Hellenism at the Fringes

The First Season of Excavations at Bash-tepa, Bukhara Region, Uzbekistan

Sören Stark
Associate Professor of Central Asian Art and Archaeology

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 16, Fall 2016.

Hellenism in Western Central Asia has attracted the interest of amateurs and scholars for more than two centuries: first by the chance discovery of Greek-style coins, and later by the archaeological exploration of Greek-Macedonian colonies as far east as Northeastern Afghanistan. However, despite such a long and rich history of research, archaeological investigations remained largely focused on urban centers, such as Ay-Khanūm in Bactria or Erk-kala/Gyaur-kala in Margiana. There was much less attention paid to the rural countryside during this period, let alone in peripheral regions such as the Zerafshan delta in Sogdiana, far from the centers of Greek and Macedonian settlement in Bactria and Margiana.

To throw light on the rural fringes of the Hellenistic “Far East” is the aim of a new field project I am co-directing with Dr. Jamal Mirzaakhmedov, Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, and Dr. Fiona Kidd, NYU Abu Dhabi. After a promising preparatory survey carried out in the summer of 2015, we prepared for a first full-fledged fieldwork season this past summer. Armed with the news of my tenure at NYU, I embarked on this work with a renewed sense of academic freedom and a comprehensive research agenda.

Integral to this research are excavations at Bash-tepa over several years. The site is situated some 50 km northwest of the city of Bukhara and 14 km outside of the present-day limits of the oasis––in the midst of shifting sand dunes and haloxylon bushes. But back in Antiquity this landscape must have looked very different. From roughly the third century BCE to the 3rd or 4th century CE Bash-tepa was the westernmost site within a cluster of about a dozen small settlements, hamlets, and manor houses along what was then the border of the oasis. The surrounding area was watered by a sophisticated system of irrigation canals, drawing from a terminal river arm of the Zerafshan River delta system, one of the main rivers of the historic region of Sogdiana.

What makes this micro-region particularly interesting is that this river arm seems to have stopped functioning at some point during the 3rd or 4th century CE, after which all permanent settlement and irrigation farming in the neighborhood of Bash-tepa came to an end, which leaves us with a perfectly preserved relict landscape, practically undisturbed since late Antiquity. This circumstance offers unique opportunities to study the rural countryside during the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic periods with an amazing degree of detail. For instance, in areas not covered by sand dunes one can still see, right on the present-day surface, the system of field lots and small terminal irrigation canals dating back to Antiquity.

We expect the excavation of Bash-tepa to provide the chronological anchor for this study and offer new insights into the character of settlement and material culture in this borderland during the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic periods. A detailed study of when and how the site of Bash-tepa evolved will give us a basic understanding of the settlement and land-use dynamics in the area, the palimpsest of which we see on the surface surrounding the site.

A group of 12 people site on a sloping archaeological site with obvious cuts in the earth. One of them holds a sign reading "Bashtepa 2016". 2016 Team of the Uzbek-American Expedition in Bukhara. Upper row from left to right: Reilly Jensen, Sören Stark, Sirodj Mirzaakhmedov, Viktor Guev, Husniddin Rakhmanov; lower row: Maik Evers, some of our workers (Islam, Kadir, Dilshad and Sadik), Zachary Silvia, Sergey Krivonogov) Our team this year was composed of scholars and students from the U.S., Germany, Russia, and Uzbekistan. A substantial stratigraphic trench (more than 12 m long and up to 6 m deep) revealed the complete profile of the fortifications of the site, enabling us to identify three major construction phases of the fortifications. We secured a large number of radiocarbon samples from the masonry of all three phases and we are confident that lab analyses will substantiate absolute dates for each of these three construction phases. We were actually quite surprised about the monumentality of these fortifications at this locality: during the last phase of its existence the curtain wall of the site was at its base more then 10 m wide! Obviously Bash-tepa functioned as a major border fortress during the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic periods vis-à-vis the nomadic steppe.

What was inside this imposing fortress during the various stages of its existence is still largely unknown to us after only one season of excavation, but the investigation of this question has begun with two trenches inside the perimeter of the fortification walls on the summit of the site. To date, they give us a more systematic and complete picture only for the very last stage of the occupation of Bash-tepa. Close to the surface we uncovered a series of pit-houses and the character of the cultural layers associated with them (containing a large assemblage of sheep or goat bones) strongly suggests the seasonal presence of pastoralists. Most likely, during its last phase the site was seasonally occupied by nomads, who used the surrounding territory as winter pasture for their herds. The ceramic inventory from these strata currently suggests a date close to the end of the fortress at Bash-tepa during Late Antiquity (3rd/4th century CE). If this turns out to be confirmed by the date of radiocarbon samples from these pit-houses, we would have the first nomadic campsite of this period in the oases belt of Central Asia ever investigated in detail—a find of considerable importance.

These pit houses were sunk into monumental architectural structures built of unfired mud-bricks and pisé (“pakhsa”), which we are just beginning to understand. What is clear already is that the ceramic complex from the site features some close connections with Hellenistic Bactria, such as specimens of fine tableware (including an imitation of a so-called “Megarian bowl”). These specimens were probably imported from late 3rd/2nd century BCE Bactria and its Greek-Macedonian colonies—a truly surprising (if preliminary) conclusion, given the peripheral location of the western Sogdiana within the Hellenistic “Far East.” At any rate: exciting prospects for our next season at Bash-tepa!