HOMELAND OF WHITE WHEAT
The Turkmen land has attracted merchants, travelers, researchers from other Asian countries, as well as Europe and America since ancient times. For some it was the thirst for profit and adventures and exotics of distant wanderings, others were interested in the history that is full of secrets hidden under the thickness of the earth. The latter included American geologist Rafael Pampelli. It was at the end of the 19th century that he learned almost accidentally that there existed a hill called Anau not far from Ashgabat that was partially excavated in 1886 by Russian general Alexander Komarov, who at that time was the head of the Transcaspian region. Knowing well about the excavations of Scythian burial mounds in the European part of Russia, Alexander Komarov apparently expected to find a rich “royal” burial in this place but eventually came upon a multi-layered primitive settlement. Nevertheless, the general reported his findings to the Imperial Archaeological Committee in St. Petersburg, and an excerpt from his report appeared not only in the Russian press but also in translation into European languages.
Komarov hardly realized what consequences his message would have. The liveliest interest was shown by the professor of geology. In 1904, Pampelli organized the first scientific archaeological expedition to Turkmenistan to carry out excavations. For this, he invited reputable German archaeologist Hubert Schmidt, who was known for previous excavation of the legendary Troy together with Heinrich Schliemann. In Anau, Pampelli and Schmidt discovered not one but two hills containing the remains of an ancient agricultural civilization that existed in the Eneolithic era, that is, about six thousand years ago. The many finds of that expedition included centuries-old and well-preserved charred grains of cereals. Their laboratory analysis in the United States turned into a worldwide sensation.
It turned out that the world most ancient samples of wheat were bred by the distant ancestors of modern Turkmens – residents of a fertile oasis in the delta of the Keltechinar river. They used to make flour of this wheat to bake white bread. The rarest find has become another indisputable evidence of the antiquity of the agricultural culture in the foothills of the Kopetdag. It was this fact that prompted the government of Turkmenistan to establish a museum called “Ak Bugday” (White Wheat) – the only one of its kind dedicated to bread, the most important food product that people learned to make in ancient times. The idea of this museum is to demonstrate the whole path of bread – from grain sowing and harvesting to production of flour and baking bread in the Turkmen tradition.
No one had any doubts about the location of the would-be museum. All agreed that Anau is a natural place for such a museum. In the time of the museum construction, a joint Turkmen-American archaeological expedition led by Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist of the US National Geographic Society, worked two kilometers from the construction site. Together with fellow archaeologists Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov (Turkmenistan) and Vladimir Zavyalov (Russia) he began excavations in the first years of Turkmenistan’s independence, continuing the work of his famous compatriot. In one of the seasons, they were joined by great-granddaughter of Rafael Pampelli, artist-botanist of the University of California Louise Pampelli, and the paleobotanist, professor of the Museum of Archeology of the University of Pennsylvania Naomi Miller. During excavations of the layer of the second millennium BC, they found a whole handful of grain, just like their predecessors a century earlier. Using the radiocarbon method of analyzing organic remains, scientists were able to establish the age of the find.
The Ak Bugday National Museum in Anau was opened on the day of the national harvest festival, 15 June 2005. A small building made of white marble, round in plan, has an unusual shape and speaks of its purpose with its whole appearance. Its parapet and roof are crowned with two rows of stylized gilded ears of corn, and there is a rising spire in the form of a huge golden ear of corn in the center of this monumental crown. Around the building, there is a park of coniferous trees, lilac bushes, with fountains and lanterns that were also made in the form of ears of corn.
The entire exposition is associated with the history and production of grain crops in Turkmenistan. There are no separate halls, the entire interior space of both floors is divided into two sectors circle-wise. A viewing tour of the museum exhibits begins, of course, with archeology. The first thing that visitors see is glass flasks with the same “white wheat” from the excavations of Anau. The grains, blackened by fire, have been preserved for centuries and millennia precisely due to the fact that they did not germinate, did not rot, but turned into coals that are not afraid of time. The next stand presents a family heirloom donated to the museum by Luisa Pampelli – the two-volume edition of her great-grandfather’s book “Excavations in Turkestan. Prehistoric Civilizations of Anau” published in Washington DC in 1908. These folios have long become the educational reading for all archaeologists who worked in Turkmenistan throughout the 20th century, and now there is also a Turkmen translation of this fundamental work.
The showcases with the archaeological collection of the museum display a variety of devices for grain collecting and processing. These are tools of labor, ancient stone grain grinders, medieval bronze mortars, millstones with well-wishes engraved on them. Huge ceramic jugs (khums) – container vessels for storing cereals – are presented as separate groups. One of them stands out for its unusual design. The upper half of its body is decorated with ornamental stucco and many round clay seals. A geometric ornament is inscribed in the middle of the khum. What does it mean? Scientists put forward different hypotheses, but they do not doubt one thing: any ornaments in antiquity were not simple decorations. They were endowed with a certain meaning, and magical power was attributed to them. Fragments and entire specimens of Eneolithic pottery, painted with large black and red geometric ornaments, are well represented. These shards, found by General Komarov, became the key to the discovery of the early agricultural culture of Anau.
There are many bronze items among the exhibits of the museum, including knives, scrapers, various agricultural tools. Particularly interesting is one bronze blade with a handle more than half a meter long. Made with great skill and taste, it has been perfectly preserved despite its impressive age – about four thousand years! Historians argue on what type of weapon was this blade – a spearhead or a dagger? Nearby one can see completely rare products, such as oblong ceramic rings about a meter high, which were links of an underground water pipeline-kyariz. Tightly stacked one after another in a tunnel that was dug at a considerable depth, they reliably protected the gallery from soil shedding. In the Middle Ages, water from mountain sources was delivered to irrigated fields in the lower parts of the Kopetdag valley through such underground channels.
Particular attention in the museum is given to the pearl of Anau – the cult ensemble of the mosque of Sheikh Jamal ad-Din that was built in front of his grave in the middle of the 15th century. This architectural masterpiece of the Timurid era was destroyed during the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake, and now only its ruins can be seen. Its portal, once decorated with a decorative panel with a mirror image of two dragons in the Chinese artistic style, disappeared. According to the researchers, this image has deep local roots associated with the ancient cult of water and fertility. The panel was made using the mosaic technique. Each of its details is cut out of multi-colored faience tiles and fixed on a plaster base.
In 2001, Turkmen archaeologists and architect-restorers carried out a reconstruction project for this panel. Thousands of small and large fragments of the once unified picture were found during excavations of the ruins of the building and reassembled like puzzles. Alas, several decades after the earthquake, no more than twenty percent of the former mosaic was preserved, but it was recreated in one of the halls of the Museum of Fine Arts of Turkmenistan. The missing parts were softly portrayed, and the original fragments were put in place. The Ak Bugday Museum also has materials related to this legendary mosque.
If archeology begins to the right of the entrance, then the ethnographic collection of this museum occupies its entire left side and part of the lower floor. There one can see the traditional clothes of the Turkmens, old household items, ancient agricultural tools and various utensils – the products of local artisans of the 19th – early 20th centuries. One cannot but notice mortars with pestles made from a tree trunk, hand-held stone millstones and other tools that were used by Turkmen families for processing grain crops. A large bronze cauldron of the 12th century decorated with engraved floral ornaments, medallions and arabesques is a true adornment of the exposition. A chest of an unusual shape, intended for storing household valuables, stands separately. It was carved from a single piece of wood in the form of a jug with a lid. There is no such artifact in any other museum of Turkmenistan.
There is also a very rare bronze bowl reserved for divination and healing magic. This is chilkalit, which literally means “forty keys”. The bowl is a hemisphere with a flat bottom with a protrusion in the form of a cone. A bowl of smaller diameter with a ledge was attached to it. Forty pendants imitating keys were hung on this bowl. The inner and outer surfaces of the bowl are completely covered with religious texts in Arabic. The Anau chilkalit is also decorated with twelve signs of the Zodiac in oval medallions, which makes it completely unique.
On the lower floor of the Ak Bugday museum there are two expositions. One is devoted to agriculture of the 19th–20th centuries, the other is dedicated to the current era of Turkmenistan’s independence. Looking at the long-forgotten tools and mechanisms for land cultivation, sowing and harvesting, one can imagine how hard the work of a plowman-farmer was in the very recent past. One can see an old wooden plow with an iron tip that was used by the Turkmens in their original tradition. Various trailers for the first tractors that appeared on Turkmen soil in the twenties of the last century are also exhibited.
Nowadays, selection of grain crops continues in the homeland of white wheat, only at a higher technological level. Modern Turkmen farmers do not forget their ancient history, folk traditions and wise precepts of their ancestors. At the same time, the world’s most advanced scientific achievements are used, and the small museum in Anau reminds us of how it all began.