The unveiling of a 4,000-year-old civilization calls into question conventional ideas about ancient culture, trade, and religion.
Viktor Sarianidi, barefoot at dawn, surveys the treeless landscape from a battered lawn chair in the Kara-Kum desert of Turkmenistan. "The mornings here are beautiful," he says, gesturing regally with his cane, his white hair wild from sleep. "No wife, no children, just the silence, God, and the ruins."
Viktor Sarianidi spends nearly half of every year digging in Turkmenistan's Kara-Kum desert.
Courtesy of Kenneth Garrett
Where others see only sand and scrub, Sarianidi has turned up the remnants of a wealthy town protected by high walls and battlements. This barren place, a site called Gonur, was once the heart of a vast archipelago of settlements that stretched across 1,000 square miles of Central Asian plains. Although unknown to most Western scholars, this ancient civilization dates back 4,000 years—to the time when the first great societies along the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers were flourishing.
Thousands of people lived in towns like Gonur with carefully designed streets, drains, temples, and homes. To water their orchards and fields, they dug lengthy canals to channel glacier-fed rivers that were impervious to drought. They traded with distant cities for ivory, gold, and silver, creating what may have been the first commercial link between the East and the West. They buried their dead in elaborate graves filled with fine jewelry, wheeled carts, and animal sacrifices. Then, within a few centuries, they vanished.
News of this lost civilization began leaking out in the 1970s, when archaeologists came to dig in the southern reaches of the Soviet Union and in Afghanistan. Their findings, which were published only in obscure Russian-language journals, described a culture with the tongue-twisting name Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. Bactria is the old Greek name for northern Afghanistan and the northeast corner of Iran, while Margiana is further north, in what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Through the region runs the Amu Dar'ya River, which was known in Greek history as the Oxus River. Western scholars subsequently used that landmark to dub the newly found culture the Oxus civilization.
The initial trickle of information dried up in 1979 when the revolution in Iran and war in Afghanistan locked away the southern half of the Oxus. Later, with the 1990 fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian archaeologists withdrew from Central Asia. Undeterred, Sarianidi and a handful of other archaeologists soldiered on, unearthing additional elaborate structures and artifacts. Because of what they have found, scholars can no longer regard ancient Central Asia as a wasteland notable primarily as the origin of nomads like Genghis Khan. In Sarianidi's view, this harsh land of desert, marsh, and steppe may instead have served as a center in a broad, early trading network, the hub of a wheel connecting goods, ideas, and technologies among the earliest of urban peoples.
Courtesy of Kenneth Garrett
Harvard University archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky believes the excavation at Gonur is "a major event of the late 20th century," adding that Sarianidi deserves credit for discovering the lost Oxus culture and for his "30 consecutive years of indefatigable excavations." To some other researchers, however, Sarianidi seems more desert eccentric than dispassionate scholar. For starters, his techniques strike many colleagues as brutish and old-fashioned. These days Western archaeologists typically unearth sites with dental instruments and mesh screens, meticulously sifting soil for traces of pollen, seeds, and ceramics. Sarianidi uses bulldozers to expose old foundations, largely ignores botanical finds, and publishes few details on layers, ceramics, and other mainstays of modern archaeology.
His abrasive personality hasn't helped his cause, either. "Everyone opposes me because I alone have found these artifacts," he thunders during a midday break. "No one believed anyone lived here until I came!" He bangs the table with his cane for emphasis.
Sarianidi is accustomed to the role of outsider. As a Greek growing up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under Stalinist rule, he was denied training in law and turned to history instead. Ultimately, it proved too full of groupthink for his taste, so he opted for archaeology. "It was more free because it was more ancient," he says. During the 1950s he drifted, spending seasons between digs unemployed. He refused to join the Communist Party, despite the ways it might have helped his career. Eventually, in 1959, his skill and tenacity earned him a coveted position at the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow, but it was years before he was allowed to direct a dig.
The ancient Oxus culture may have arisen at sites like Anau, a settlement at the base of the Kopet-Dag mountains, which dates back to 6500 B.C. Later settlements like Gonur, roughly 4,000 years old, may have been founded by people from the Kopet-Dag cultures.
An apparent royal burial site at Gonur contains luxury goods, a cart with bronze-sheathed wheels, and the remains of a camel.
An American team works at Anau, in the foothills of the Kopet-Dag mountains.