REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
December 4, 2022, marked the 125th birth anniversary of Mikhail Yevgenievich Masson, a scientist whose name is known to everyone who studied or was simply interested in the history of Turkmenistan. He was a man with extraordinary destiny. He was not only one of the pioneers of archeology of all Central Asia but creator of his own scientific school. Only the select few can do this in science – people endowed with a special gift to lead, open new horizons.
In his long life (and he lived for almost 90 years), the scientist traveled thousands of kilometers through the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, discovered dozens, if not hundreds of monuments of history and culture, published about four hundred scientific papers that he wrote during breaks in his work at the Department of Archeology that he founded at the Tashkent University and field seasons at the excavations of various settlements. Along with many small notes that he called “chickens”, he penned a significant number of topical articles and monographs. And yet, his main brainchild was the South Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition (STACE). Established on his initiative in 1945, it operated for half a century. In the first twenty years, it was supervised directly by Academician Mikhail Masson, and later, after his retirement, by his students. It is thanks to STACE that the most striking archaeological discoveries were made in Turkmenistan.
The path of the famous archaeologist to recognition and success was long and difficult. As it often happens, it was a happy coincidence that predetermined his fate. His background is very uncommon. His paternal ancestor, Scotsman Mason, having moved to France, married a Frenchwoman and thus “frenchified” his surname. Their son Jacques Masson married an Englishwoman named Sarah White, and their grandson Louis moved to Russia, married a Russian girl named Raisa Okun from Pskov. They became the grandfather and grandmother of Mikhail Masson. His father, Yevgeny Masson, worked as a topographer in Samarkand, when his mother, Antonina Shpakovskaya, who originated from a Russian-Ukrainian family, went to her relatives in St. Petersburg to give birth to her son. It was 1897. The future archaeologist was named after the Kyiv prince Mikhail of Chernigov, who lived in the 13th century and was executed by the Mongols for refusing to bow to their idols and later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
When the baby got stronger, the mother returned with him to Samarkand, where Mika (as he was called at home and among his peers) spent his childhood. While still a teenager, he met and became friends with an amateur archaeologist, an official of the Samarkand regional administration, Vasily Vyatkin, whom he later called his “godfather” in archeology. He was a completely outstanding person, an erudite in everything related to the history of the East, fluent in local languages and Arabic writing. He naturally had a great influence on young Masson and infected him with his passion for antiquities. In the house of Vyatkin, Mika saw Academician Vasily Bartold for the first time, eagerly listened to their conversations and read a lot.
Despite such an early passion for history, Mikhail, at his father insistence, entered the Civil Engineering Department of the Petrograd Polytechnic Institute after graduating from the gymnasium. He studied well but continued dreaming of archeology. The First World War was under way, and Masson was drafted into the army together with other students in 1917, leaving his studies uncompleted. He was trained as artillerist, but he fought only in the battlefields of the Civil War. Wounded in battle, he was commissioned and returned to his native Samarkand. And that’s when his professional career began. Looking for a job, he unexpectedly was offered to head the Samarkand Museum of Local Lore. On the one hand, there was nothing surprising in the fact that the new government entrusted such a position to a very young man, not to a specialist of the old regime, many of whom were still in Samarkand. And on the other hand, the staff of the museum consisted of only two people – a manager and a retired soldier who covered for all technical staff. Together they did a lot to make the museum work.
According to Masson’s biographer, Doctor of Historical Sciences Victor Pilipko, Masson took part in all archaeological research on the territory of Samarkand from the very first months of his independent work. This helped him to master the skills of practical field archeology. In general, the Samarkand period was a time of apprenticeship, a period of transition from amateur studies of local history to professional research activities. And even then, Mikhail Masson proved to be not only a diligent student but also an independent creative person with obvious qualities of an organizer and a charismatic leader. In those years, he was intensively engaged in self-education to fill in the gaps in fundamental knowledge, as he did not have a chance to complete his studies at the university. In addition to independent and systematic studies, personal communication with many outstanding orientalists of that time helped him a lot, and this, of course, contributed to his professional growth.
After moving to Tashkent, Mikhail Masson got a job at the Main Historical Museum, where he was appointed head of the department of numismatics. “This branch of historical science was still little known to him at that time, but Masson demonstrated his inherent talent to quickly delve into the essence of any new business, and he shortly became the leading, or rather, the only Central Asian specialist in this field,” Victor Pilipko wrote. Nevertheless, in 1927, he was fired from the museum based on the customary for that time justification, referring to insufficient political maturity, commitment to “pure science”, separation from the urgent tasks of the current moment. With such references, the young scientist managed to get a job only as the head of the library at the Geological Committee – an institution that had little to do with archeology. Yet, single-minded Masson was able to find his niche at this institution too.
For almost a decade, he studied the history of mining in Central Asia. Cooperating in good faith with geologists, he travelled a lot to different, often hard-to-reach corners of the region to collect not only geological but also archaeological data. This way, in 1929, he visited Turkmenistan for the first time. He participated in the exploration of the Sumbar River valley, explored the Misrian plateau between the western slopes of the Kopetdag and the Caspian Sea, where he discovered an unknown archaeological culture of the Late Bronze Age, later studied by his son and referred to in science as “Culture of the Archaic Dehistan”.
In 1936, Mikhail Masson was awarded the degree of Doctor of Archeology, considering the totality of his published works. The award of this title was initiated by the prominent representatives of Russian oriental studies, academicians Joseph Orbeli and Vasily Struve. Their support helped Masson to return to the archaeological bodies and engage in more active scientific work. By that time, his authority had grown so much that in 1939 he was invited to Ashgabat to solve many scientific problems facing the Institute of History of Turkmenistan, as well as to evaluate the work of the only professional Ashgabat archaeologist, Alexander Marushchenko.
In the thirties, this unique specialist carried out the first excavations of the Parthian settlements of Nisa, now included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. He was the first to establish their ancient age and discovered the main architectural structures on their territory. Masson highly rated his achievements, got convinced of the outstanding importance of Nisa and the prospects for its excavations. The resources of the local Institute of History – material and personnel – were too small to organize regular and large-scale excavations of Nisa, and Masson had the idea of organizing a large complex expedition to study the traces of the Parthian culture not only at Nisa but in other areas in southern Turkmenistan. These plans were interrupted by the war, and it was possible to revive them only in 1945.
The original idea of organizing the Parthian expedition turned into a larger enterprise. It was decided to go beyond the Parthian period and study the entire ancient history of Southern Turkmenistan, since the Khorezm expedition under the leadership of Sergei Tolstov already successfully operated in the north of the republic. The first field season of STACE began in the autumn of 1946. This expedition fully justified the word “complex” in its title. Despite the fact that Mikhail Masson had never been involved in primordial archeology, he did everything to make this area of research not only nominally the subject of the expedition but represented by worthy researchers, including academicians Aleksey Okladnikov and Boris Kuftin. The team of archaeologists included prominent scientists raised by Masson, such as his son Vadim Masson, as well as Boris Litvinsky, Yelena Davidovich, Victor Sarianidi, Yuri Buryakov, Victor Pilipko, Edward Rtveladze, Rustam Suleymanov, Terkesh Khodzhaniyazov and many others.
Thanks to STACE, the archaeological monuments of Turkmenistan such as Jeytun, Namazga-depe, Altyn-depe, Kara-depe gained world fame. Large-scale excavations were carried out at all these settlements, resulting in outstanding discoveries. For many decades, these settlements have been a reference in the study of ancient agricultural cultures of the entire Middle East. Back in the fifties, ancient Margiana was discovered, and Vadim Masson’s monograph “The Ancient Agricultural Culture of Margiana” was published, which has since served as the fundamental work on the Early Iron Age of Central Asia, and there is still no equivalent for it.
In his research of the ancient era, Mikhail Masson made outstanding achievements. He chose the settlement of Old Nisa as the first object of his excavations in Turkmenistan, and this research immediately resulted in exceptionally valuable discoveries, including magnificent works of Hellenistic sculpture, the largest collection of Parthian written documents, unique rhyton goblets.
Impressive successes were also achieved in the study of architectural monuments. Along with Nisa, Masson for many years excavated another important monument of Southern Turkmenistan – Merv, which was a real metropolis of the Ancient and Medieval East. Archaeologists had to dig an over 20-meter-deep section to study its powerful fortress walls that existed for about one and a half thousand years. They also researched the administrative buildings within the citadel of Merv, known as Erk-kala, as well as residential and craft quarters on the territory of Gyaur-kala, the pre-Islamic part of the city.
Masson’s monograph “Medieval Trade Routes from Merv to Khorezm and Maverannahr” published in 1966 has gained particular relevance by now. It has become the most important source for UNESCO experts in preparing the nomination of the Turkmen part of the Silk Road to the World Heritage List. Thanks to the activities of STACE, the main architectural monuments of the Seljuk and later eras were identified in a vast zone of old oases from the Caspian Sea to the Amu Darya, and Mikhail Masson’s wife, Academician Galina Pugachenkova, played a special role in this.
Over the years, he had a lot of trouble because of accusations of “planting nepotism in science.” But all these accusations were in vain. With regard to his close friends, he adhered to the same principle – “science is above all.” Indeed, using his influence and organizational skills, he greatly facilitated his son and wife introduction to the science, but this was only the starting support for the worthiest candidates. Later, they even surpassed the mentor with their own success in science, confirming the timeliness of the support that contributed to the early disclosure of their talents.
Mikhail Masson’s contribution to the study of the past of Turkmenistan was duly appreciated by the government of the republic and the scientific community. In 1951, he became a full member of the Academy of Sciences of the Turkmen SSR. Under his editorship, 19 volumes of Proceedings of STACE were published in Ashgabat, and he himself left a truly immense scientific heritage. In his students’ opinion, if he devoted himself only to book learning, he would certainly have produced many more major works, but he, in fact, sacrificed individual scientific work to other aspects of his many-sided talent. Anyway, he continues to live in the memory of new generations of historians and in his ageless books.