WITNESS OF FOUR MILLENNIA
Going by train, bus or car past the Dushak railway station, which is located about half way between Ashgabat and Mary, one should take a closer look at a relatively flat silhouette of the Kopetdag ridge that is interrupted in this place by a wide depression. There is a gorge with its left and right sides bounded by two steep cliffs. That is why not only the village but also the river flowing down from the mountain peaks through this gorge into the valley bear the ancient name of Dushak. In Farsi language, it stands for "two parts", "two sides" or "two cliffs". This place is replete with dozens of burial mounds of various sizes. They are concentrated in a comparatively narrow strip of a plateau between the mountain range and the Karakum desert as a reminder of the ancient oasis that once flourished along the banks of Dushak.
The largest hill rises near the modern village, but it is not the main local attraction. Pilgrims come here daily in large groups to visit the neighboring religious complex of Myalik Azhdar (literally - the Dragon Lord) that sprang up around a very long grave hillock that is now covered with marble and surrounded by a garden. There are now new buildings to service the flow of visitors and a mosque with a high minaret that can be seen from afar.
No one knows who was buried in the huge tomb on the edge of a large medieval necropolis. Yet, one thing is clear. Myalik Azhdar, like many other holy places in Turkmenistan and neighboring countries, represents an Islamized pagan shrine. It can't be ruled out that during the rule of Zoroastrianism there was a temple of fire or other ancient cults, as the entire surrounding area is full of swollen ruins. Many traces of old walls, an irrigation network and residential neighborhoods clearly demonstrate the level of urbanization of this area in the unthinkably distant past.
In the 19th century, local Turkmens called their region Etek. According to the Russian sources of that time, this place was called Atek. It is known from the medieval historical chronicles and geographic works that in the pre-Mongol era this place was the center of Hawerand - a rich province located between the modern cities of Kaahka and Serakhs - that was part of the Seljuk state. It was preceded by the Parthian-Sasanian satrapy of Apavarktiken. And what was there before? There are no references in the written sources, but the archaeological excavations of Dushak's fortifications indicate that they were built already in the early Eneolithic, that is, at least six thousand years ago!
Pilgrims heading to the shrine of Myalik Azhdar go around a massive hill with the remains of a very ancient settlement. It existed at the dawn of civilization and served as an unconditional center for the entire region. It is now called Ulug-Depe. It means "Great Hill" in Turkmen language, which matches this description perfectly. It occupies 15 hectares of land, rising above the plain by about 30 meters. From its summit, one can see an impressive panorama of the area spreading around for tens of kilometers. Two nearest settlements of approximately the same age and size - Namazga-Depe and Altyn-Depe - are inferior to it in terms of thickness of the cultural layer, although they occupy a larger area. Ulug-Depe is located exactly in the middle - 45 kilometers in both directions. In contrast to these two much more famous monuments, Ulug-Depe is a long-living settlement. It developed almost continuously for about four thousand years, passed all the stages of the Bronze Age and was abandoned by people only in the Iron Age, shortly before the emergence of the powerful state of Achaemenids in this part of Asia. By that time, Namazga and Altyn had long turned into dead hills.
The honor of scientific discovery of Ulug-Depe belongs to Ashgabat's archaeologist and pioneer Alexander Marushchenko, who was the first to explore it almost 90 years ago, in 1930. There was no opportunity to dig a monument at that time and many specialists followed his steps before the excavations began in 1967. The excavation work was headed by another prominent archaeologist Victor Sarianidi. In four field seasons, he made several deep holes in various parts of the settlement, establishing its age and cultural affiliation. He did not have the chance to continue the excavations at Ulug-Depe, as he started parallel exploration works in Northern Afghanistan and Mary region of Turkmenistan, where he discovered a previously unknown civilization of the Bronze Age that he called the Bactrian-Margian archeological complex. Yet, the hidden secrets of Ulug-Depe continued exciting the scientist.
Thirty years later, when the French-Turkmen Archaeological Mission (MAFTUR) was established, Professor Sarianidi recommended that the mission leader and his longtime friend Olivier Leconte get down to exploration of this promising monument in earnest. Taking heed of this recommendation, Professor Leconte began excavations at Ulug-Depe in 2001. Their results exceeded all expectations. Science got new data on one of the most intriguing episodes of the ancient history of this region, and the collections of Turkmen museums received colorful and expressive exhibits.
In the first decade of work at Ulug-Depe under the leadership of Leconte, the old excavations by the Sarianidi expedition were cleared and a new stratigraphic section was cut at the foot of the hill. A magnetic survey of ten hectares of the upper part of the settlement, carried out in the third season of work, revealed the remains of a large urban settlement of the late iron period, including a strong citadel - a kind of "acropolis", a large storage building and an impressive palace complex. When all this was excavated, it turned out that this quadrate citadel (the length of each side is 40 meters) stood on a platform of mud bricks that hid older buildings on the lower level.
The citadel was well protected by a well-thought-out defense system. There are a lot of holes on the external facades that served as gun-ports for archers. The second wall, the inner one, also with niches and holes, enclosed the "core" of the building that accommodated premises that obviously served as a warehouse of some carefully protected values. The way they were sealed proves that they were kept under strict control by the local administration.
A bypass corridor ran along the outer wall of the citadel. Its roof supported the terrace of the upper floor that stood completely destroyed. The citadel was badly damaged in the fire, but it was repaired later, and its outer walls were painted in bright red. The remains of a number of simple residential buildings were found to the south of the citadel. A fortress wall, more than two meters thick and, probably, of impressive height, was also clearly seen. The gate location was also identified. The major stock of the city was apparently stored in a huge 60-meter long building, consisting of a number of very narrow chambers. All these buildings date back to the late stage of life at Ulug-Depe. They were built around the IX century BC.
French excavations confirmed that of all Central Asian settlements of the ancient farmers Ulug-Depe has the longest history - from the early Aeneolithic to the end of the Iron Age, including, perhaps, the Achaemenid period. The settlement reached its greatest size in the era of early and developed Bronze Age, and from the middle of the second millennium BC its area sharply decreased. At the same time, some individual buildings - small estate fortresses - have been spotted within the radius of up to one kilometer from the foot of the hill, including the territory of the Myalik Azhdar complex.
Eventually, as a result of excavations, in addition to the unearthed architecture, a myriad of artifacts was obtained. They include a variety of pottery, bronze and stone products: grain grinders, mortars, jewelry, seal amulets and their prints on ceramics and clay. The inhabitants of Ulug-Depe were engaged not only in irrigated agriculture and animal husbandry. Excavations of clay furnaces testify to intensive craft activities, while the discovery of exotic materials such as turquoise and lapis lazuli beads demonstrates connection with very remote regions.
Terracotta figurines, primarily of women, depicting the goddess of fertility, make a special group of finds. There was unearthed even a workshop where these figurines were made in large quantities. As for the everyday crockery, a whole series of pieces of broken crockery and intact painted bowls with the so-called carpet ornament and schematic painting of animals typical of the Eneolithic were found at Ulug-Depe.
According to Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento, the pupil and successor of Professor Leconte to the post of director of MAFTUR, a very rich burial of the Middle Bronze Age (2500-2000 BC) that was excavated in 2014 proved the international importance of this place in prehistoric times. There was found convincing evidence of existence of specialized crafts, such as ceramics, metallurgy and stone-cutting art. Studies of ceramic products revealed important technological changes in the methods of their production, and the discovery of a set of stone vases and cups in this burial was truly sensational.
It was perhaps for the first time in the archaeological practice that such a great number of alabaster vases of various shapes and sizes were found. Such utensils had never been used in everyday life. They had significant value, given the materials from which they were made and difficulties associated with their delivery. Being part of the funeral offerings, they naturally had some purely symbolic meaning.
Alabaster is semitransparent white gypsum with marble streaks that looks like chalcedony onyx. It is difficult to determine the exact nature of the stone used for these vases, as long as there is no physical and chemical analysis of it. However, it can be argued that many of the vessels appear to come from the same source, since the same streaks can be seen on all items. The nearest to Ulug-Depe deposits of such stones are located in Koytendag, in the south-east of Turkmenistan. At the same time, cylindrical cups were among the items that were traded by the Indus civilization. These connections are confirmed by the treasures of Quetta that account for two "bowls" of the same type.
In that period of time, stone and metal items were typical for proto-cities and countries, and an apparently imported painted vase found in the same tomb at Ulug-Depe remains a completely unique discovery in Central Asia. It shows that even such fragile items of great value could also travel long distances. Dr. Bendezu-Sarmiento shared this notion with the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts of Turkmenistan when he turned a collection of unique finds to them for permanent storage.
Speaking about the research work of the French-Turkmen mission at Ulug-Depe, one cannot but mention the remarkable archaeological base that Professor Leconte built in the village of Dushak and transferred in trust of the State Historical and Cultural Preserve "Abiverd". There were created all necessary conditions for living and laboratory work of expeditions during field seasons. Regular scientific and practical seminars on restoration of the finds are also held there. Along with the specialists of the Preserve, such seminars bring together restorers from the Ashgabat and Mary museums and subject-related students from the Turkmen State Institute of Culture.
This summer, Olivier Leconte would have turned 70 years old. He did not live to celebrate his anniversary birthday, but he left behind talented students in Turkmenistan and France, who continue the work of his life. The excavations at Ulug-Depe will continue for many more years, and so far no one knows what new surprises the Great Hill will bring in the future.