Murghab River, August 2019

A work experience student, Rory Calvin, has been with us for a week, looking at satellite imagery in southern Turkmenistan as part of the CAAL project. During his week Rory identified some 530 potential sites: some nestled in the small valleys between desert dunes, some along the narrow fertile zone of the lower Murghab River, where a few sites appear to be under threat from expanding agriculture/irrigation. There also appear to be numerous relatively recent small herding sites, some still in use, which proliferate the other side of the Afghan border. Great work Rory!

Survey area in southern Turkmenistan. 10 km squares (in red) with potential sites (green). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Survey area in southern Turkmenistan. 10 km squares (in red) with potential sites (green). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Sites along an ancient watercourse, with new agriculture spreading westward from the current river channel (right of image). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Sites along an ancient watercourse, with new agriculture spreading westward from the current river channel (right of image). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Clusters of herding enclosures/settlements on the Turkmen/Afghan border. Licensed under CC BY-ND-ND.

Clusters of herding enclosures/settlements on the Turkmen/Afghan border. Licensed under CC BY-ND-ND.

 

Tumsukly Minara caravansary, Turkmenistan

The caravansary in 2018, with distinctive corrugated walls, central entrance (largely collapsed) and minaret (left). (© Annamyrat Orazov)

The caravansary in 2018, with distinctive corrugated walls, central entrance (largely collapsed) and minaret (left). (© Annamyrat Orazov)

Tumsukly Minara lies in the Karakum Desert, in modern-day Turkmenistan, some 90 km north of the fertile delta that was home to Merv, one of the great cities of the Silk Roads in Central Asia. This caravansary, a medieval way-station for desert travellers, linked the delta with the trade routes along the fabled Oxus River (modern-day Amu Darya). The corrugated earth walls, a distinctive feature of buildings in the region, and a tall minaret, are exceptionally well preserved, surviving for nearly a thousand years.

However, its remote location means that it has never been documented – this is the first published photograph of the monument after one of our Turkmen colleagues, Annamyrat Orazov, recently visited the area as part of the project. Our project will enable recording and legal protection. How many more sites exist in the desert? Elsewhere, we know caravanserai are often found at fairly regular intervals (a day’s journey with your camels): can we find the rest of this route across the desert, a journey of nearly 200 kilometres? Advances in satellite imagery can help us detect such sites, which can then be targeted for exploration in the field. One of the aims of the UCL team will be to help local specialists across Central Asia to develop the use of satellite information, and to be able to undertake effective and rapid field documentation. Changing climatic conditions, even in this remote part of the desert, mean that the speed of decay of this spectacular monument may change. Our Turkmen colleagues need strong baseline information, to monitor how the monument is changing and to plan for its conservation when the need arises.

 

Miran, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China

Panoramic view of Miran, photo by Yunxiao Liu. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Panoramic view of Miran, photo by Yunxiao Liu. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

The ancient city of Miran lies on the very southern edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert, in modern-day Xinjiang, China.  Miran was a vitally important oasis city on the Silk Roads, becoming a hub for cultural and economic exchanges between western China, Tibet, and Central Asia in the 1st millennium CE.

Visited by the explorer Marco Polo, who knew the city as ‘Lop’, Miran later began to attract other interested parties from the late 19th century, excavated by both Sir Aurel Stein and the Japanese Otani Mission in the early 1900s.  China’s own excavations were begun by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the late 1950s, and the site has more recently been investigated by the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology, who are working on a comprehensive publication.

The remains include the walled city, a Tibetan fort, Buddhist monastic sites, and complex irrigation systems. The site is covered by wind-blown sands, partially protecting it, partly eroding it. The site is difficult to understand now, obscured in part by the shifting sands. One of the aims of the CAAL project is to bring together the published and unpublished material on sites such as this, building a historic environment database to provide a solid platform for discussing how to conserve, manage and display such sites.We also need to understand more about the deterioration of this fragile earthen architecture: combining historic archaeological records with modern observations will enable us to explore these changes, and to better manage their change in the future. 

A ruined shrine at Miran. Photographed in 1907 by Stein (© British Library Board Photograph 392/27(118), reproduced with permission).

A ruined shrine at Miran. Photographed in 1907 by Stein (© British Library Board Photograph 392/27(118), reproduced with permission).

The same site in 2012 (© British Library Board Photo 1125/16(149), reproduced with permission). The scale of degradation, and loss of features, is obvious.

The same site in 2012 (© British Library Board Photo 1125/16(149), reproduced with permission). The scale of degradation, and loss of features, is obvious.