review of the 4th Central Asia Seminar Group

Ancient Peoples: Modern Methods – a review

The 4th meeting of the Central Asia Seminar Group met on 7 March 2020 at the UCL Institute of Archaeology to hear a series of papers on new and ongoing archaeological research in Central Asia. Host David Fallon of the Association for Central Asian Civilisations and Silk Road Studies and the CAAL project welcomed everyone to a day of stimulating talks.

We began by hearing an overview of a new mapping project by Loren Cowin (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel) focusing on the medieval sections of Merv (Turkmenistan). His vision for the work is to create a map using Soviet-era aerial photography with current UAV data (3-band + DEM) which will be useful and informative. He has marked out the difficulties in using aerial data and the necessity of comparing these images to actualities on the ground. The usefulness of overlaying DEM and heat maps has already shown itself to be a key methodology. During this process he hopes to be able to answer larger questions of why the Sultan-Kala developed into a separate entity rather than being incorporated into the earlier sites and how the form of Merv relates to its governance and populace.

Carman Ting (Cambridge) is reconsidering the role of Central Asia in the making of Islamic glazes during the 9th -11th centuries CE. With this new project she is looking to understand the complexities of technology exchange which went beyond a simple idea of imitating Chinese porcelains. Utilising chaîne opératoire to reconstruct development in glazes and establish technological connections; asking: what were the social processes and cultural interactions involved and the relationships between these exchanges and the potters’ plans. SEM, thin-section petrography, and lead isotope analysis allows for a reclassification of legacy data and more nuanced examination and holistic view of individual elements stemming from local traditions as parts of larger production and experimentation across the region.

Furthering the cause of nuance and re-evaluation, the current research of Lauren Morris (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) on Kushan middlemen on the Silk Road (or more aptly, were the Kushans really middlemen?) begins with a comprehensive overview of why and by whom the Kushan have been described in this way and questions its validity. Using the Begram Hoard as a basis for discussion she points out that there is no real evidence, especially from this one site for the Kushan acting as middlemen and that the hoard itself has been misinterpreted. Her call to action includes insisting on clearer definitions and terms and asking complex questions about who the Kushan really were using a holistic perspective of economy and studies of consumption.

More research utilising legacy data is being undertaken by Katie Campbell (Oxford) who is combining Soviet-era approaches and records with current fieldwork at urban sites in order to better understand urbanism around the period of the Mongol conquest (so 12th -14th centuries). Her new investigations at Otrar and Merv (both sites have been extensively investigated) is bringing a new perspective to the stratigraphy and questioning existing dates.

These presentations were followed by extensive Q&A about the role the Mongol invasions had on economy and production as well as reinterpreting previous finds and data.

Aydogdy Kurbanov (Université de Lyon) talked extensively about the various ideas for the origins of the Hephthalites – where did they originate and who they were as well as how the state developed. Intensive movement of people and ideas and various textual sources from Byzantium to Tang China have given rise to competing theories. Vast evidence from linguistics, coins and urban archaeology as well as luxury objects and religious architecture does little to clarify the situation but unravelling the data is an exciting challenge and provides more detailed knowledge about the various groups interacting in the region and beyond.

Staying in the region but discussing an earlier period (1st century CE), Sara Peterson (SOAS) is investigating a cemetery at Akchankhan-kala, (ancient Chorasmia) on the edge of the Kyzyl-kum desert. Looking at how these remains relate to neighbouring sites, including a nearby turquoise mine. Specifically, KY10 complex, a fortified site where plastered rammed-earth walls have been painted with extraordinary figures. These 6m tall personages have been identified as Chorasmian Avestan gods. While every aspect of these paintings can be studied, Peterson focused specifically on the 4-petaled rose motif on the headdress and scabbard. The motif can be seen across the region in a number of contexts where protective symbols are particularly significant.

Tim Williams (UCL) spent some time introducing the CAAL project where we are digitising archaeological sites and records with 18 partner institutions in Central Asia. Despite the many challenges inherent in a large-scale and complex project focus remains on creating a robust multilingual system for use by local institutions and practitioners in the coming years, making their ability to assess, prioritise and protect sites in the region easier. Capacity building in digital documentation of archival resources and in the field techniques will provide additional foundation post-project. In the coming months, this online database will be made Open Access and available on our website with case studies on the threats and assessments of sites through use of these digital technologies.

Completing the day, Marco Nebbia (UCL and the CAAL project) provided excellent examples of how digital documentation can be used for the protection of archaeological landscapes. Using existing studies from Merv (thanks to earlier work done by Tim Williams and Gai Jorayev) Marco is creating epidemiological models using big good datasets which enable mapping for different kinds of threats and a formal way of describing where a specific threat is happening. As we have heard in the past three conferences, remote sensing data provides expansive new ways of looking at archaeological landscapes but must be combined with ground survey which often turns up evidence unseen from the air.

All in all the day was again filled with some very intriguing work, most of which is only in the beginning stages and so we look forward to following the trajectories of these researchers and where their investigations lead.

Simone Mantellini (Università di Bologna) on Mapping the Cultural Landscape of the Samarkand Oasis, Uzbekistan and Roland Lin (UNESCO) on The UNESCO Silk Roads project in Central Asia were both unable to attend due to Covid-19 travel restrictions in Europe.

As this post goes out we are keenly aware of the pandemic and send our wishes for good health in your families and communities. We are in contact with our colleagues and like many, are working from home. Take good care!!


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