Share Button
Clockwise from top left: Dr. Fredrik Hiebert (photo by Candace diCarlo); Raphael Pumpelly; the 15th-century mosque at Anau, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1948. The city of Anau, about a mile from the excavation sites, was abandoned in 1844; the south kurgan at Anau.

A Bronze Age mound in Central Asia yielded a tantalizing clue to a “new” ancient civilization. For archaeologist Fred Hiebert, it was one more reason why Raphael Pumpelly was right.

By Samuel Hughes 


The journal entry for May 31, 2ooo, is uncharacteristically laconic for Fred Hiebert. It mentions a stone step, a few pieces of charcoal, some clay lumps. Then, finally: “Found a small black stamp seal in the backdirt from 221.” There are no exclamation marks.


IT WAS HOT THAT DAY, but then, it’s always hot in Turkmenistan that time of year. By 10 a.m., the sun was over the walls of the main trench and the wind was whipping dust into the eyes and sweaty brows of the crew. The three Americans (all from Penn), six Turkmen, one Russian, and one Dane were digging in a small area of Unit 221, a Bronze Age storage or administrative room—hauling the dirt to the backdirt pile and sifting it through a quarter-inch-mesh screen.
      Hiebert, the Robert H. Dyson Assistant Professor of Anthropology and assistant curator of the University Museum’s Near East section, was directing the dig at the base of the south kurgan at Anau. That great mound of mud-brick walls and rubble, nearly 50 feet high, is all that’s left of a Bronze Age civilization that flourished some 4,500 years ago in the fertile strip between the Kopet Dag mountains and the Kara Kum desert. (The name Anau comes from old words meaning “new water.”) Another mound, the north kurgan, dates back more than 6,000 years to the Copper Age.
      During the past few weeks, the crew had uncovered a complex of rooms, surprisingly large and well built. From the charcoal, they were able to date it to 2300 B.C. But getting to the bottom was taking a lot longer than they had expected.
      From his perch at the top of the south kurgan, Hiebert could see a white Niva driving toward them. It belonged to his Turkmen colleague on the dig, Dr. Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov, better known as Murad. His arrival was a perfect excuse for the crew to break for “second breakfast”: tea and cookies on the ornamental felt mats while a group of camels munched on camelthorn nearby.
      The white Niva pulled up. Murad got out. As he walked past the backdirt pile from Unit 221, he noticed something in the still-moist soil and picked it up. He chided Ana and Kakish, the young Turkmen screeners, for tossing onto the pile what must have looked to them like a dirt-encrusted pebble. Then he called Hiebert over and handed the tiny object to him.
      Hiebert looked at it carefully, then took it over to a nearby irrigation canal and washed off the dirt. One crew member—Lauren Zych C’99 G’00, then a graduate student in anthropology—recalls that he became “very excited.” That would not be out of character for Hiebert, whose enthusiasm is legendary. But he himself recalls being “deep in thought.” It was a stamp seal, clearly, though he couldn’t decipher its inscription. At the time he thought it was probably Harappan—another ancient civilization from the Indus Valley, some 1,600 kilometers away. A nice find, good evidence of interregional trading—one of his passions—but not what he was hoping for. After passing it around to the other members of the crew, Hiebert put it in a baggie, numbered it, and went back to work.


A view of Turkmenistan from Pumpelly’s expedition.
Below: the Anau stamp seal.

The stamp seal is shiny now, liberated from the Central Asian dirt that had hidden it for millennia. Carved from jet—a kind of jeweler-quality coal, also known as lignite—it’s less than an inch cubed, with a perforated sort of handle on the back that could be hung from a string. For now, it sits in a Turkmen safe, awaiting the judgments of scholars. 
      On the business side, its three carefully carved symbols are still highlighted by a reddish pigment, and no one knows for sure which end is up. One character, in the bottom left corner, is in the shape of a bow tie standing on end. Another, above it, resembles a digital 2 or reversed S. The third, which takes up the length of the right side, looks like a double-ended trident; alongside it is a straight line—with a spike at one end—that may have been attached to the double-trident before the top right-hand corner was damaged.
      Last October, after Hiebert got back from his other high-profile archaeological investigation—in and around the Black Sea [“Gazetteer,” November/December 2000] —he showed a photo of the seal to several colleagues: Victor Mair; Dr. Holly Pittman, professor of art history, curator in the Near East section of the University Museum, and author of Art of the Bronze Age: Southeastern Iran, Western Central Asia, and the Indus Valley; and Dr. Gregory Possehl, professor and chair of anthropology and curator of South Asian archaeology. They were fascinated, puzzled—and cautious. In Hiebert’s approving phrase: “They really gave me the third degree.”
      It wasn’t Harappan; Possehl was sure of that. Nor was it the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia. To Mair, it looked surprisingly like ancient Chinese, but that was impossible—China was thousands of miles away, and the earliest known Chinese script didn’t emerge until around 1200 B.C. In 2300 B.C., he pointed out, “China had only isolated pot marks, not a fully developed script with connected writing.” Nor did it have stamp seals.
      Two other questions were raised. One had to do with the archaeological context. Since technically, the stamp seal wasn’t found in situ, could it have fallen down a gopher hole or a root hole or otherwise been misplaced by history? Or—as Mair delicately suggested—even been planted by someone? Hiebert argued adamantly that it was in context, documenting his stratigraphy and pointing to the presence of the clay lumps, which could have been used for sealing, in the room.
      Pittman, for one, was not entirely convinced. “There are any number of ways in which it could be out of context that are not a reflection of his abilities as an archaeologist,” she says. “Things get out of context all the time, even in the most careful excavations. One of the basic rules of archaeology is that you never make an argument from one thing.”
      And even if the seal was not an archaeological anachronism, she wondered, did its inscription represent real writing? Or was it just a cruder form of symboling—a “local signing system,” in her words, that lasted for some years but never developed into a real written language? “Writing is a vague term,” she points out, “so you must define precisely what you mean. What I mean by writingis a signing system that has, as one component, signs that refer to sounds in natural language. And so you have representations, either through a rebus or through a mark whose meaning, through convention, denotes sound.
      “We certainly have a writing system in Mesopotamia at this time,” she adds. “I think that we’ve got enough data already, through all the excavations, that if in fact there was a full-blown writing system in Bronze Age Central Asia, we’d have other evidence of it. But that’s not to say we can’t be surprised, and I look forward to the results of more excavation.”
      Hiebert agreed that it might just be a local form of symboling. But it also might be something more.
      If it did represent writing from an established script, then our still-sketchy map of the ancient world would have to be reassessed. Because writing is one of the key elements of our definition of civilization, and there wasn’t supposed to have been a civilization that advanced in Central Asia by 2300 B.C.
      True, Soviet archaeologists had uncovered large-scale ruins of some sort of ancient civilization out in the Kara Kum Desert in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Hiebert himself had spent a year with one such expedition 13 years ago, and had found evidence of social stratification, large buildings, monumental arches, vivid artwork, irrigation—all elements of civilization. But not writing. Especially not one whose writing system looks so remarkably like that of ancient Chinese. Hence the astonishment of Victor Mair.
      “When I saw that spike,” recalls Mair, “for a couple of hours I just kept saying, ‘My god, my god, my god!’ Because you get the same little spike on these very archaic Chinese signs for grain.”
      Mair gradually concluded that the bow-tie figure represented the number 5. The reversed Sprobably meant “record, regulate, or annals.” His best guess at this point is that the whole seal meant something like grain: record five [units]—a plausible reading for something found in an administrative or storage area.
      In terms of content, it’s not exactly the Dead Sea Scrolls. But its implications for the spread of civilization could be profound.
      “I think it’s a fairly advanced kind of writing,” says Mair, “and that it’s not just symbols or record-keeping. It’s part of a whole script—judging from the complexity of the characters, the fact that they’re very well formed, and that there are three of them together. Usually with signing systems or symbol systems, there’s just one—and they’re not linked up.”
      Like everyone else, including Hiebert, Mair urges caution. 
      “We have three characters,” he points out. “I wouldn’t make any big claims about anything based on that.”
      Nonetheless, he wrote a note to Hiebert last November describing the seal as “very exciting and potentially of enormous consequences.” Four days later, he sent out a letter to about a hundred colleagues in the field of ancient scripts. It contained a hand-drawn sketch of the seal’s symbols, and the message: “I am not at liberty to tell you exactly where the seal-signet was found nor its date. All that I can say is that it is from somewhere in Central Asia and dates to before 1000 B.C.E.” He then asked for an opinion.


Digging in “Unit 221,” where the stamp seal was found.

“They’re usually very skeptical about this sort of thing,” Mair recalls. “They were saying, ‘This is fascinating.’”
      All three of the seal’s characters “fit well within the framework of the earliest known Chinese writing,” he wrote in a letter this past spring. “However, I do not view them as evidence of Chinese influence at Anau because the Chinese script is not known until 1,100 years after the 2300 B.C.E. date of the signet … Fred says that his signet was almost certainly a local product, because—aside from a site near Anau—there was no other source of jet for more than a thousand kilometers. Consequently, I believe that the signet inscription (and I’m absolutely convinced that it indeed represents genuine writing) is phenomenally important because it helps to document the transmission of writing eastward.”
      That letter was written to New York Timessenior science editor John Noble Wilford on May 9. The following Sunday, the story of the stamp seal and the ancient civilization of Central Asia was on the front page of the Sunday Times. “In Ruin, Symbols on a Stone Hint at a Lost Culture,” the headline proclaimed.
      “You can say we have discovered a new ancient civilization,” the story quoted Hiebert as saying. “We are rewriting all the history books about the ancient world because of the new political order in our own time,” he added, referring to the opening up of former Soviet Union territories to Western archaeologists.
      Not everyone in the academy shares Hiebert’s enthusiasm for going public with his discoveries. When he showed a photograph of the seal to Dr. Robert Dyson, emeritus director of the University Museum and emeritus professor of anthropology, Dyson’s response was: “Good job, Fred. Now go out and find a hundred more like it.”
      In fact, that’s what Hiebert hopes to do, though he’s not holding his breath until he finds a hundred of them. “One stamp seal doesn’t tell us anything,” he says, “but it gives us the impetus to look for more.” On his next visit to Anau, he will pursue a different excavation strategy in hopes of finding similar objects from the same period, instead of digging deeper in search of older objects. 
      “This is going to be a long-term debate that will perhaps only be solved through further research and further digging,” he says. “And that’s exactly what we intend to do. For me, the critical issue is that for the first time in that time period, we’ve found a series of symbols next to each other in relationship to each other.”
      Hiebert made another brief trip to Turkmenistan this past June to discuss the stamp seal. By then, another, similar seal had surfaced. But it was a long way from Anau. 

When Victor Mair flew to China six months ago, he met with Dr. Qiu Xigui, professor of Chinese languages at Beijing University. After he showed him a photo of the Anau stamp seal, he wrote another letter to Wilford describing Qiu’s reaction and his own ruminations on the subject.
      The first thing [Qiu] said was, “If we ignore the archaeological context, then I would say this inscription can’t be earlier than the Western Han (206 B.C.-9 A.D.).” This is almost exactly what I said when I first saw the inscription. That is why I pressed Fred Hiebert so hard about the dating, but Fred insisted that the stratigraphy, pottery, and everything else pegs the signet at 2300 B.C. I have to believe Fred because he is a competent (nay, gifted) archeologist, but I’m going to quiz him hard about the dating again when I get back to Penn …
      Prof. Qiu provided one other electrifying piece of information. He had a fairly clear memory of the discovery of a nearly identical seal in—of all places—Xingiang (Eastern Central Asia). That … would also fill in the long gap between Anau (Western Central Asia) and the heartland of China. … Prof. Qiu says that both of the Central Asia lignite seals look as though they were written by people who had contact with the Chinese writing system and may have tried to imitate it without getting the forms entirely right. Maybe. But if Fred’s dating is reliable, we have to go back to [another explanation]: namely, the flow of influence was operating in the opposite direction. I have also all this time been saying that the ultimate origins of Chinese writing lie not in Mesopotamia or Egypt, but that they should be intimately linked with the same complex of peoples who brought bronze metallurgy and the horse-drawn chariot during the second millennium B.C. The Anau seal brings us one step closer to figuring out how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together.

      Enter Raphael Pumpelly, stage left.


Three generations of Raphael Pumpellys, 1917. Photo Elise Pumpelly Cabot

A rubber grasshopper sits on a filing cabinet in Hiebert’s office, back legs poised for the leap. On a nearby wall, a man with a fantastically long gray beard sits deep in thought, a smoking cigarette in his hand. Between the old photo and the toy insect is Hiebert, his mind leaping from one part of the ancient world to another.
      The man in the photograph is Raphael Pumpelly, an American geologist-turned-archaeologist who led a Carnegie Institute expedition to Central Asia in 1903-05. During the summer of 1904 he was digging in the south kurgan at Anau when a biblical plague of locusts suddenly laid waste to the region.
      “The whole surface of the oasis became at once covered with an endless insect army, always 20 or more per square foot, and all marching southeastward,” Pumpelly wrote. “At last, when they accumulated in our excavation pits faster than the men could shovel them out during the day, we had to stop work and flee from the growing stench that rendered the air unbearable.”

A view of the north kurgan at Anau.

      The Anau excavation was abandoned. Pumpelly died in 1923, five years after publishing his wonderfully evocative My Reminiscences. By then, he had concluded that “the fundamentals of European civilization—organized village life, agriculture, domestication of animals, weaving, etc.—were originated on the oases of Central Asia long before the time of Babylon … ”
      It was a radical notion at the time, and one that was scoffed at by his colleagues. All the more reason why he is so revered by Hiebert, who describes him as a “mythic figure” in archaeology.
      “Being a geologist, he had different eyes than an archaeologist,” explains Hiebert. “He had decided that Central Asia was the birthplace of civilization—one of several. Unfortunately, his colleagues couldn’t stand that idea at all, because it’s not Mesopotamia and it’s not Egypt and it’s not China. But he went there anyway, and really discovered the Bronze Age civilizations there. He used what at that time were quite unconventional methods, like keeping stratigraphic records and sieving for seeds and bones. These were pioneering methods that wouldn’t actually come into archaeology for another 50 years.
      “And what happened, because of the academic bias against Central Asia and because of his novel methods, was that his research had basically been forgotten. It made it into a few textbooks, but basically, Central Asia was sort of reburied in the sands, so to speak.”
      Pumpelly brought a number of artifacts away from Anau—pieces of pottery and the like—along with a trunk full of photographs, notes, and other documents. But his New Hampshire summer home, where he worked, burned down in 1919. Though he rebuilt the house shortly before his death, that too burned down in 1979. By then, documents and artifacts were long since lost. And the maps of Central Asia had changed almost beyond recognition.


A map of Central Asia published in My Reminiscences.

The origins of the Silk Road have long been a source of fascination for Hiebert [“Silk Across the Sands,” Jan/Feb 2000]. The route that stretched thousands of miles across Asia was not really a road at all but a series of desert oases that served as “stepping stones” for merchants and other travelers. Along its shifting path came more than just lapis lazuli and tin and silk; it also served as an aqueduct for ideas, art—even religion. (The word of the Prophet Muhammad arrived some 13 centuries ago, when the Silk Road was in its heyday.) But where did the people who begat those desert-oasis cultures come from? And to what extent did they influence each other and the rest of the ancient world?
      For Hiebert, a Harvard graduate student in the mid-to-late 1980s, those questions wanted hands-on answers. But Turkmenistan was then part of the Soviet Union—and no Western archaeologist had been there since Pumpelly.
      “If you look at a [recent] map of the ancient areas, usually there is the Soviet border, and then everything is blank,” he points out. “Needless to say, that’s not how it was 5,000 years ago.”
      The Soviets had not been ignoring the region, however. In the 1970s, under Dr. Victor Sarianidi of the Institute of Archaeology, they began excavating scores of these desert-oasis ruins. (The area is now known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, after the ancient kingdoms of Bactria and Margiana.) Around the same time, artifacts rumored to have come from looted sites in northern Afghanistan began to appear on the international antiquities market. Though the pieces were orphaned by the lack of solid provenance, Sarianidi’s excavations helped put them in context. “We realized we could provide a home for a whole series of artifacts,” says Hiebert.
      “We have a lot of things that connected this particular area with the ancient civilizations of the Old World,” he adds. “So we turn and ask, ‘Aha! Did this prove Raphael Pumpelly right? Was he correct in suggesting that an ancient civilization could be found in Central Asia on a par with Mesopotamia, the Indus, and ancient Iran?”
      In 1988, at the urging of Dr. Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, his dissertation advisor at Harvard, Hiebert wangled an International Relations and Exchange grant to travel to Turkmenistan. There he joined a Soviet expedition led by Sarianidi. (He also met Murad, a “very fine archaeologist” with a doctorate from St. Petersburg University, thus laying the foundation for future Turkmen-American collaborations.)
      The expedition didn’t go to Anau—that was really off-limits in those days, being near the Iranian border and not far from the war-zone in Afghanistan. Instead, they traveled far out into the Kara Kum Desert, driving by lorry over shifting sand dunes to enormous flat sites that glistened with the windblown fragments of ancient pottery. They settled at Gonur-depe, the largest site in the Murghab River delta. That “dried-up Bronze Age oasis,” in Hiebert’s phrase, was once known as Margiana, or Merv. For 15 months, Hiebert and his wife, Dr. Katherine Moore—now a research associate in the University Museum’s American section—lived in a tent and dug into the past.
      Archaeology is done differently in that part of the world. They don’t mess around with small-scale American excavations—sieving for seeds and collecting bones and charcoal and that sort of thing. They do heroic-scale, Soviet-style excavations—literally excavating the whole area at the same time. The advantage to that approach, says Hiebert, “is that you get to actually see what the town plan was like, and these sites were incredibly well planned and very regular.” (Also enormous—some buildings were larger than football fields, and divided into scores of rooms, with tremendous fortified walls around them.) The downside is that you tend to miss the little things, like stamp seals.
      Between Hiebert’s American-style micro-excavations and Sarianidi’s macro-digs, both parties “learned quite a bit” from the experience. (Hiebert also got a book out of it: Origins of the Bronze Age Civilization in Central Asia.)
      With the help of Moore, an expert in archaeo-zoology, “We were able to piece together a sort of paleo-ecology and paleo-anthropology of the area in which we identified a new form of landscape,” Hiebert says, “where there was major irrigation and these massive, fortified buildings that were spaced about a mile or two from each other.” Through radiocarbon-dating, they concluded that the desert-oasis culture began no earlier than 2200 B.C.—centuries after Anau was thriving.
      “I was fascinated,” says Hiebert. “Where did these people come from?” 
      Apparently, they came from places like Anau, nestled in the fertile “Foothill Zone” near Turkmenistan’s southern border with Iran, between the mountains and the blazing desert. 
      As luck would have it, Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991. “All of a sudden it was possible to work in areas that the Soviets had claimed off-limits to us,” says Hiebert, who went there in 1993, while still at Harvard. “And the place that I decided to go—of all places!—was Anau.” He chose the same south kurgan that Raphael Pumpelly had begun to excavate in 1904.
      With the government of Turkmen-istan’s blessing, Anau became a University of Pennsylvania site in 1996, the year Hiebert came to Penn. The following year, he and Murad and their crew were digging down through the re-buried levels when they hit a different kind of soil, one that was strangely discolored. It was, says Hiebert, the “locust level.”
      “From then on, we began to work on levels that hadn’t been excavated by Raphael,” he says. “So nobody had ever investigated these time periods of the Bronze Age. We’re now below the level where he had dug down, and it was really interesting, because we were finding out that in many ways, Pumpelly was right about everything! There was early civilization, there was early farming—because Pumpelly had looked at seeds, he had looked at the bones, and he had made all these statements that these were urban people who developed farming and developed metallurgy, and of course in 1904, people couldn’t understand that. But here we were, back in the late ’90s, confirming that Raphael Pumpelly was right!”
      Spreading the Gospel of Raphael yielded some surprising results. In 1995, while lecturing at UCLA, he showed his audience a photograph of three generations of Raphael Pumpellys: “Raphael the Scientist,” as Hiebert calls him; his son, Raphael Welles Pumpelly (who was also on the Central Asia expedition); and—in Raphael Welles’ arms—a “young kid maybe three or four years old” named Raphael Pumpelly III. The photo appeared in My Reminiscences, published in 1918.
      After the talk, an elderly man in the audience approached Hiebert. “I liked the picture of me and my grandpa,” he said. It was Raphael Pumpelly III.
      Hiebert struck up a warm friendship with the Pumpelly family. He told Lisa Pumpelly (Raphael III’s daughter) that he was looking for her great-grandfather’s missing collection of Central Asian artifacts. She thought it might have been in the basement of the New Hampshire house, the one that had burned down twice. Unfazed by ruins of any epoch, Hiebert drove to Dublin, N.H. to attempt an excavation of the remains of the basement—“archaeology for 5,000-year-old Central Asian artifacts in New Hampshire,” as he put it. He dug, and dug some more. Nothing. He packed up his equipment to leave. Then Lisa Pumpelly remembered that there was a chest in the old studio building on the property. Hiebert figured it was worth a look. When he opened it, he found an envelope filled with sand from the Kara Kum Desert—and all of Pumpelly’s original drawings, documents, notes, and photographs from Central Asia.
      The artifacts themselves, however, were gone. But as he sifted through the documents from the chest, Hiebert came across a note from Pumpelly, written in 1906, advising a traveling artist that he should visit the Kunst-Kamera Museum in St. Petersburg. A few months later, Hiebert flew to St. Petersburg and made his way to the museum, now the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology. There, amid the jars of pickled two-headed animals and the like, he found boxes filled with the pottery and other Bronze Age artifacts that Pumpelly had collected from the south kurgan at Anau.
      “I like astonishing things,” Hiebert said once. “I don’t actually ask for them. They just sort of happen.”

POSTSCRIPT: As I write this, bombs and cruise missiles are falling on Afghanistan, just across Turkmenistan’s southeastern border. War is an old story in Central Asia, older than civilization itself, but it may not be the best time or place to be an American. When asked about his future work there, though, Hiebert sounded cautiously upbeat.
      “The tragedy of September 11 has made us aware of a part of the world that has been overlooked for decades,” he wrote in an e-mail, a few days before the bombing began. “A military response in the region will, in the short term, delay our study of Central Asia, but we hope that in the long term it will reestablish a stability that better reflects the 5,000-year-old heritage of civilization in this region. I, for one, look forward to working in this region for a long time.”

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Time Stretcher
    Vanishing Treasures
    Mann in the Middle

    Leave a Reply