SFB 586SFB 586 - D6SFB 586 - D6
 Archaeological Fieldwork in 2005


Archaeological Prospections in the Aktangi Valley System (Northern Tadjikistan) in 2005

by Sören Stark, Seminar for Oriental Archaeology and Art History

1. Introduction

The main objective of project D 6 at the Collaborative Research Centre 586 Difference and Integration - Interaction between nomadic and settled forms of life in the civilisations of the Old World is to approach the problem of micro- and macro-regional interrelations of high mountain pastoralists with other existence strategies from an archaeological and micro-regional perspective. Major questions addressed are:

To answer these questions three valley systems at the northern slopes of the Turkestan Range in Northern Tadjikistan are subject to archaeological prospections: the Aktangi system in the west, the Argly system in the central section and the Djokatsu system in the east (fi. 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Areas of Prospection 2005-2007

Fieldwork is carried out by a joint team from the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography at the Academy of Sciences of Tadjikistan and the Seminar of Oriental Archaeology and Art at the University Halle-Wittenberg. The season 2005 took place from July 15th to August 28th and was focused on the Aktangi valley system.(1)

The Aktangi valley system is located south of present-day Shahriston at elevations between ca. 2000 and 3200 m above sea level. In contrast to the southern slopes of the Turkestan range which abruptly drop down to the Upper Zarafshan valley and almost completely lack vegetation the northern slopes of the mountain range constitute a distinctive high mountain zone of alpine and sub-alpine character. Above an altitude of ca. 2000 m asl its climate is moderately moist, with moderate hot summer seasons and prolific snowfalls during winter season. The vegetation period fluctuates in the lower and higher sections of the Mountain zone between three and five months with first snowfalls in the beginning of September in the higher valley sections (above 2800 m). Accordingly, vegetation at the northern slopes is dominated by extensive Archa forests (juniperus turkestanica Kom.) and alpine and sub-alpine meadows at altitudes between 2000-3200 m asl (fig. 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Archa forests and sub-alpine meadows in the Kyrk-Kazyk-valley

Even if social and economic structures in the region have changed in many ways in the course of the 20th century, these meadows are still predominantly used as summer pastures by transhumant pastoralists. Herds are mainly composed of sheeps and goats together with a few cows and horses. In contrast to that, the lower sections of the valley system are increasingly used for crop husbandry (mainly potatoes, cereals, lucerne).

The valley system of the Aktangi had already been subject to some archaeological investigations from the late 1950s onwards. These investigations include: 1. The so-called 'Aktangi shelter' which provided a stratigraphical sequence from the mesolithic up to the late Middle Ages (almost completely excavated from 1959-1964 by V. A. Ranov, but only partly published) (2) and two further caves, resp. shelters, briefly noted by Ranov, as well as a workshop for stone tools (3); 3. The settlement 'Khonyaylov', partly excavated 1963-1968 and 1987-1989 by N. N. Negmatov resp. M. Mamadjanova together with its cemetery, published in several brief communications and dated by the excavators to the 9th-13th centuries (4); 3. The cemetery 'Machitli', excavated 1963 and 1964 by Yu. Yakubov and T.P. Kiyatkina (supervised by N.N. Negmatov) and partly published by Negmatov and Kiyatkina in 1968 resp. 1987 (5).

2. Results 2005

A. General Remarks

The field campaigne 2005 was essentially constituted by surface prospections. All findspots were registered with separate find numbers, recorded with GPS and consecutively numbered. In cases of distinct structuring of a given findspot subdivisions like A, B, C etc. were applied. Only where a further clarification of the character and the date of a given site seemed indispensable small test trenches were laid out.

In the 2005 field season we were able to record a total of 32 new sites. Four of these sites can be classified as settlements, two represent cemeteries (fig. 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Settlements and Cemeteries

Another six sites are shelters or caves with substantial traces of human habitation. Four sites represent rectangular or oval stone enclosures, probably to provide shelter for transhumant herdsmen and their flocks at the higher altitudes of the summer pastures above 2900 m (subsequently labelled as herdsmen's stations) (fig. 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Caves, Rock Shelters and Herdsmen's Stations

The remaining sites are enclosures of unknown function (partly they also might have served to gather livestock), traces of old field terraces, traces of irrigation channels and, finally, isolated stray finds such as ceramic sherds and metallurgic slags.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Enclosures, Terraces, Irrigation Channels and isolated Stray Finds

B. Settlements, their cemeteries and related traces of field terrases and irrigation-channels

This category of sites includes the sites of Mazori-Khodja-Tug, Aktang-2, Kyrk-Kazyk-1, Kyrk-Kazyk-2, Aktangi-7, as well as the above mentioned sites Khonyaylov and Machitli. Because the foundations of the buildings are set in stone rubble architectural features of these settlements are more or less discernible right on the surface. In this respect the state of preservation was extremely favourable at the site of Aktangi-2.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Satellite image (Quickbird) from the site Aktangi-2
[Includes material © 2002 DigitalGlobe, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED])

Thus, on the basis of a Quickbird scene (fig. 6, surface prospection and a small test trench (Object D on the site), a preliminary plan of the whole settlement could be established (fig. 7).

Figure 7

Figure 7: Site Aktangi-2. Preliminary plan of the settlement

According to this, the inhabited area measures about 1.3 ha. On the surface we were able to record single house complexes, sometimes even single rooms, separated from each other by narrow lanes and squares. Furthermore there were two small water basins (hawuzes) within the settlement and finally the entire site was at least partly enclosed by stone walls 0,4 m in width. These walls probably had no defensive function but served to gather livestock within the village. Important to note is a high quantity of iron slags and furnace fragments, collected from all over the surface of the settlement and its immediate surroundings.

According to the evidence from the test trench, slags and furnace fragments were re-used as building material in Object D. This points to a date of iron smelting in the valley earlier or simultaneously with the existence of the settlement. Fragments of glazed and non-glazed pottery from the surface date from the 10th/11th to the early 13th century (fig. 8).

Figure 8

Figure 8: Aktangi-2. Glazed pottery. Surface finds

This observation was fully confirmed by the test trench which revealed no deep cultural layers: below the recent surface and a homogenous gley-gravel-humus filling, which seems to have been accumulated after the abandonment of the settlement, only one respectively two floors of trampled clay were observed at a depth between 0.96-1.17 m. Therefore, there is a strong indication that the site is single-phase in character. The filling itself contained glazed (fig. 9), stamped (fig. 10), painted, and undecorated pottery sherds which can be securely dated by analogies from Ustrushana as well as from the neighbouring regions from the late 10th/beginning of the 11th century to the beginning of the 13th century.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Aktangi-2. Glazed pottery from trench D

Figure 10

Figure 10: Aktangi-2. Stamped pottery from trench D

The same chronological spectrum was recorded in the four other settlements of the valley.

Figure 11

Figure 11: Ceramics
1, 6, 8-9 - Mazori Khodja Tug; 2, 4-5, 7, 13 - Aktangi-2/trench D;
3, 10-11 - Aktangi-2/surface finds; 12 - Aktangi-1

Figure 12

Figure 12: Ceramics
1-7, 10 - Aktangi-2/trench D; 8-9 - Mazori Khodja Tug; 11 - Aktangi-2/surface finds

Figure 13

Figure 13: Ceramics
1, 3-4 - Mazori Khodja Tug; 2 - Aktangi-2/trench D

This date is further sustained by the evidence from the cemeteries immediately adjacent to the settlements. Special mention deserves a new cemetery next to the site Aktangi-2 (Aktangi-7). Here a total amount of eight burials was registered, three of them were excavated (fig. 14).

Figure 14

Figure 14: Aktangi-7. Burials 1 and2

All excavated graves are characterized by a simple pit (no 'podboj'). They are either covered with schist slabs (burials 1, 3), or consisted of a proper cist of schist slabs (burial 2). The cist was set on Archa beams. Superstructures were not recorded. All individuals lay supine with their head roughly orientated to the north. All this finds close analogies in other early Muslim necropols from Ustrushana such as Machitli, Khonyaylov, Kalai Sar and Kul'-tyube (Sabat). What is peculiar in Aktangi-7 is the probable existence of a specific children's area within the cemetery: all excavated burials belong to children and newborns. Judging from the small size of the schist slabs covering the unexcavated burials these are also very likely to be children's burials.

Apart from the settlements and their cemeteries traces of non-recent crop husbandry, such as terraces and small irrigation channels are abundant up to an altitude of 2600 m (fig. 15).

Figure 15

Figure 15: Aktangi-6. Irrigation Channel

A precise dating of these structures remains problematic. But the existence of settlements in the very same altitude section of the valleys might indicate a simultaneous date of both kind of sites.

C. Caves, rock shelters and stone enclosures

Sites of this categories can be found in the entire valley system, starting from the beginning up to the highest summer pastures. Their dating is problematic. In particular the stone enclosures (figs. 16-17) have not provided any datable material.

Figure 16

Figure 16: Herdsmen's station (Takhta-Mazor-5)

Figure 17

Figure 17: Herdsmen's station (Rarz-2)

In fact, given the considerable erosion processes at these altitudes the relatively good state of preservation of these sites might point to a rather recent date for some of them. And consequently, considerable older structures of this type, if lacking constant repair, are likely to have been reduced over centuries to rubble which is difficult to distinguish from natural accumulations of debris appearing everywhere on the valley bottom. This situation proved to be more favourable concerning the caves and rock shelters (figs. 18-19).

Figure 18

Figure 18: Shelter Tuyatash-4

Figure 19

Figure 19: Cave Aktangi-3

Surface prospection provided ceramic sherds dating roughly to the Middle Ages (7th/8th-18th century) at two sites of this type (Tuyatash-4, Aktangi-3). Considerable deposits of ash and straw on the floor as well as thick soot residues on the rooves of these two cave sites point to their centuries-old use by the inhabitants of the valley. It is therefore very likely that the use of the shelters Tuyatash-4 and Aktangi-3 was not restricted to the Middle Ages: the above mentioned excavations of Ranov in the very similar 'Aktangi'-shelter, just 540 m respectively ca. 2500 m away from these sites, have proved the constant use of rock shelters or caves in the Aktangi valley since the beginning of the 7th millennium BC.

3. Some preliminary conclusions

Our prospections in 2005 revealed a surprisingly substantial archaeological evidence associated with sedentary life in the Aktangi valley up to an altitude of 2600 m. The dating provided by the settlements points to a rather sudden development of a regular chain of small and compact villages in this part of the valley in the late Samanid or Early Karakhanid period. Furthermore, it seems that this this chain of settlements abruptly disappears at the beginning of the 13th century. We have no archaeological evidence for any comparable sedentary occupation in the valley system before and after this period. Therefore, we might presently assume that before the late 10th/early 11th century and after the beginning of the 13th century this marginal area was mainly used by mobile herdsmen, quite similar to the situation in the 19th/early 20th century.

To explain the sudden shift of settlement pattern in the Aktangi valley system in the late Samanid/Early Karakhanid period we should have a look at some economic features of the settlements in question: The ubiquitous appearance of glazed pottery strongly suggest intense economic and commercial ties with the belt of urbanized micro-oases in Ustrushana and south-western Ferghana. Especially close analogies regarding types and decor exist with the material from contemporary sites from the Shahriston oasis and with ceramics from Karabulak in south-western Ferghana. Another peculiar economic feature are traces of iron processing in the valley system. They not only confirm the reports of Muslim geographers of the 10th-12th century about iron mining, smelting and processing in the mountain rustaqs of Ustrushana but make it also plausible that iron metallurgy gave the decisive stimulus for the appearance of compact settlements in the Aktangi valley system. If this is true, a highly specialized market economy stimulated by the boom of the nearby oasis centers would have spread to quite marginal territories. It is difficult to  judge whether - and if so to what extent - sedentary economy and life could have supplanted the traditional stockbreeding pursued in the valley by transhumant herdsmen. At any rate, our data show that from the 10th/11th to the early 13th century a complex pattern of resource exploitation spread through to the Aktangi valley system, including stockbreeding, rain-fed and irrigation farming, and thereby securing the subsistence of the newly established settlements. With the end of the urban center in the Shahriston oasis in the early 13th century (either related to the devastations caused by Khwarezm-shah Muhammad in the region in ca. 1212-1213 or as a result of the Mongol invasion in 1220) also the settlement system in the Aktangi valley came to a close.

Figure 20

Figure 20: Team 2005 (from left to right) - Usman Eshankulov, Matthias Gütte,
Sören Stark, Nabi Rakhimov, Habib Tursunov, Khusrau Eshankulov


(1) The project is directed by Prof. Markus Mode. The 2005 field team consisted of Sören Stark (field director), Nabi Rakhimov, Usman Eshankulov and Matthias Gütte. The final drawings of the ceramics are the work of Dorothea Erbe. All maps and plans were prepared by Matthias Gütte.

(2) Litvinskii, B.A./Ranov, V.A.: Raskopki navesa Ak-Tangi v 1959 g., In: Trudy Instituta Istorii im. Akhmada Donisha Akademii Nauk Tadzhikskoi SSR, tom XXXI, 1961 g. (=Arkheologicheskie raboty v Tadzhikistane 7, 1961), pp. 30-49; Idem: Raskopki navesa Ak-Tangi v 1961 g., In: Trudy Instituta Istorii im. Akhmada Donisha Akademii Nauk Tadzhikskoi SSR, tom XLII, 1961 g. (=Arkheologicheskie raboty v Tadzhikistane 9, 1964), pp. 3-24

(3) Ranov, V.A./Saltovskaya, E.D.: O rabotakh Ura-tyubinskogo otryada v 1959 g., In: Trudy Instituta Istorii im. Akhmada Donisha Akademii Nauk Tadzhikskoi SSR, tom XXXI, 1961 g. (=Arkheologicheskie raboty v Tadzhikistane 7, 1961), pp. 109, 111-115

(4) Negmatov, N.N.: K probleme kompaktnykh selenii Ustrushany i Khodzhenskoi oblastiv srednie veka, In: Material'naya kul'tura Tadzhikistana 3 (1978), pp. 146-164; Mamadzhanova, M.L.: Raskopki na selenii Khonyailov, In: Arkheologicheskie raboty v 25 (1994), pp. 55-57

(5) Negmantov, N.N., K probleme; Kiyatkina, T.P.: Mogil'nik Machitli, In: Material'naya kul'tura Tadzhikistana 4 (1987), pp. 251-279

Forthcoming publications:

Sonderforschungsbereich 586 - Differenz und Integration.
Wechselwirkungen zwischen nomadischen und seßhaften Lebensformen in Zivilisationen der Alten Welt.

Eingerichtet an der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg und der Universität Leipzig.
Gefördert von der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft.

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