return to camp until they had taken 300 heads. Each. Although casuality figures from the period are somewhat circumspect, the town did literally vanish from all records afterwards, indicating most of the estimated 225, 000 inhabitants likely perished.
Sources: R. D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary (NY: 2000), pp. 288 - 306; K. Hopkirk, Central Asia: A Traveller's Companion (London, 1994) ;
R. Pumpelly, The Prehistoric Civilization of Anau (1908); "The Anau Seal Enigma" National Post, August 1, 2001, A16; Expedition - Harvard Research Briefing : www.fas.harvard.edu/~sanskrit/images/Mair2.pdf ; Discovery Channel : http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20010514/writing.html# ; Barber, E.J.W. The Mummies of Urümchi. W.W. Norton, 1999. ; Kalter, Johannes. Uzbekistan: Heirs to the Silk Road. Thames and Hudson, 1997.
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