Saturday, 4 October 2014
Gonur Tepe: A marvel in the Karakum Desert
From the site of the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation from the University of Sydney
This article was published in 2009 but interesting enough to publish again!
In 2009 I lead a tour of NEAF members to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Prior to the tour I'd heard a little about the site of Gonur Tepe located in Turkmenistan but had little concrete knowledge about it. For me this is one of the beauties of leading tours in that it gives you a chance to visit places you ordinarily might not.
Image: A camel passes in front of the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv. Sultan Sanjar was the last Seljuk monarch in this part of the world before the Mongul invasions changed everything forever.
My motivation to take the tour to Turkmenistan was primarily to visit the city of Merv (Mary): once one of the great cities of the ancient Silk Road. The location of Merv in eastern Turkmenistan necessitated a break in the itinerary and when planning the tour I researched what else we could visit in the region. This reading led me to 'discover' Gonur Tepe that is located about 60km to the north of Merv in the Karakum (Black Sand) Desert and I immediately placed it in the itinerary.
Image: Our Soviet era transport during a pit stop on the way to Gonur Tepe
Image: Just some of the pottery laid out for conservation and study at Gonur Tepe.
On arrival at Gonur Tepe you don't, at first, see much. A few makeshift huts where I was told the archaeologists lived, a stray dog and an older woman selling a very brief site guide. Around you the flat desert extends to the horizon: you feel very remote. Although the weather was delightful when we visitied in May, you could feel how cold it must be there in winter and how hot it must be in summer.
Viktor Sarianidi with his assistant wearing blue and our national Turkmenistan guide. What can not be seen here are the crutches that enabled Viktor to walk around the site. The sight of this indomitable 80 year old still carrying on his work filled me with admiration.
When we met Viktor Sarianidi on site he was cordial and through our interpreter explained a little about the site. According to Viktor the inhabitants of ancient Gonur Tepe had migrated here from the Near East at a time when this location was on the banks of an inland delta of the Murghab River that made the region well-watered and fertile. While this migration theory is debated by archaeologists, along with Viktor's early third millennium BCE dates (as many would prefer an early to mid second millennium BCE date for Gonur Tepe), the passion and dedication of this now 80 year old archaeologist was obvious. When Viktor heard that we were 'archaeologists' from the University of Sydney he offered to show us some of his more recent finds.
A view across Gonur Tepe showing the central palace area with a local visitor inspecting a water pipeline, in clay pipes, in the foreground.
Around us was a vast complex of walls, rooms and streets that has been excavated from the desert sands - and just as painstakenly conserved. As most of the walls were orignally of mudbrick, each and every wall had been replastered in a new layer of clay and straw. While this gives the site a slightly surreal feel of being somewhat modern, as an archaeologist who has excavated mudbrick features, I know this is the best way to preserve the original walls beneath without the expense of roofing the site which, even when it is done, does not allow a site to be interpreted in a readily accessible way.
Image: A view across Gonur Tepe showing the central palace area with a local visitor inspecting a water pipeline, in clay pipes, in the foreground.
Image: Turkmen workers peel away the canvas covering of the second royal tomb at Gonur Tepe.
The second royal tomb Viktor showed us had just been excavated. Beneath a canvas cover that was pulled away for us by local workmen was a roughly circuler pit: again artificially cut down from the surface. When first constructed these were chamber tombs with a dromus or entrance to one side that would have been accessed by steps from the surface. Excavation of the tomb would have been nearly impossible by keeping the original roof in place as it would have been cramped and dangerous and digging down on the tomb from above was a practical solution.
Image: A royal tomb at Gonur Tepe showing bronze standards, a cauldron and wheel rims. A human skull is in the foreground.
Beneath this canvas covering was a find that took my breath away. Clustered around the largest bronze cauldron I've ever seen from antiquity were the skeletons of humans and horses, bronze 'standards' and calcite vessels. Even more remarkable were the bronze rims of chariot/cart wheels still held in place by a slender column of sand. These horse burials mark the inhabitants of ancient Gonur Tepe as Indo-Europeans and therefore close cousins to the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Iranians and Sanskrit speaking Indians. Like Michael Wood who also visited the site for his documentary The Story of India, I found this a tantalising glimpse of an Indo-European community bridging the Aryan homelands of modern Iran with northern India.