Research and Excavation

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Introduction | Background | Research objectives | Specific management issues |

On-going research is a vital component of successfully managing and sustaining the archaeological resource, and enhancing its display and educational value. Research helps us to move from simplistic to complex interpretations of past societies, with greater depth adding relevance to contemporary people and developing the case for future conservation and management. We are thus keen to advance research at the site, but we are also conscious that this should not compromise the unique aspects of the archaeological resource. Careful decisions have to be made to ensure sustainable choices in the selection of sites for excavation, and that the needs for conservation, management planning and interpretation are recognised at the outset.

In the city of Sultan Kala, for example, research is currently focused upon developing our understanding of the daily life of the city, from the 8th to 13th centuries CE. Our research at Merv is aimed at developing our understanding of the infrastructure and administration of the great Seljuk city: when were the streets were laid out, how were the districts within the town organised, how was the city maintained and supplied, etc? Archaeology is very well placed to enable us to study the daily life of the ordinary citizens of ancient Merv, and we are currently exploring issues such as the nature of domestic housing, sanitation, diet and the organisation social space, through the analysis of aerial photographs and the excavation of streets and houses within the city.


There are numerous research questions to which the cities of Merv could make a major contribution. The strengths of the archaeology lie in the quality of the surviving below ground archaeological record, the spatial scale of the resource, and the shifting nature of the urban settlement, which has resulted in major phases of urban occupation being relatively accessible (near the surface) and well-preserved (taphonomically as well as physically).

Merv offers opportunities to explore urban settlement on a grand scale. It is possible to develop the models and approaches to sample urban form and its complexity, rather than simply reacting to specific questions of layout or development, and to explore spatial variation within broad models of urban development. Historical models of urban design and attitude, inferred from documentary sources, provide an important framework, but the archaeological record is capable of complementing this, exploring the velocity of change, the scale of adoption and rejection, the penetration of public attitudes into private space. Targeted work at Merv is developing a more complex interpretation of the changing nature of the settlement and its population over time.

Well retrieved material culture and environmental assemblages are fundamental to enabling us to explore facets of urban life. The broader context of long-distance and local exchange, the trade along the silk road and its impact on the economies and societies at Merv, makes the interpretation of such assemblages complex and rewarding.

There has been a wide range of excavations already conducted at Merv, over a considerable period of time, and of very varying quality. There has been a tendency to focus on elite and public building (palaces, high-status residences, madrasa, mosques, etc, and the city walls), although there are occasional examples of excavations on other elements of the urban landscape, such as industrial sites and non-elite residences. Unfortunately the latter are under-represented in the published material, and the more recent stratigraphic excavations.
In selecting specific research topics, an attempt has been made to focus on a small number of key issues that make best use of the quality of the resource and our limited resources. Broadly, the use of space and changing urban dynamics provide the starting points, and the programmes have been selected to complement the existing record, rather than seek to replicate it.

Research objectives

There are a number of inter-linked research objectives below, each within their own research & fieldwork component. The primary component at present is The Seljuk city.

Throughout these sections, emphasis is placed upon using the documentation of old excavations, most of which are being backfilled for conservation reasons, to provide a cost-effective sample of the archaeological resource.

  • Gyaur Kala - the Sasanian and early Islamic cities
  • The transition between Gyaur Kala and Sultan Kala – the Umayyad & Abbasid cities i) The scale and date of occupation in the area later encompassed by Sultan Kala ii) Late occupation in Gyaur Kala
  • The Seljuk city i) Urban infrastructure in the Seljuk city ii) Suburban development
  • The nature of Mongol Merv – continuity, reuse and change

Specific management issues

There are a number of areas where research work is needed to drive forward specific management concerns for the area:

  • Abdullah Khan Kala & Bairam Ali Khan Kala i) Defences ii) Interior iii) Western extension (Bairam Ali Khan Kala) iv) Immediate hinterland v) General
  • Modern activities i) The suburbs of Sultan Kala ii) Gyaur Kala army base
  • Defences and standing structures
  • Abandoned excavation sites

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