Home Sarazm


by usto

Location:    Sughd Region, Tajikistan
Region:       Zarafshan Valley
Coordinates:        39°31′N 67°34′E
Type:          Settlement
Archaeologists:    A. Isakov, R. Besenval, B. Lyonnet
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Official name:      Proto-urban Site of Sarazm
Type:          Cultural

Tajikistan will celebrate the 5,500th anniversary of the ancient agricultural settlement Sarazm (mid-IV – III millennium BC) in 2020.  The celebrations will take place in the Tajik northern city of Panjakent on September 12, 2020.

Ancient agricultural settlement Sarazm is located on the left bank of the Zarafshan River, 15 km west of the town of Penjikent, the Republic of Tajikistan, 500 meters north of the Penjikent-Samarkand highway and on a hill extending from west to east for about 1.5 km, a width of 400-900m, the territory of the monument occupies more than 100 hectares. Geographic coordinates are 39 ° 30’28.4 “northern latitude, 67 ° 27’31.4” Eastern longitude, and the average absolute height is 910 m above sea level.

In antiquity, Sarazm had an important strategic location in Central Asia, a contact point between nomadic tribes and the first agrarian settlers of Traxsoxania (the region between Syrdarya and Amu Darya), which was the key to its unique development during the 4th-3rd millennia B.C. Through the organization of trade between these two groups, Sarazm contributed to the improvement of these relations and became more significant locally and regionally. Gradually, Sarazm became the main trading center in Central Asia, which established relations with the settlements of the Eurasian steppe and the Aral Sea in the north, Turkmenistan and the Iranian plateau in the west and the Indus valley in the south. In many ways, this was facilitated by the presence of minerals in the surroundings of Sarazm, making it the first large center for the extraction of copper, tin and lead and other metals in the Central Asian interfluve in the 4th-3rd millennia B.C. Thus, Sarazm becomes the main center for the production of paleometal in the region and develops as a proto-city center. In addition, there were manufactured industrial goods – jewelry and objects made of bronze, lead, silver, gold, steatite and semi-precious stones (turquoise, agate, lapis lazuli). The emergence of more advanced production processes and improved technology has led to many social changes. The beginning of specialization in the production of goods contributed to the emergence of social hierarchies and the completion of urbanization. In addition, the mountainous zone and a wide part of the valley approximately Sarazm were a favorable zone for farming and raising livestock, and the nearby “tugai” (jungle) in the Zarafshan coastal area also allowed the population to engage in gathering, hunting and fishing.

Due to years of archaeological research in the settlement, there four periods of habitation have been revealed (the Aeneolithic – early Bronze Age). A range of radiocarbon dates performed in the laboratory of the Museum of Peabody, Harvard University.

 Period I: 3500 – 3300 BC.
Period II: 3200 – 2900 BC.
Period III: 2900 – 2700 BC.
Period IV: 2700 – 2000 BC.

The terrain of the monument is represented by more than a dozen low mounds between small flat areas. There are no traces of enclosing walls or fortifications. The complex of Sarazm in each of the periods of habitats consists of residential quarters with temples, workshops, and in III period of palaces. The obtained analyzes of slag from furnaces and numerous metal finds indicate a high level of the mining metallurgical industry in the settlement. Discovered pottery kilns of various designs indicate a high level of technology for firing ceramic dishes. An innovative element in the manufacture of dishes is the appearance in the IV period of the potter’s wheel.

The site is of great interest for archaeologists as it constitutes the first proto-historical agricultural society in this region of Central Asia. Moreover, it is the most north-eastern of those proto-historical agricultural permanent settlements. Sarazm was the first city in Central Asia to maintain economic relations with a network of settlements covering a vast territory from the Turkmenistan steppes and the Aral sea (in the northwest) to the Iranian Plateau and the Indus (in the south and southeast).

Discovery and excavations
Following surface discoveries unearthed due to agricultural activity, the first excavation of the site started in 1976 and was conducted by Abdullah Isakov of the Academy of Science of Tajikistan. During that first excavation, eight soundings in the different locations were conducted and three areas were excavated. In 1987, seven areas were excavated and twenty soundings had been conducted.

International cooperation
The site was researched through multiple partnership between the Tajik SSR and international partners. Most notably, a fruitful collaboration between French and Tajik researchers flourished starting in 1984 with a first scientific mission. In 1985, a cooperation agreement was signed between the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the Tajik Academy of Science for three years, a partnership that would be renewed until 1998, when the French mission changed towards supporting the preservation of the site. Most archeometric analysis were conducted by the CNRS in France. The French mission was supervised by R. Besenval, R. Lyonnet (ceramology) and F. Cesbron (mineralogy). In 1985, two American professors, P.L. Kohl (Wellesley College) and C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky (Harvard) took part in an expedition organised as a joint USSR and USA archeological exchange program.

Stratigraphy and datation
The site is composed of four distinct layers of occupation separated by long period of abandonment. This classification was established during the first excavations. There are about 1.5 to 2 meters of deposits in total for about a millennium of occupation and not all four layers are found in every location, suggesting the settlement moved over the centuries. The different layers are numbered Sarazm I, II, III, IV, with Sarazm I being the most ancient layer.

The datation of the layers is uncertain, although most agree on the first half of the 4th millennium BC as the beginning of the occupation. The datation has been established initially through radiocarbon dating. Here are the datation results as recalibrated in 1985 by the American-USSR mission, using the results from the Leningrad laboratory.

Sarazm Radiocarbon Datation

Layer Excavation Datation (BP) Datation (Recalibrated)
Sarazm I 4 LE-2172:5050±60 BP cal 3907-3775 BC (1σ)
Sarazm I 4 LE-2173:4880±30 BP cal 3790-3645 BC (1σ)
Sarazm I 2 LE-2174:4940±30 BP cal 3870-3660 BC (1σ)
Sarazm II 3 LE-1806:4460±50 BP cal 3365-3020 BC (1σ)
Sarazm II 3 LE-1808:4230±40 BP cal 2970-2795 BC (1σ)
Sarazm III 2 LE-1807:3840±40 BP cal 2415-2185 BC (1σ)
Sarazm III 3 LE-1420:3790±80 BP cal 2410-2115 BC (1σ)

The excavation VII, which was conducted by the French mission also produced some radiocarbon datation of this site.

Excavation VII Radiocarbon Datation

Layer Datation (BP) Datation (calibrated)
Sarazm I 4450±60 BP cal 3350-2937 BC (2σ)
Sarazm I 4380±70 BP cal 3330-2890 BC (2σ)
Sarazm II 4130±70 BP cal 2910-2494 BC (2σ)
Sarazm III 3990±70 BP cal 2863-2330 BC (2σ)
Sarazm IV 3850±90 BP cal 2580-2044 BC (2σ)
Sarazm IV 3800±70 BP cal 2470-2040 BC (2σ)

The datation was also confirmed through the cultural artefacts belonging to others cultures who had already been investigated. For instance, the presence of Turkmen clay shards from the Namazga II and III period and Togau ceramics from Baluchistan can attest of occupation from the first half of the fourth millennium to the second half of the third millennium BC.

Following the first excavation, Isakov concludes: “It has been clearly established that the inhabitants of Sarazm were occupied not only with agriculture and herding but also with metallurgical production”. A large metal repertoire has been unearthed from the II, III and IV layers: daggers, awls, chisels, axes and decorative pieces were among the discoveries. There is ample evidence that the metal was actually worked in Sarazm using similar techniques as the ones used in Mesopotamia, the Iranian Plateau and the Indus Valley.

Some have even claimed that around 3000 BC, it was the largest exporting metallurgical center of Central Asia.

The ceramics discovered at Sarazm indicate contacts extending to the Iranian Plateau, Northern Baluchistan and Turkmenistan. For example, pottery from the Bronze Age north-eastern Iranian culture, from Seistan and Baluchistan have been found.

The agriculture was also facilitated by the construction of irrigation facilities that allowed the inhabitants to use the water from the Zerafshan river and capture the water from the mountains as well. Wheat (free-threshing hexaploid) and barley (both naked and hulled) were discovered at the site, while evidence for broomcorn millet and pulses were not found. The naked barley found at Sarazm is similar in morphology to the barley found in sites in Pakistan such as Mehrgarh and Nausharo, and also similar to the barley found in the earliest sites in China where barley was first found. The inhabitants were also involved in herding of mainly cattle, sheep and goat. The herding was oriented towards the maximisation of the secondary products (milk, wool, leather).

The Sarazm III period corresponds to the peak of Sarazm’s economy as the population had grown, building techniques improved and various economic activities such as pottery (using the newly invented slow rotating wheel) and more specialisation in metallurgy and other crafts. The city is believed to have been revived as a mining point to collect from nearby sources of turquoise. Moreover, the Zerafshan valley is rich in minerals: gold, silver, galena, copper, tin and mercury. The town would have been involved in the mining and transformation of local resources.

Among the many structures that were excavated, the majority appear to be multi-rooms habitations, but some seem to have a different purpose and serve as communal buildings. Those buildings seem to be well thought out with clear plans, regular bricks with walls that are sometimes covered in coloured coating, however their functions remain unclear. Two main building techniques are present on the site: raw earth brick (moulded and dried under the sun) and hand-shaped earth construction.

Sarazm I architecture was badly damaged by the subsequent layer, therefore it has not been studied thoroughly. The buildings from the second period show the presence of passages of 50-60 centimeters by 20–25 cm linking the building of a complex together and allowing for access to a courtyard where bread ovens were also found. The floors during the Sarazm III period were usually burned. Some buildings also presented large hearths and it was theorised based on observation of similar hearths in Turkmenistan that these buildings might have served as cult areas. Fortifications were also discovered in the excavation II.

Burial sites
Burial sites were in the shape of a large circle of 15 meters diameter surrounded by a wall. In some of the burial chambers, valuables objects such as pottery and beads have been found. A large necropolis has yet to be discovered.

Following the analysis of the remains, the anthropologist Khodzhaiov has concluded that the people of Sarazm originated in southern part of Central and Southwest Asia and are genetically related to the population of other Aneolithic sites in Turkmenistan (Göksur and Qara-depe).

Culture and art
At the peak of the occupation of Sarazm, the city was economically thriving and artistic production flourished. Pottery was richly ornamented with motifs such as circles, crosses, triangles, lines and net pattern painted using red, yellow and blue pigments. The rosette patterns found on some ceramic could be indicative of an understanding of the solar calendar.

Terracotta statuettes of women and animals with magical powers were also found as sculptural figures emerged as an important artistic trend.

The religious beliefs of the Sarazm people are unclear, but we know that they had altars where sacred fires burned.

Sarazm seems to be connected to the Göksür culture through its east-ward migration in the region.

Residential complexes
Multi-room residential complexes are found in all periods of habitation. They include residential neighborhoods with adjacent warehouses, workshops, kitchens and outbuildings. Most of them have a fenced courtyard in which handicraft production was undertaken. Residential complexes were separated by squares, wide or narrow streets. Inside the settlement, there are water pools.

Iconic buildings and structures
Starting from period III, “temples” were built separately from residential buildings (for example, in excavations IV, V, IX, XI, XII). The walls of ceremonial buildings were often reinforced with pilasters and counterforts, plastered and decorated with paintings. The iconic complex of the period of Sarazm-II in excavation IV, consisting of four rooms, two of which are equipped with rectangular altars, are decorated with wall paintings. Stone and alabaster vessels were found in the premises. All this testifies to the special status of this building.

World Heritage Site status
The proto-urban site of Sarazm was inscribed on the World Heritage List in July 2010 as “an archaeological site bearing testimony to the development of human settlements in Central Asia, from the 4th millennium BCE to the end of the 3rd millennium BC”. It is the first World Heritage Site in Tajikistan.

To protect the archaeological site, a metal roof has covered some areas while others have been reburied under soil. With the help of local people and the CRATerre research institute, a protecting coating of rice husk and stabilised earth has been designed to cover fragile previously uncovered areas.

In the excavation of the V period Sarazm-II, a structure consisting of two round rings made of bricks, an outer ring with a diameter of 7.7 m, and an inner ring – 4.25 m have been preserved. It is possible that this structure represented the sun.

The excavation of the XI excavated a temple complex of the Sarazm-II period, which had a central room with bypass corridors. The open hearth in the center of the room and the remains of the charred bones of animals near the northern wall make it possible to classify this room as a venue for the ceremony with a sacrifice. On the east side of the temple adjoins the well depth of 27 m, the water from which was used for the needs of the temple.

In excavation XII, round hearth altars, which may have been used for ritual purposes, were found in the center of the premises of the Sarazm II period. For example, in various ethnographic studies in the headwaters of the Zarafshan valley, certain rituals are mentioned associated with fire inside the living space. Since the period of Sarazm-III, along with round altars, hearths, square forms have been used. According to the charred seeds found in the altar-hearth, they probably also had a household function.

Household facilities
These include a two-tier pottery kiln dating from the end of the 4th millennium B.C. The combustion chamber had a complex system of firing channels (diameter 3.32 m), indicating a high development of ceramic production in Sarazm.

Material culture. Received numerous artefacts of excellent quality made from ceramics, metal, stone and animal bones. Ceramic objects are represented by kitchen and tableware, decorated with geometric patterns in the form of crosses, triangles, squares, nets and wavy lines, painted with black and red colors. A unique feature of Sarazm is that it has found colored ceramics that has analogies in the south of Turkmenistan, eastern Iran, in Baluchistan, southern Afghanistan, Seistan, Khorezm (Keltminar culture).

Metal finds (150 exemplars): bronze axes, tesla axes, arrowheads and spears, knives, pins, needles; lead ingots (possibly for export), lead seals; silver and gold jewellery. Tools for the production and processing of metal products constitute 15.63% of the total number of guns. The significant number for the expansion of metal sheets and foil – 9.30%, various types of levelling hammers – 7.97%, molds for the manufacture of metal decorations – 9.30%. The Sarasmites used a cold and warm method of processing, levelling the foil, removing rough edges, correcting the blades and other operations. Thus, the large-scale production and variety of metal products and tools for metal processing demonstrate a high technical and technological level of Sarazm artisans and the specialized nature of the craft.

 Stone products
 In terms of quantity, this group ranks first (13.17% of the total number of tools): marble cups and goblets, bottles, tops of maces, spinner, tools for processing grain, leather and wood, arrowheads, counterweights, weights, beads, scrapes, scrapers, chisels, adzes, debarker, cutters, sawings and other items. For the production of small jewellery, master applied form, anvil platform, hammers for light operations, hammers for smoothing and abrasives. An important find is a cylindrical seal depicting a bull, indicating a connection between Sarazm and Proto-Elam centers such as Shahri Soht, Sialk, Tepe Yahya and Susa in Iran. Thousands of beads made from pasta were found on the woman’s dress in grave 5 in excavation IV.

Products made of bone: awls, needles that were used for sewing clothes, knitting, etc.

Products from clay: woman figurine. All these findings prove that Sarazm, as early as the middle and end of the fourth millennium B.C., was the proto-city center not only a supplier of goods to its distant neighbours but also supplied with the industrial goods its own population.
Shellware: bracelets.

Cultivated cereals, large stocks of charred grain found in excavation III, a huge number of various stone tools for processing grain (sickles, grain graters, stupas and pestles) testify to the high efficiency of agriculture, which played a significant role in the economy of Sarazm. From the tillage tools found hoe.

Osteological findings (5684 bone fragments of which 1609 are identifiable) are the main sources of data on animal husbandry in Sarazm, studied by Gene Dess and A. K. Kasparov. The bones of small cattle predominate significantly – more than 87%. They are dominated by sheep (20.19%) and goat (12%). The number of cattle residues is only 10.1%, and the dogs 0.69%. Wild animals include the remains of sheep, wild bull, hog, and gazelle bones.

 Found bones of hares, foxes, wild cat, and also small birds.

 In the upper reaches of the valley of the Zaravshan River, more than 30 open metal sites have been identified. Analysis of metallurgical samples was performed in the laboratory of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Elemental analysis of metal objects from different periods of habitation of a settlement shows that they are made of metals of different ores but mined in the same area. Ore was mined with heavy two-handed hammers.

Production of paints
 Mineral paints were traced on the instruments and on the interior surfaces of the rooms. When applied to the surface of ceramics, mostly red, yellow, brown and black colors were used. The manufacture of paints was massive and required several tools: paint grinders, paint pestles for grinding and rubbing, chimes for grinding, mortars, etc.

Therefore, at the turn of the IV-III millennia BC Sarazm has become a prosperous proto-urban center, an important point of interregional exchanges (especially based on the export of tin). The settlement became the main crossroads, on the one hand, between east and west, and on the other – north and south. Here a culture developed with a complex organization, as evidenced by the monumentality of the structures and their interior.

The exchange of cultural skills with remote areas in the Middle East (Mesopotamia, Elam, Khorasan, Sistan and Baluchistan), southern Turkmenistan, and the north-east of the Indian subcontinent was carried out either directly by importing pottery, or through intermediaries.

Research in Sarazm significantly expands our understanding of the ancient proto-urban civilization of the Eneolithic and Early Bronze Age and the intersection of various trade relations. The amazing ability to adapt, observed in the Eneolithic proto-urban civilization of Eurasia, can only be seen in Sarazm.     In 2001, the preserved part of the settlement of Sarazm was declared a national treasure. By the Decision of the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan under No. 198 and with the certificate of land No. 006981, issued on April 19, 2001, a plot of land in Sarazm in the amount of 47.34 hectares is the inviolable property of the Republic of Tajikistan.