University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Trekking in Transoxiana: My Journey to Central Asia and Beyond – Kyle Olson


August 13, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.


1 August 2015
Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Asalom Alaikum, Marhamat, Здавствуйте, and Hello from Central Asia! My name is Kyle Olson and I am soon to be a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at Penn. With the generous support of the Penn Museum’s summer field funding, I will soon be embarking on a journey of archaeological reconnaissance that will take me through Turkmenistan en route back to Philadelphia from Tajikistan.

The name of the region in which I work was historically known as Khorasan. You may have heard this word in the news because this is the name that ISIS uses to refer to Afghanistan and Central Asia. (Image Credit: https://aratta.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/traces-of-an-bmac-related-culture-near-the-town-of-sankhast-in-north-khorasan-province-iran/)
The name of the region in which I work was historically known as Khorasan. You may have heard this word in the news because this is the name that ISIS uses to refer to Afghanistan and Central Asia. (Image credit: https://aratta.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/traces-of-an-bmac-related-culture-near-the-town-of-sankhast-in-north-khorasan-province-iran/)

My summer began with a State Department-sponsored Critical Language Scholarship to study Farsi and Tajiki, two dialects of the Persian Language that are widely spoken in Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. I have spent seven weeks in an intensive language course and in my spare time have immersed myself in the local culture, alternatively using Tajiki, Russian, and what little Uzbek I have picked up from my host family to navigate my way across the country to visit archaeological sites and local museums.

Panorama of the Anzob pass on the road between Dushanbe and Panjakent on the way to Sarazm. (Photo Credit: Author).
Panorama of the Anzob pass on the road between Dushanbe and Panjakent on the way to Sarazm. (Photo credit: Author)

The Penn Museum does not presently have an expedition operating in this country, but has a long tradition of collaboration with Soviet, post-Soviet, French, and German archaeological teams working at famous Soghdian and Hellenistic sites such as Ancient Panjakent, Takht-i Sangin, and Torbulok. My main goal this summer has been to collect information about and visit Bronze Age sites such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sarazm near Panjakent and the Bronze Age Settlement Complex near Nurek, which includes the sites of Kangurttut, Dakhana, Teguzak, and Barak-i Kuruk. Previous excavations at these sites revealed evidence of settled agricultural communities dating back to the third and second millennia BCE (Before the Common Era) who participated in trade relationships with communities far to the north in the Kazakh steppes as well as to the west and south with the agricultural oases of Turkmenistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. It’s pretty impressive when you consider the distances involved, the roughness of the terrain, and the technological constraints with which they were faced!

Open but protected excavation trench at Sarazm, showing a building complex constructed from mudbricks. (Photo credit: Author).
Open but protected excavation trench at Sarazm, showing a building complex constructed from mudbricks. (Photo credit: Author)

It is in pursuit of tracing these trade connections that I will be traveling to Turkmenistan after the end of my stay here in Tajikistan. From my base in the capitol city of Ashgabat, I intend to visit the nearby sites of Anau, Namazga Depe, Altyn Depe, Kara Depe, Ak Depe, as well as Gonur Depe and Togolok in Margiana. The former sites were the locus of an Early and Middle Bronze Age proto-urban cultural florescence – the Namazga Culture – that laid the foundation for the emergence Oxus Civilization, or the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, as it is known in Russian-language scholarship.

Mountain River Valley in Tajikistan. Ancient peoples would have had to traverse these routes in order to exchange goods across these territories. (Photo Credit: Author).
Mountain River Valley in Tajikistan. Ancient peoples would have had to traverse these routes in order to exchange goods across these territories. (Photo credit: Author).

The Oxus Civilization belongs to the era of the Great Bronze Age Civilizations of the Old World, including those that flourished in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean, Anatolia, Iran, and the Indus. Due to its recent discovery, its remote location, and the fact that little of the primary research on this civilization has been published in English, the Oxus Civilization is largely unfamiliar to all but a small group of specialists. It is, however, no less deserving of attention, especially given its important role in developing and expanding the networks of trade that would eventually form the basis of the Silk Road.

See Possehl 2007 in Expedition 49 Issue 1. Adapted from Figure 10.8 in Fredrik T. Hiebert. Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization in Central Asia. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1994)
Adapted from Figure 10.8 in Fredrik T. Hiebert. Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization in Central Asia. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1994. See also Gregory L. Possehl. 2007. “The Middle Asian Interaction SphereExpedition volume 49, issue 1.
Togolok-21, a fortified BMAC site in Turkmenistan (Photo Credit: Google Image Search, www.andrewlawler.com).
Togolok-21, a fortified BMAC site in Turkmenistan. (Photo credit: Google Image Search, www.andrewlawler.com)

I’m looking forward to getting on the road next week and kicking off my program of reconnaissance! Turkmenistan has the distinction of being among the most notoriously difficult destinations for American travelers to visit; consequently, I am very grateful both for the assistance of my colleagues in securing visas and accommodations, as well as for the financial support the Penn Museum has provided in helping make this trip possible.


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