Merv, Turkmenistan

View of outer defensive wall through Parthian arrowslit

Project leader: St John Simpson

Department: Middle East

Project start date: 1992 (excavation), 2003 (post-excavation)

End date: 2000 (excavation)

Project funded by:

Excavation and post-excavation:

The British Academy (1992-2000), The British Museum (1992-2000), The British Institute for Persian Studies (1992-2000), Max van Berchem Foundation (1996-2000), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998-2000), National Geographic Society (1993-94), Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (1995), Rolex Awards for Enterprise (1996), Society of Antiquaries of London (1992-94, 1996, 1998), Stein-Arnold Fund, The British Academy (1993-95, 1997), Iran Heritage Foundation (1997-99), Charlotte Bonham Carter Charitable Trust (1999-2000), The Royal Society (1993), Samuel H. Kress Foundation (1996), University College London (1992-94), UCL Graduate School (1995-96), University of London Central Research Fund (1992-93), University of Oxford, Craven Committee (1992), Lukonin Foundation (1992), Ancient India & Iran Trust (1992), Mrs P. Drower (1993)

Survey and photographic equipment loans:

Institute of Archaeology, UCL (1992-2000), Leica (1992-93, 1996, 2000), Optimal Solutions (1992-93), Ordnance Survey (1992-93), MOLAS: Museum of London Archaeology Service (2000), UCL Department of Photogrammetry & Surveying (1995), Bridas Energy (1996), School of Surveying, University of East London (1993), Bartington Instruments, Witney (1996)

Logistic support and medical equipment supply in the field:

Bridas Energy Ltd (1996), School of Surveying, University of East London (2000), ECHO (Supply of Equipment to Charity Hospitals Overseas) (1992-94)

External partners:

Dr G. Herrmann, University College London
Dr K. Kurbansakhatov, Turkmen Academy of Sciences

Description:

The vast ruins of the ancient city of Merv have attracted the attention of travellers, historians and archaeologists for over 150 years. The British Museum supported archaeological fieldwork at the major ancient Central Asian city from 1992-2000 in a collaboration with UCL and the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, represented respectively by Dr G. Herrmann and Dr K. Kurbansakhatov. The excavations were directed by Dr St J. Simpson.

Five major areas of the city were investigated through survey and excavation, covering a period of over 1500 years from the Seleucid re-foundation of the city by Antiochus I in the third century BC to the period following the Mongol sack of the medieval city in 1220/21.

The first seasons focused on a private residence in the citadel and a larger area belonging to a residential quarter in the lower city, both dating from a period when Merv was part of the Sasanian empire which stretched as far west as northern Syria. Finds from these excavations included a large number of ostraca (mostly written in Parthian and Middle-Persian languages but also including the first in Sogdian and Bactrian inscriptions to be found at the site), huge numbers of locally minted coins, the earliest evidence for cotton cultivation in Central Asia and the first excavated evidence for the important local Christian community at that period. These excavations laid the basis for the project’s methodology of retrieving fully quantified and carefully excavated assemblages, not just of pottery and artefacts, but also of plant and animal remains. The analyses of these are the first to be carried out at a major Sasanian site, and the first for any late period in Central Asia.

Earlier periods were also investigated during the excavation of a new section through the massive defensive fortifications of the lower city. These provide the first detailed understanding of the development of the defensive system of the pre-medieval city spanning the Seleucid, Greco-Bactrian, Parthian, Sasanian and possibly post-Sasanian periods. The builders unintentionally preserved the earlier phases within later construction as each wall effectively encased its predecessor. The first wall, presumed to be that constructed by Antiochus I in the third century BC, is the best preserved mudbrick defensive structure of this period as it survives to the level of the original crenellations.

Excavations were also carried out on part of an early Islamic industrial quarter, dating from a period when the main focus of urban life had migrated to a new spot on the opposite side of an old canal. Trial trenches revealed the remains of several pottery kilns but the most important results belonged to a workshop specialising in the production of crucible steel. The discovery of furnaces, crucibles and an ingot have enabled a much clearer understanding of contemporary Arabic descriptions of steel production, and led directly to research into the possible antecedents of this industry, including the published identification of crucible steel being used for a Late Sasanian sword blade in the British Museum’s collection from Iran.

Medieval Merv achieved its greatest extent under the Seljuks when it was their eastern capital. Several investigations were made into the remains of the medieval city, including its fortifications and standing architecture, which are being published separately. However, excavations were also conducted within the citadel of this part of the site and form the last of the currently planned series of excavation monographs. These investigations revealed painted and decorated stuccoes in situ within the reception iwans of a large Seljuk residence. Extensive traces were also found of the decline in the quality of life within this part of the citadel following the Mongol sacking of Merv in 1220/21.

This excavation series covers over 1500 years of history at one of the most important ancient city-sites in Central Asia. The planned reports also include re-analysis of much of the earlier investigations at the site and therefore make more widely available some of the important Soviet excavation data from Merv.

Objectives:

The current project will result in the publication of the following series of five excavation monographs edited by St John Simpson:

  • Sasanian Remains in Erk-Kala
  • The Fortifications of Ancient Merv
  • A Sasanian Residential Quarter in Gyaur-Kala
  • Urban Development & Early Islamic Industry in Gyaur-Kala
  • A Seljuk Residence in the Medieval Citadel of Merv.

Specialist contributions are underway on or have been received for all volumes.

Publications:

Download a full bibliography in pdf format (133 kb)

Further information:

Softstone in Arabia and Iran (pdf 69 kb), a workshop held at the British Museum in 2004

Parthian, Sasanian and Early Islamic Pottery: dating, definition and distribution (pdf 1 mb), a specialist workshop at the British Museum

 


Image:

  • View of outer defensive wall through Parthian arrowslit