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Exploring medieval routes

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Pathways, Post Roads, and the Settlements of the Black Sands: exploring medieval routes from the Oxus to Merv, Turkmenistan

The Silk Routes have long traversed the most inhospitable regions of Central Asia, crossing immense mountain ranges and vast deserts. As Empires have grappled for control of the region, so the roads and pathways crystallised trajectories of movement through the landscape, the remains of which give a glimpse of the complex network of trade and exchange that occupied these lands.

In March 2009 the Ancient Merv Project launched an initiative to investigate further the medieval pathways that connected Merv with its immediate hinterland and the Silk Routes. The Karakum Routes Survey 2009 took an interdisciplinary approach to analysing the extensive landscape between Merv and the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, charting the remains of way-stations, camps and seasonal oases in order to understand the nature and variety of movement through this challenging landscape.

A wide range of sources attest the character of routes and settlements in the medieval Karakum desert. The most vivid depictions are those of early Arab Geographers who travelled these routes from the 9th century onwards. Similarly, the establishment of post roads necessitated detailed records which describe the structuring of the routes and measures to maintain them. However, given that most historical sources deal with official state routes and major way-stations, it is pertinent to ask whether these were the only means of travel through the desert.

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With readily available high resolution satellite imagery, it was possible to combine the known archaeological, historical and geological data, as a basis for further investigation into the presence of settlements in the arid landscape east of Ancient Merv. The resulting map of satellite anomalies and uninvestigated ruins was tested through intensive ground survey; sampling surface ceramics to give an idea of relative dates.

The shifting sands, the creation of a modern road and railway to the Amu Darya and the enormous Karakum canal have altered the landscape dramatically since the medieval period. However, through systematic ground-truthing a number of sites were identified with an incredible range of forms, from large, well-preserved caravanserai complexes, to the remains of small scale camps in natural basins.

Combining the data in a Geographical Information System (GIS) framework it was possible to compare the location of archaeological sites with documented historical routes, water resources and topography. Buffers were drawn to give the comparative distance between way-stations, and plotted with respect to the sites’ relative chronology.

Approximately parallel to the modern road, the survey identified a series of large structures that span a range of dates (8th-13th centuries), providing striking evidence for a substantial highway linking Merv with the city of Chardzhou on the Oxus. The scale of these buildings leads to fundamental questions. For example, were they state sponsored or privately maintained? These queries will only be answered by carefully revisiting primary sources, and through excavation to gain a finer chronological resolution for site occupation.

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Several smaller sites were also located, comprising very concentrated pottery scatters in natural topographic basins, currently occupied by modern shepherding outposts. Ceramic sherd abrasion confirms that they are most likely in a primary context. How exactly did these smaller camps function in the broader trade network?

A trajectory of major traffic along what appears to be an Imperially advocated road has left fascinating clues as to its structure and maintenance, and alludes to methods of ‘controlling’ the Silk Routes. Meanwhile, it is feasible that trade also percolated through informal pathways, which would have arguably remained more stable over time if they were independent of trends in international trade and the investment of fluctuating Empires. Exploring further it will be possible to extend the survey to encompass alternative routes and contrasting terrain, to investigate how this pivotal region in global trade supported the exchange of material culture and ideas for over two thousand years.

For additional information on this project, please also visit Karakum Routes Survey webpage

Paul Wordsworth

This Project was supported by and received assistance from: The British Academy