Today is a Sunday, our official day off. UCL and Archaeological Expertise have organised a trip to Turkistan, a city 46 miles north of our camp in Shaulder. We set off in the morning, twenty people packed into two beat-up minivans.
We arrive in Turkistan around midday and head straight to the impressive Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi, built in the 1390s by the infamous Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane to honour the grave of Ahmad Yasavi, a 12th century Sufi poet and one of the early propagators of Islam in the region.
As an obvious group of foreigners, we tend to attract a lot of good-natured curiosity and attention from some of the locals. As we approach the mausoleum, Julius and Alex, two UCLQ archaeology students from Tanzania, repeatedly get pulled aside by Kazakh families and groups of teenagers, who ask to take a picture with them. The attention can be a bit overwhelming (and tends to slow down our walking), but is never nasty or aggressive. Nonetheless, the photo opportunities are cut short so we can escape from the scorching sun (and frequent missiles from the birds nesting in the huge archway above the entrance) into the cool central hall of the building.
The Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi has many of the typical features of Islamic architecture, such as the vast domed Hypostyle hall, complete with muraqnas (‘honeycomb’ vaults). The Hypostle is surrounded by corridors and secondary halls, with narrow minaret towers on the periphery of the building complex and a mihrab (prayer niche) on the inside wall opposite the entrance, indicating the direction to Mecca. The site attracts many tourists and religious pilgrims each year, and combines the functions of a mausoleum, a mosque, a library and a museum. Nursit, the English-speaking guide from the Otrar Museum who has asked to tag along on our trip, points out that some of the most impressive Islamic objects in the building, such as the huge copper cauldron (kazan) in the Hypostle hall, had been poached to the Russian State Hermitage Museum in late 19th century, and were only recently returned to Turkistan; others are still held by the Hermitage and are the subject of a heated repatriation debate. Natalie remarks on some building maintenance issues and wonders about the absence of a donations box or any secondary means of income generation (entrance to the Mausoleum is ticketed and costs 500 KZT – just over £1 - to foreign citizens). Ilyar, one of the project co-ordinators from Archaeological Expertise, is sceptical about the idea and mentions insidious corruption, which constantly misdirects funds from much-needed building conservation.
Afterwards we head to a large covered archaeological site excavated by the Institute of Archaeology. We are greeted by Aisulu, an archaeologist working on the site, who is friends with Gai and Dima, both key people on the Otrar project. Aisulu shows us around the excavation while I translate from Russian. She explains that the excavated ancient citadel dates from 1-4 century AD and is one of several cross-shaped buildings found in Central Asia. Typically for Central Asian buildings of that era, it is made from pakhsa (clay and finely chopped straw) and compressed mud brick. This is the largest excavation of a cross-shaped citadel and its surrounding areas to date. We learn that the citadel probably had a second storey which had collapsed into the first, and was likely surrounded by a hexagonal fortified wall with a maximum thickness of 6.3 metres – the Kazakh team have uncovered one corner of it, and are now excavating another to confirm or disprove this theory. Aisulu’s excitement is infectious as she points out the network of internal rooms within the fortified wall – a unique discovery in her practice and among the excavated fortified settlements in the area. Lead archaeologist Giles and the student team have many questions for Aisulu: what is the evidence for the second storey construction (amazingly, one wall has surviving ‘nests’ for wooden joists), how does the Kazakh team know that they have reached ground level (slight curvature of the walls as they meet the floor is a good indicator), what techniques do they use to differentiate between mud brick or pakhsa and the surrounding soil of virtually the same colour and density (it is difficult, but experienced archaeologists are able to see structural divisions in the dry soil if the initial clearing of the trench is immaculate)? Natalie is concerned about the damage done to the fragile friable structures by allowing people to walk on them, and Aisulu reveals that both site security and physical support of excavated structures is a problem due to a lack of funding.
Aisulu joins us for lunch, and it turns out that in addition to working on site in Turkistan, she and her colleague Andrei also provide conservation support at the Shymkent Museum. Neither Aisulu nor Andrei have had any conservation training, but had to step into the role as there was no one else available to do the necessary work. They are keen to learn and are particularly interested in preservation of organic materials, reconstruction of archaeological ceramics, and conservation documentation practices. We have exchanged contact details, and in the next few weeks Aisulu will try to either attend some of the HwB-run conservation workshops in the Otrar Museum, or bring her colleagues to our camp for a day intensive. It may also be possible for Natalie and I to make a day trip to Shymkent Museum to provide more specific advice. We really hope that this new connection with Shymkent Museum will be made possible this year, as last year’s HwB volunteers were not able to make contact due to the language barrier.
We leave Turkistan in late afternoon and head to Sauran, a sprawling, semi-excavated ancient ruin northwest of Turkistan. In 13th-16th century AD Sauran was the biggest city in Kazakhstan and formed one of the most important political and economic centres on the Silk Road. It was amazing to see the remains of a complex system of canals which used to support this desert oasis. Unlike Otrar, which refused to open the city gates to Ghenghis Khan and was subsequently razed to the ground, Sauran had accepted the Mongol invasion and became the capital of the Mongol White Horde in the 14th century. The city’s former glory is evident everywhere, from the remains of brick and limestone walls to hundreds of intricately-patterned glazed ceramic sherds littering the ground. Now the site is abandoned and unsupervised, with only birds, snakes and cute Central Asian tortoises for company.
It was interesting to discuss the Sauran site with Giles, Odile and the archaeology students, and compare it to the UCL dig in Otrar. As Natalie mentions in the previous post, the UCL archaeological methodology in Otrar, common for western-led excavations, involves dividing the site into large squares and collecting and recording all surface finds as part of the field walking. Due to harsh climate and rapid soil erosion in the area, ancient sites in South Kazakhstan are densely covered with slag, brick and pottery sherds, which all get collected, tagged with their site code, brought to camp, and then weighed and counted. This information is then entered into a database, which is used to ‘map’ the excavated area. These fragments are not collected for their own sake, but as a means of extracting information about production practices and the functional layout of the site. Decorative metal, glass, shell and bead objects are far less common, and get recorded separately as registered finds. The Kazakh methodology is very different, in that only the more complete, decorative or unusual objects get collected, cleaned and conserved, and the rest are left behind and not recorded.
For Giles and his team, one of the clear outcomes of methodical and comprehensive field walking in Otrar has been the conspicuous absence of any glazed pottery, ubiquitous in Sauran and other nearby sites. Giles is inclined to see this as a strong indication that the UCL-managed site was abandoned long before the evolution of glazed ware, and was likely inactive from 7th century onwards. Institute of Archaeology researchers Gai and Ania are less certain, and feel that this is more indicative of the type of settlement in the area – simple domestic dwellings with no means to acquire expensive glazed vessels. Hypothesis and discussion seem to be an integral part of the archaeological process, and it’s been exciting to witness many spirited post-excavation debates. We are planning to start cleaning and sorting the pottery sherds from the Otrar site next week, and are hoping to find out more about the particulars of local manufacture.
On the way back, tucked into the back seat of our minivan and acutely aware of every bump and pothole on neverending Kazakh motorways, I wonder about the packaging and transportation of museum objects for national loans and exhibitions. Something to ask Karlaghash and other staff at the Otrar Museum next week…