They inspired Sumerian cities, Indian trade and Persian art. Meet the most influential civilization you’ve never heard of.
In the 1970s, Soviet archaeologists traveled deep into Turkmenistan’s Kara-Kum Desert, which most people can’t even point to on a map.
This might seem a strange place to seek the ruins of a lost civilization. But that’s exactly what they were searching for.
Here in this unforgiving landscape, “Black Sand” (as the desert’s name means in the Turkmen language) sprawls across more than 200,000 square miles (350,000 sq. km.) northeast of Iran; a salt-flat scoured by sandstorms, sun-hammered by day, near-freezing at night. It’s one of the most sparsely populated environments on earth, with an average of just one person per 2.5 square miles (6.5 sq. km.).
But it was not always this way. Nearly 5,000 years ago, this plain was a fertile river basin, fed by currents rushing down from the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush. Wheat and barley grew here, along with date-palms and fruit trees. Herds of sheep and goats grazed on grass along the mountain slopes.
In other words, this riverplain once resembled the valley of Mesopotamia — not only in its ecology, but also in culture.
For as those Soviet archaeologists pressed further south into the sandy wastes, they discovered a network of ancient mud-brick cities. Among the cities’ collapsed walls, the researchers found finely worked bronze jewelry, ceramics and stonework — much of which seemed to blend the style of the Sumerians with the aesthetics of the Indus Valley civilization further east.
Wondering, “Why haven’t I heard of this?!”
Well… I’m getting to that.
At the time, the archaeologists were just as baffled as anyone. Had they discovered a string of far-flung Sumerian outposts? Or could it be they’d stumbled upon a previously unknown civilization — a contemporary of the empires of Sumer and the Indus Valley, and perhaps the first great trading link between the East and West?
Unfortunately, the rest of the world felt no suspense, because few readers outside the Soviet Union even heard of the discoveries. The researchers gave the civilization the tongue-twisting name of “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex,” and published their findings in Russian, in obscure Soviet academic journals, at a time when the East and West were not exactly keen on sharing their latest breakthroughs with one another.
Then in 1979, revolution and war broke out in Iran and Afghanistan, and most archaeologists fled the region. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 only buried the puzzle deeper. And so, the mysterious civilization’s remains waited beneath the sands.
But although this civilization was “lost,” for a time, it was never entirely forgotten. Viktor Sarianidi, an Uzbekistan-born Greek archaeologist, had been obsessed with the ruins of the Kara-Kum since the 1950s, when he’d first toured the desert as a researcher for the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow. In the 1970s, he’d pressed deeper into the desert than any of his colleagues, and had stumbled on a series of intriguing clay mounds — which are often signs of ancient mud-brick buildings worn down to rubble — near a site called Gonur Tepe in Turkmenistan.
Sarianidi and his team grew obsessed with the site, convinced something important was buried there. Until at last, in the early 1980s—
They finally got the funding to start a full-scale dig.
Sarianidi was never an archaeologist of the modern school, dusting off tiny shards of pottery for hours on end. Instead, he’d have been very at home in the Victorian glory days of “gentleman explorers,” when common practice was to dig quickly, tearing through walls and breaking open tombs in search of celebration-worthy discoveries. That’s exactly what Sarianidi did at Gonur Tepe — and his findings exceeded even the wildest expectations.
Around a vast central citadel surrounded by mud-brick walls and towers, Sarianidi and his team excavated an even greater wall with square bastions, surrounded in turn by a third oval wall enclosing an entire city of temples, marketplaces and houses. Wheeled carts once rolled along the city’s paved roads.
Canals from the Murgab River flowed through its heart, providing clean water to an intricate system of wells and irrigation canals. Clearly, this was no slapdash settlement grown to unmanageable size — it was a planned city, just as beautifully arranged as the urban centers of Sumer and the Indus Valley.
And that was just the beginning of the mystery.
In many of the houses and temples, Sarianidi’s team dug up delicately worked jewelry of gold and silver, set with carnelian and lapis lazuli — the latter of which appears in Sumerian jewelry, but had to be mined near Gonur Tepe, in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The art displays workmanship every bit as fine as that of master Egyptian and Sumerian craftsmen, and features a repertoire of motifs any Sumerologist would recognize: men with mustache-less beards and high-waisted skirts; women in plaited dresses and mantles; heroes clutching snakes and battling mythic monsters.
In fact, Sarianidi’s team discovered several Sumerian cylinder-seals (stamps used as “signatures” on locks and documents) among the ruins, proving that these people — whoever they were — had some kind of trade link with the Sumerians.
But influences from all across Asia were obvious, too.
Gold and silver castings of winged lions and eagle-headed men bear a striking resemblance to art discovered in the treasure-hoards of the (much later) Achaemenid Persian Empire. Metal disks found in some of the houses resemble the wheels of chariots used by later Indo-Iranian people like the Scythians.
The ruins at Gonur Tepe even contained several of the distinctive clay seals used by Indus Valley traders — contemporaries of the Sumerians who constructed their own planned cities at sites like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro — bearing inscriptions in the still-untranslated Indus Script.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, Sarianidi and his team dug up clay bullae (similar to those used by Sumerian merchants to record economic transactions) carved with mysterious symbols unlike those of any known writing system.
Though it sounded too wild to believe, the ruins at Gonur Tepe (and those of other cities found nearby) seemed to demonstrate the existence of a previously unheard-of civilization — one that boasted a system of cities with planned urban architecture, sprawling across Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; along with a continent-spanning trade network, and a unique system of proto-writing. All in the 2000s BCE.
What exactly does this mean for world history?
Perhaps the Sumerians aren’t as unique as we always thought. Experts have long puzzled over Sumerian trade records’ mentions of mysterious eastern lands like Magan and Meluhha. The consensus is that these names referred to Oman and the Indus Valley, respectively — but who can be certain?
Chemical analyses of Sumerian artifacts have revealed that much of their gold and silver was mined in Asia — and scholars have long recognized that bright blue lapis lazuli can’t be mined in Mesopotamia, and can only have arrived via some eastern trade route.
But the really intriguing question is one of precedence. Who invented the world’s first planned cities: the Sumerians, or the people of Gonur Tepe? What about the wheel, or writing, or irrigation, or a myriad of other famous Sumerian inventions, which the Oxus Civilization (as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex is now known) seem to have had at around the same time?
What if Sumer wasn’t actually the epicenter of the “Cradle of Civilization” at all, but represented a culture on the far western fringe of an Asia-spanning complex of cities, trade networks and cosmopolitan melting pots?
Historians have made similar mistakes before.
Central Asian cultures tend to get skipped over as “nomadic tribes” or “steppe peoples.” Gazing out on tent-camps and barren plains, a traveler might naturally assume that any cities ever raised here must have been mere temporary flukes — experiments in urban living that quickly imploded, leaving the nomads to return to their “natural state.”
The truth, however, is that a whole procession of magnificent cities have towered over Central Asia, which was once the crossroads of civilization. Everyone’s heard of Babylon and Baghdad — but what about Bukhara and Samarkand, which were once equally prestigious and wealthy? They both still stand today, largely forgotten by the outside world.
Alas, this is a theme we’ll see again and again in this series: as trade routes dry up and wars sweep the land, the mighty citadels between the Caspian Sea and the Gobi Desert are raided and trampled without mercy, until at last they’re swallowed by the sand — or reduced to mere shadows of their former selves.
In the case of the Oxus Civilization, its people flourished for nearly six hundred years, from the 2300s to the 1700s BCE — when the climate abruptly grew drier throughout the Middle East. Relentless droughts drained the Murgab River, cutting off the city’s lifeblood (just as, far to the west, the Sumerian fishing-marshes were rapidly drying up).
But unlike in Mesopotamia, no new empire swept in to occupy and exploit the cities around Gonur Tepe. No one’s quite sure why — largely because this region’s ancient history is insanely under-studied. No one’s even certain who the surrounding peoples were (aside from the Andronovo culture, whom you’ll meet in Part 2 of this series).
This brings us to a second theme that will resound throughout this series: the infuriating obscurity that surrounds the great cultures of ancient Central Asia.
I mean, if you think Sumerian culture is hard to research… just wait until you Google the excavation at Gonur Tepe. You’ll find no more than a few articles, even fewer research papers, and some lovely photos of artifacts discovered in the ruins (most of which I’ve shared with you in this article). Most sadly of all, you won’t find even a single artist’s rendering of the daily life or clothing of the typical Oxus citizen.
That means I can’t tell you the sorts of things I know you come to this site to learn — what Oxus people ate for dinner, how their everyday clothes looked, which gods they worshiped, or what their music sounded like. I can’t tell you a single sentence of their language, because we don’t know what tongue they spoke.
Oh, there are theories, of course. We can make tentative guesses based on civilizations that seem to be the cultural descendants of the Oxus people, such as the Scythians and Sogdians (whom you’ll meet in Part 3 and Part 4 of this series).
But those peoples arrived in the region more than a thousand years after the Gonur Tepe site was abandoned. So it’s a little like trying to reconstruct ancient Roman culture and language by studying Renaissance Italy.
You can see the problem there.
Still, one intriguing hint may come from Sarianidi’s final research project, undertaken just a few years before he died. In the early 2000s, he and his team played their hunch that the Oxus people might have been related to the inhabitants of sites like Anau, a settlement at the base of the Kopet-Dag mountains, about 225 miles from Gonur Tepe.
Ruins of walled towns in Anau date back to 6500 B.C. — centuries before the first Sumerian cities, when the stone-age proto-city of Çatalhöyük flourished in what’s now Turkey. The people who lived in Anau grew the same crops as the people at Gonur Tepe, and their pottery and wheeled carts closely resemble those found in the ruins of Oxus cities.
These similarities have led some archaeologists to suspect that the Oxus culture evolved from this Kopet-Dag culture — which (of course) is even less studied than the culture at Gonur Tepe.
In a way, this obscurity is understandable. We’re dealing with ruins in the heart of a war-torn desert, dating from a period of prehistory where even the world’s best-preserved sites yield only sparse cultural clues. It’s only by one of those chance miracles of ecology that anyone’s found any evidence at all.
At any rate, by this point you know just about as much as I do about the Oxus Civilization — and far more than most ancient-history buffs. Strange as it sounds, you know nearly as much as the leading experts on this culture — of which there are, perhaps, a grand total of five in the entire world.
In fact, you know about as much as anyone’s going to know about the Oxus culture, until someone brings back fresh evidence from Gonur Tepe and starts analyzing it in a systematic way. There are definitely interested parties. I’ve got my fingers crossed.
So now you’re officially an ancient history hipster.
Next time someone brings up their favorite “lost civilization,” you’ll be able to say, “Oh, you like the Sumerians? That’s cute. They’re pretty mainstream. Me, I’m a fan of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. Their style is hard to classify, but they basically invented bronze-age civilization. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of them.”