Two roads diverge … we took the road less travelled, to Samarkand

Figure 1. The supposed main route south (in orange) along the Altykul River from Bunjikat.

Figure 1. The supposed main route south (in orange) along the Altykul River from Bunjikat.

The amazing Sogdian town of Bunjikat, in Tajikistan, controlled this part of the fertile Ferghana Valley until the 8th century CE. It straddled the route south, through the Shahriston Pass to the Zafashon Valley, and on to Samarkand and Bukhara. I had always assumed that the main trade routes of the Silk Roads passed along the Altykul river valley, as the modern road does today (Figure 1).

However, recent CAAL fieldwork, during a workshop in Khujend, Tajikistan, with our Tajik colleagues, led us to explore a well-preserved watchtower and associated settlement activity in a smaller river valley to the west (marked as Fort/watchtower on Figure 1). This suggests that another route through the mountains, perhaps connecting with Sanzar valley further west, and from there on to Samarkand, by-passing Penjikent – a road less travelled, or perhaps just less well-known to us today, to Samarkand.

What this fieldwork shows is how little we understand the complexities of routes through Central Asia, and with it the complexity of trade, interactions and settlement which played out over millennia in this vital region. The CAAL project aims to bring together previous scholarship, including important Tajik and Soviet excavations at this site and Bunjikat, with identification of new sites and new routes from satellite imagery, and new field documentation. This will both better help us to understand the range and quality of the archaeological evidence, which is not solely reflected in the great cities of the Silk Roads, but also to work with our local colleagues in its protection and management.

- Tim Williams

Figure 2. Satellite image showing the fort/watchtower nestled between two small river valleys. To the west, and extensive settlement in the base of the valley probably controlled the passing trade through the area.

Figure 2. Satellite image showing the fort/watchtower nestled between two small river valleys. To the west, and extensive settlement in the base of the valley probably controlled the passing trade through the area.

Figure 3. The CAAL team conducted a UAV survey in the beautiful valley where two roads diverged either side of a central hill with the fort at its summit.

Figure 3. The CAAL team conducted a UAV survey in the beautiful valley where two roads diverged either side of a central hill with the fort at its summit.

Figure 4. Denis and Gai preparing the UAV survey.

Figure 4. Denis and Gai preparing the UAV survey.

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Figure 5. Tajik archaeologist Bobomullo, from the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography named after A. Donish, examining the remains of structures in the valley floor. Previously undocumented, these remains are vulnerable to changing river patterns and land use.

Figure 6. Part of the well-preserved fort rampart.

Figure 6. Part of the well-preserved fort rampart.

Figure 7. A perspective view in Google Earth TM , looking north, with the settlement and fort controlling the routes up these valleys.

Figure 7. A perspective view in Google Earth TM , looking north, with the settlement and fort controlling the routes up these valleys.