Day 4. First views and thoughts of Otrar and Kuyk-Mardan

written by Natalie Harding

Picking up from where Maria left off, it is now the end of our first day in Shaulder.  I'm sitting in the camp, our home for the next four weeks, taking in the surrounding atmosphere and listening to the lively chatter of the UCL archaeological students.  After our visit to the main Otrar Tobe site (Tobe meaning ancient town, this one dating from the 1st - 18th century AD) and the Kuyk-Mardan Tobe (1st - 15th century AD), the site which the students will be working on, they all seem very excited to get started with digging.

A huge mound presents itself from the car window as we approach the Otrar Tobe, it sticks out from the surrounding flat landscape and is clearly an intentionally formed man-made structure, rising 20 meters from the flat land.  At this point I am unable to really understand what this ancient city must have looked like.  The site is entered via a newly constructed bridge leading through an archway flanked by two side towers.  These are all recent reconstructions, however they seem to be based on artistic license rather than any solid evidence of what this entrance may have looked like.  The archaeologists and students voice their opinions of how they disagree with this level of ‘interpretation’ and fantasization and I am inclined to agree with them.  However I am interested in the way the Kazakhs are interpreting this part of their culture as these reconstructions seem to be an avenue that is favoured (as mentioned in the previous blog post).  Something for me to think about over the coming weeks.

Inner view of the reconstructed archway showing scaffolding

Inner view of the reconstructed archway showing scaffolding

View of Otrar inner walls

View of Otrar inner walls

Internal structures of Otrar

Internal structures of Otrar

Once entering the site and being able to walk around amongst the mud-brick wall remains it becomes clearer to me that there was once an extensive network of streets, dwellings and storehouses.  The entire site has not been excavated, so some imagination is needed to interpret the areas.  The ground is littered with ceramic and pottery sherds, quite a lot having blue, green and yellow glazes with evidence of surface patterning.  Although the glazes are deteriorated with crizzling and visual signs of salts on the surface, I am amazed at the good condition these pieces are in considering they have been buried for centuries.

Natalie examining a piece of pottery sherd

Natalie examining a piece of pottery sherd

Maria examining some glazed pieces

Maria examining some glazed pieces

 A piece of decorated pottery

 A piece of decorated pottery

At one of the higher points on the site there is a steel tripod-like structure that Im told was installed and used by the Russians during the Soviet era for plotting and mapping the land.   It still stands, however now it is used as an almost spiritual place where people have come to attach different types of material, fabric / plastic (anything that can be wrapped or tied around the beams) to represent different beliefs or superstitions.  I find this interesting as this object has now taken on a new relevance and has developed into part of the intangible heritage of this area.  My view on this topic is not favored and I am told that these superstitions have been damaging as people sometimes remove the original mud bricks from the surrounding area to build little ‘piles’ beneath the structure - thus damaging the original built site and that the site is then taken out of context and misunderstood.

Steel tripod structure used for geographical maping

Steel tripod structure used for geographical maping

A short walk away, slightly outside the city walls we visit the archaeological site of the bathhouse.  In 2004 the bathhouse was conserved / restored and covered with an overhead shelter with assistance from UNESCO.  Many of the floors and walls have been reconstructed using the same building materials and techniques and I find it difficult to distinguish between new restoration and original parts.  I comment on this and then it is pointed out to me that the new bricks have been stamped with UNESCO 2004, identifying them from the originals - the same process that when appropriate is sometimes used in object conservation, if and when a new part is made for an object.  This makes me feel more at ease, although I wonder if visitors are aware of these details.

Close up of one of the new Unesco bricks

Close up of one of the new Unesco bricks

The bathhouse floor

The bathhouse floor

The bathhouse floor showing the built covering

The bathhouse floor showing the built covering

Conversations between conservator and archaeologist

Conversations between conservator and archaeologist

We visit the Kuyk-Mardan Tobe, the site where the UCL archaeology students will be digging this year.  They are focusing on an area away from the main citadel, where it was more domesticated and closer to the outer walls of the town, hoping to find evidence of living and working environments.  The students are excited about their new site and are keen to get digging and have expressed an interest in Maria and I coming along to join in with the excavations.  I believe this will be beneficial for us to further understand the site and then be able to place any artifacts that are discovered into context within the site.

Both Otrar Tobe and Kuyk-Mardan Tobe are amazing sites with evidence of previous civilization.  However years of rapid erosion from rainfall, wind and visitors means that these sites are in need of some sort of greater protection.  This concerns me and as we walk around I realise how physically accessible it all is; we are able to walk over and amongst the ruins and artifact pieces that are laying on the surface are readily available to be picked up, collected and pocketed if desired.  I was cautious where I was stepping and felt uneasy about stepping on the sites, about leaving my mark and picking items up off the ground.  ‘Can I pick this up?’ I kept asking, and once I had examined a piece, I tried to relocate its original position.

I am concerned with our level of intrusion and the level of intervention that has taken place in the form of reconstruction.  There also seems to be no restrictions as to where visitors can / cannot walk and there are no indications that items should not be picked up and removed from the site.

Many questions are raised; How are these sites controlled?  Who is keeping an eye on visitor numbers?  What extent have visitor numbers so far had affect on the site?  Are there other methods of interpretation that avoid fanasized reconstruction?

I feel that in the next few weeks I need to gain a better understanding of these sites and the context of the artifacts as well as having some interesting conversations with the Archaeologists where I will be arguing my concerns and the conservation perspective.

Stay tuned to see how Maria and I perform on our first dig!