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Volume 49, Number 4July/August 1998

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Oasis of Turquoise and Ravens

Written by Jane Waldron Grutz
Photographs courtesy of International Merv Project

So prominent was the mausoleum of Sanjar the Great, sultan of the Seljuq Empire, and its turquoise dome so magnificent, that one 13th-century geographer claimed that Silk Road caravans could spot it while they were still a full days march away across the southern Kara Kum Desert.

Though its beautiful tiles are long since gone, the mausoleum's wind-weathered dome still dominates the desolate, ruined city of Merv. Sustained for more than 2500 years by the alluvial soil of the Murghab River delta, Merv, little remembered today, was already a strategic commercial center, known to traders from Constantinople to Xian, when it fell with the rest of the Achaemenian empire to Alexander the Great in 330 BC.

Thirteen centuries later, under the Seljuq sultans Malik-Shah (1072-1092) and Sanjar the Great (1118-1157), Merv became one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, the eastern capital of the Seljuqs, a Turkic tribe whose rule ran from Central Asia westward to Anatolia and southwest into Arabia from roughly the 10th to the early 13th century. For 200 years this Silk Road trading city rivaled Damascus, Baghdad and even Cairo with its caravansaries, fine residences, endlessly varied workshops—and, above all, its libraries.

It was claimed that just one of the two libraries in Merv's Friday mosque held 12,000 volumes, and there were six other libraries of similar size in the city. These libraries attracted the mathematician and astronomer (and poet) 'Umar al-Khayyam, who compiled his astronomical tables, the so-called Jalal al-Din Calendar, in the famed Merv Observatory. It was in Merv's world-famous libraries too that the scholar Yaqut al-Hamawi spent three years collecting material for a detailed geographical dictionary.

"Verily, but for the Mongols I would have stayed and lived and died there. Hardly could I tear myself away," al-Hamawi later wrote. But he was wise to leave Merv when he did, for one of history's tidal waves was approaching from the East.

Between 1220 and 1223, the Mongols attacked Merv three times. Historical sources vary enormously in their calculations of the death toll, claiming from 1.3 million to nine million people dead. Although archeologists today believe the population of Merv could not have exceeded one million at the time, and have clear evidence the city continued to be inhabited after the attacks, the loss of life was in any case appalling. Ruined too was the city's extensive irrigation system, which, with few survivors left to rebuild or maintain it, caused the great city to be gradually abandoned.

The early 13th-century scholar 'Izz al-Din ibn al-Athir, author of al-Kamil (History of the World), called the Mongol invasion "a great disaster, the like of which neither day nor night had brought forth before." The Persian governor and historian 'Ala al-Din al-Juwayni, who served a Mongol prince in the late 13th century, wrote that "the city which had been embellished by great men of the world became the haunt of hyenas and beasts of prey." Al-Hamawi, revisiting the city after the disaster, claimed that its splendid palaces and other buildings "were effaced from the earth as lines of writing are effaced from paper, and these abodes became a dwelling for the owl and the raven."

Only in the 15th century did Merv again revive somewhat, when in 1409 the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh, heir to Tamerlane and, more distantly, to the same Genghis Khan who had destroyed the city, set about building a new city a few kilometers south of the ruined Seljuq capital. Although the Timurid rulers favored Bukhara, Samarkand and Herat, Merv remained significant because it was the only oasis between the Kopet Mountains of Iran and the Amu Darya, or Oxus River, and its value as a trading and agricultural center was largely a matter of geographical, not political, fact.

For a time this Timurid city, known today as Abdullah Khan Kala, grew and prospered, but it never approached the significance of its predecessors. As maritime trade began to supplant Silk Road traffic in the 16th and 17th centuries, Merv declined like a modern small town bypassed by a new highway. In the late 18th century its dam was breached during regional strife and its agriculture ruined, and it was largely abandoned by the time Russia took control of the region in 1884. (See Aramco World, January/February 1997.)

Today, Turkmenistan's third-largest city, Mary, sits some 30 kilometers (18 mi) away, and a smaller city, Bairam Ali, nestles close to the ancient sites of Merv. As it was almost 2500 years ago, the region is known for its irrigated cotton fields. The population of the delta-in-the-desert is now about one million, roughly the same as it was on the eve of the Mongol invasion 775 years ago.

"Nowhere else in all Central Asia are ruins so abundant or so vast," wrote American geologist Raphael Pumpelly, who learned of the site from Russian expeditions of the 1880's and who himself led an expedition there in 1904. Merv is indeed Central Asia's most extensive archeological site, and investigating it is one of the biggest jobs in all of archeology. In the 1930's, Soviet teams began the first of more than half a century of surveys, excavations and conservation work, all of which laid a foundation for the more intensive, more technologically advanced multinational archeology that has been under way since 1991 under the auspices of the International Merv Project, or IMP.

Established in 1991, the IMP has team members from Turkmenistan, Russia, Great Britain, France and the United States; its institutional collaborators include the Southern Turkmen Multidisciplinary Expedition (known by its Russian acronym, YUTAKE) of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan, University College London (UCL) and, from 1998, the British Museum. The team members work under a triumvirate of directors: Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov of YUTAKE, St. John Simpson of the British Museum, and Georgina Herrmann of UCL, who since 1992 has served as overall director.

In a sense, Merv is truly Herrmann's project.

It was she, after all, who secured much of the initial funding from seven public institutions in Great Britain; it was she who encouraged private companies to provide expertise and equipment for the essential mapping and surveying of the 1000-hectare (2470-acre) site—a vast area in which to conduct archeology—and it was she who worked out many significant methodological details. Professor David Stronach of the University of California at Berkeley, former director of the British Institute of Persian Studies, calls the IMP "one of the most innovative and important [projects] carried out on any point along the ancient Silk Road."

In 1996, Herrmann won a Rolex Award for Enterprise, which drew public attention to her work and provided prize money that helped fund the 1997 IMP season. Nonetheless, "we do everything on less than a shoestring," says Herrmann, who also teaches several classes each year. "No one works full-time for IMP, and some of our best people are doctoral students simply because there is so little funding available."

For years, Herrmann, who holds a doctorate from Oxford and is presently Reader in Western Asiatic Archaeology at UCL, knew about Merv only from occasional publications by her Soviet counterparts, who worked inside what was then a closed Soviet Union. That changed in 1990, when the Soviet state of Turkmenistan, acting in the spirit of perestroika, or openness, held an international archeological conference in Mary. There Herrmann met Zamira Usmanova, who had worked with YUTAKE teams at Merv for more than 40 years. She invited Herrmann to visit the site with her.

Herrmann was no stranger to archeological excavations, and her specialty is the Parthian and Sasanian civilizations that ruled Persia and much of Central Asia from the third century BC to the seventh century of our era. Over the years she had visited many of the sites related to those empires, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan.

But Merv was different.

"It was like nothing I'd ever seen before," remembers Herrmann, who says she was overwhelmed not only by the sheer size of Merv, but also by its unique configuration. In most cities that date to antiquity, she explains, the city of one era is built atop the previous one, and each successive layer inevitably obscures much of what lies beneath it. At Merv, however, there are four major city sites, and each dates from a different era, which allows an unusual amount of work to take place close to the surface

The earliest city at Merv is known today by its Persian name, Erk Kala ("Citadel Castle") but it is widely known in historic texts first as Margush, an Old Persian name, and Margiana, a Greek name. A compact, round fortified city, it was founded either by the Medes or by the later Persians, who joined with the Medes in 550 BC to form the Achaemenid empire. The Seleucids, Alexander's successors, founded the second city of Merv, called Gyaur Kala today but built as Antiochia Margiana. The walls of this much larger second city enclosed a rough square of nearly 400 hectares (975 acres) and retained Erk Kala as its citadel along its northern perimeter.

In 238 BC the Seleucids were eclipsed by a nomadic Central Asian tribe, the Parthians, who seized control of a province east of the Caspian Sea and expanded westward to the Euphrates, whose opposite bank was Roman territory. It is the Parthians who are generally credited with initiating the Silk Road trade between China and the West that so enriched the oases, river crossings and other natural stopping points along the way—of which one was Merv: They supplied the emperor of China with "the horses of heaven" (see Aramco World, May/June 1997), and in return received silk cloth, which they traded westward.

The Sasanians, an indigenous Persian people from the region of Fars, considered themselves the rightful heirs of the pre-Alexandrine Achaemenids. It took them four centuries to displace the Parthians in Central Asia. In the year 220 of our era, Merv fell to them; they made it a regional headquarters and extended its irrigation system, resulting in increased agricultural productivity, an enlarged population and greatly increased tax revenues.

By the seventh century, however, the Sasanian empire was in decline from Mesopotamia eastward due to the buildup of salts in their fields, brought on by too-efficient reuse of irrigation water—although the IMP has failed to find evidence of such a decline in Merv. By the time the Sasanians met Arab Muslim armies in the seventh century, they were no match. Under the Damascus-based Umayyad caliphate, more than 50,000 Arab families settled in Gyaur Kala, and from there the Arab armies also brought Bukhara and Samarkand into the fold of Islam.

In the eighth century, Merv was ruled by Abu Muslim al-Khurasani, who served the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate—though not without tension, as Merv's population continued to grow and its wealth and importance increased to rival Baghdad's own. It was in this era that the population began to expand across the canal that formed the western perimeter of Gyaur Kala to found Sultan Kala. Under Abbasid rule and then under the Seljuqs, over the next several centuries, Sultan Kala grew into the greatest city the region had ever known, called Marv-ash-Shahijan, or "Royal Merv." Then came the Mongols, and devastation....

The Timurid city founded two centuries later to the south of Sultan Kala, Abdullah Khan Kala, was never much larger in area than the original Achaemenid city had been, and its population never exceeded one tenth that of the Seljuq city. It was abandoned when a Bukharan ruler breached its dam in 1785.

The full extent of the Merv archeological site is best understood from the air. Most distinctive is Erk Kala, whose massive walls, though ruinous, still rise an astounding 30 meters (nearly 100'). Marching out from it are the walls of Gyaur Kala, and to the west those of the monochrome, ruin-dotted expanse of Sultan Kala. Although many above-ground monuments remain at least partly intact, mounds and impressions indicate that a far greater wealth of relics—entire buildings, streets, homes, each from a different historic period—lie relatively undisturbed just beneath the soil.

But as an archeological site, Herrmann found, Merv had problems.

Erosion by the constant desert winds had defaced the remaining buildings. Others had been leveled during the years of Soviet rule in order to make more room for cotton fields. Worst of all, the Kara Kum Canal, built by the Soviets in the 1950's to link the Murghab River with the Amu Darya some 180 kilometers (110 mi) distant, has raised the water table of a goodly portion of the Merv oasis. This is rapidly undermining the surviving ruins, which are especially vulnerable because they are made of mud brick. "It really is 'rescue archeology,'" says Hermann, adding that the increased availability of water also encourages the spread of thick tamarisk brush, which can render invisible the frequently subtle surface signs of buried ruins.

In 1990, the government of Turkmenistan took legal steps to curtail urban and agricultural development—the sites are surrounded by modern settlements, and include potentially arable land—by declaring the ancient cities an archeological park. But there was more to be done.

Led by Herrmann and with support from the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., the British Academy and the British Museum, the IMP devised a multifaceted plan for the preservation, survey and research of Merv.

One goal, which Herrmann hopes to realize next year, is to have the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognize Merv as a World Heritage Site, which would make it eligible for further funding and would raise its public profile. This greater visibility, the team believes, will do much to save Merv for study by future archeologists, and for the enjoyment of future generations of history-loving travelers.

The ultimate goal of the IMP is to compile a physical, cultural and economic profile of the urban development at Merv over its many years. But with its prospects for long-term funding uncertain, IMP began in 1992 as a three-year program, hoping that its accomplishments during that time would earn it another three years.

The archeologists decided to start with the most accessible material: that from the Sasanian, early Islamic and Seljuq periods through the coming of the Mongols. The first tasks were clearly to identify what might be found most easily, and then to note clearly where it was. This would provide the framework both for future excavation and for UNESCO recognition. In mapping the 1000-hectare (2470-acre) site, the team used geo-rectified satellite imagery, the most advanced system available, which provides a distortion-free, perfectly flat bird's-eye view. These geo-rectified maps were then overlaid with location data collected on theground at known ruins using the extremely accurate global positioning system. A geophysical team also searched for buried walls and other structures with a magnetometer, but this, Herrmann explains, did not work well: Merv's cities were all built of mud brick, a material that is hardly distinguishable, magnetically, from the earth it is buried under. "If they had been stone or wood, we would have found much more," she says.

A surface-artifact survey gathered exposed pottery shards and noted other easily apparent indicators of what might lie below the surface. There was a numismatic survey that found numerous coins on the surface, each of which helps in roughly dating sections of the city. Other members of the 25-person field team made photographs and drawings and took measurements of each monument in the oasis. Finally, a bioarcheological survey was undertaken, the first such environmental study ever at a Central Asian site, which is producing insights into the economy and agricultural systems of Merv. (See "A Trail of Seeds," pages 26-27.)

But this was all preliminary to what is always at the heart of a field archeologist's work: excavations. Only by digging could the archeologists hope to uncover material evidence that might show how and why each city first flourished and then, ultimately, became, in al-Hamawi's words, "dwellings for the owl and the raven." It was with this goal in mind that, in 1992, the team began work at an untouched site within the oldest part of the citadel of Erk Kala.

They chose well.

The team had dug barely 20 centimeters (8") down when they began to uncover the first signs of a large Sasanian house that, like many old mud-brick houses, showed signs of multiple remodelings in which walls had been reconfigured to suit the changing needs of the inhabitants. Ceramic shards were abundant, as were low-denomination bronze coins that dated the house to approximately the time of Khusrau I (531-579) and later.

Of particular interest were some 40 ostraca, shards—usually ceramic—on which drafts, notes and similar ephemera were commonly written. Unsurprisingly, most were in Middle Persian, the language of the Sasanians. But one, written on bone, was in the language of the Bactrian empire; another was in Soghdian, the language spoken in Samarkand and Bukhara, cities within the great trading nation of Soghdiana, just across the Amu Darya.

According to St. John Simpson, curator of the Western Asiatic Department of the British Museum and director of IMP excavations, this evidence that there were "people in Merv who could read and write Soghdian" strongly reinforced the heretofore unproved assumption that Sasanian Merv and the cities of Soghdiana were close trading partners in the third through seventh centuries.

In 1993, while digging continued at Erk Kala, the IMP opened up two new sites in Gyaur Kala. One was on a large mound in the corner of the city where pottery collected on the surface dated to the fourth and fifth centuries after the birth of Christ, just a little earlier than the Erk Kala site; the other was near the center of Gyaur Kala and, according to surface finds, dated to the ninth and tenth centuries.

The most notable thing about the first site was the architecture.

"The Sasanians nearly always built courtyard houses, similar to what you see in the Middle East today," explains Simpson, "but the houses [there] were freestanding rectangular houses. Every house was separated from every other by straight streets or alleys."

It was possible that these were types of houses mentioned by Du Huan, a Chinese merchant whose description of the city in 765 was based on the decade he spent there as a captive: "The wooden parts of the [buildings] are elaborately carved and the mud parts are painted with pictures," he wrote, describing what Herrmann believes were houses with balconies overhanging the alleys, a feature that was common in other cities, such as Damascus.

Another interpretation, Simpson points out, might be that these houses of unexpected design belonged to some special group, perhaps a religious minority that lived apart from the rest of the city's population. Although there was no evidence for that in the excavations, historical sources are clear that Zoroastrians, Manicheans, Christians, Jews and Buddhists all lived in Merv at this time.

Only further excavation will illuminate the mystery of the detached houses. Meanwhile, another mystery at what came to be called the Furnace Site has turned into one of the IMP's most significant discoveries: the manufacture of steel.

Evidence had shown that during the late seventh and eighth centuries, Gyaur Kala's population had begun to leave the city and move west across the Razik Canal to what became Sultan Kala. Some of the first to go were the political and economic elite, and Gyaur Kala became an industrial city. Within it, the team found a surface accumulation of vitrified clay crucibles, each only about six centimeters (2 3/8)   in diameter, a workshop and four furnaces.

This find showed that the spot had been a metal workshop, but when the crucibles were sent for analysis of the traces of metal in them, the result was astonishing. The tiny droplets were neither wrought iron nor cast iron—both products were well known—but hard-to-manufacture steel. And not just any steel, but Damascus steel, known from early manuscripts as "watered steel," an unusually workable, durable type highly prized in the Islamic period and since. Steel-making at Merv apparently predated widespread knowledge of the craft in India and Syria by several centuries, and predated European steel by some six centuries.

According to the evidence at the Furnace Site, the ninth-century method used at Merv was probably "co-fusion," more complex and more efficient than the methods later used in India. It involves heating pieces of wrought iron, which has no carbon in it, with pieces of cast iron, which is carbon-rich, to some 1200 degrees (2200°F). The cast iron melts; the wrought iron softens but does not melt. As the 11th-century scholar al-Biruni described it, the two metals "do not mix completely but on the contrary are separate in their parts from one another...." Some of the carbon in the molten cast iron diffuses into the softened wrought iron, producing steel. "This," said al-Biruni, "is called damask," suitable for making the famous Damascus swords. If the metals melt together entirely, he wrote, the resulting steel "is good for files and the like."

With this discovery to spur them on, the IMP team began a new excavation in the Shahriyar Ark, the "royal citadel" of Sultan Kala, in 1995. This had been built at the time of Sultan Sanjar, and some of the larger buildings are still standing in part. Among them are the ruins of a late Seljuq or early Mongol palace and several köshks, a type of building unique to Merv and constructed with huge semicircular engaged pilasters in the walls that give them a corrugated appearance. The largest of the remaining köshks measures 42 by 37 meters (150 x 120'), and the smallest of them is a single room. Amid these there are remnants of several other smaller buildings as well.

To limit the focus of the excavations in Sultan Kala, the team began work at a small structure—quickly found to have been a house—built toward the end of the Seljuq period. Like most domestic sites, including the Sasanian house at Erk Kala, this Seljuq building had been reused several times. What made it interesting, however, was that with each reuse, the renovation appeared to have become shabbier. The hearths had been relined, but with broken bricks. Pottery that dated from Seljuq times had been reused, but in a badly broken state. The prosperity for which the Seljuqs were famous seemed to have been fading.

According to Simpson, it is likely that such "recycling" of materials occurred after the Mongol catastrophe, during a time when the Seljuq aristocracy that had once occupied the citadel—and which likely built the original structure—was gone, and in their place were beleaguered survivors, eking out a living without the benefit of the city's once extensive agricultural system.

They might even have been refugees from the hinterlands, part of the 10,000 people who are estimated to have maintained the irrigation systems before the Mongols. "With the manpower and administration needed to maintain the irrigation system gone, the canals would have clogged up, and those who survived would have been forced to move to the core of the oasis," says Simpson. The survivors would have had water, he adds, even if the Mongols indeed destroyed the dam that lay south of the city, as the Islamic texts universally suggest, because Sultan Kala is near one of the deep old courses of the Murghab River. Unable to rebuild, Simpson suggests, the survivors "just reused things. That's what we're finding."

Simpson also points out that the team is finding no evidence that the Mongols actually destroyed the city itself. Whatever number of people they in fact killed, they appear to have left most of the buildings intact. Did they occupy the city later themselves? If they did, the fact is largely overlooked by the textual sources that have come down to us today—but there is evidence that the city had a governor and minted its own coins at some time between the Mongol destruction and the arrival of the Timurids. To further complicate the picture, a small, collapsed Buddhist temple has been discovered, which also dates to the Mongol period, confirming Eastern influence in the city during an era when the texts suggest all was desolation.

The findings at Merv have so far generated as many questions as answers. But even with the third three-year program set to begin this fall, Herrmann and the IMP team know they may never compile a history of Merv that feels complete.

Instead, Herrmann explains, the IMP has tried "to start the learning process" by establishing guidelines that can help future archeological research, whether by the IMP or other expeditions. "At Merv," she says, "there is work for many lifetimes."

Jane Waldron Grutz is a former staff writer for Saudi Aramco who lives in Houston. Since retiring, she has volunteered on archeological digs at several Middle Eastern sites.

The Mighty Walls of Merv

The coming of the Mongols will always be the most dramatic single event in the history of Merv. It is not certain whether the city's walls, some 2.5 meters (8') thick and 15 meters (50') tall, were built in expectation of the Mongols' attack, but during the Seljuq period, they stood as Merv's best—though ultimately inadequate—defense against invasion. They are also a uniquely well-preserved glimpse into the defensive systems of the Seljuq era.

Pierre Brun, a doctoral student of military archeology who has targeted Merv for his dissertation, and Turkmen archaeologist Akmuhammed Anneav began looking at the walls systematically when they joined the IMP in 1997.

Most city walls of the Islamic period in Central Asia, especially mud-brick walls, have long since disappeared, explains Brun. Either they have eroded away or, more commonly, they have been torn down as cities expanded. Even those walls that stand today are generally accretions of many walls, each one built, repaired and rebuilt over different periods, often spanning centuries or millennia.

The walls of Sultan Kala are different.

"According to the sources," says Brun, "these walls were built by Malik-Shah toward the end of the 11 th century." And unless they were rebuilt after the Mongol attacks, then they were in use for only 150 years—"a very short period of time," says Brun.

The remains are "unbelievable," he continues. "There are many details still there, such as the stairs, and the vaulting systems. Those are usually the first things to collapse in a [mud-brick] wall."

But there is more to the walls of Sultan Kala than that. "They were built in two stages," he explains. The walls built by Malik-Shah were hollow and had slit windows; defenders could operate both from within the walls and from atop them, where they were protected by crenellated battlements.

Some time after they were built, however, the hollow walls were filled in and a "wrapping" of ceramic-reinforced mud brick was overlaid on the walls. The "wrapping" doubled their thickness to five meters (16'). And an extra "pre-wall" afforded the wall itself a measure of additional protection. The interior walkway was replaced by a wider walkway at the top of the new walls.

The solid wall, says Brun, is evidence of a change in defensive strategy. Hollow walls, relatively thin, were designed to defend against an unsophisticated enemy, such as the nomads from the east, or other raiders. By the beginning of the 13th century, however, another type of enemy must have been anticipated, one equipped with towers and catapults to shatter walls, and sappers to undermine them. It was the Mongols who used captured Chinese engineers to build just this type of sophisticated siege equipment.

"People think the Mongols only rode horses and came in shouting," says Brun.

"But no, they were an organized people, very efficient. That's the reason they took so many cities."

Brun admits he is not sure the walls were built with the Mongols in mind, because the Mongols only began the campaign that destroyed Merv in 1220, and until then there is no evidence in the texts that Merv anticipated attack. The project to strengthen the defenses, even in a city as wealthy as Merv, would have taken years.

To investigate further, Brun and Anneav will excavate sections of the walls this fall, and date the ceramic shards that were mixed into the mud brick to give it extra strength. The pair will also collect seeds found in the mud brick, which can then be carbon dated.

"That will not give us a very precise date," says Brun, "but at least it will tell us whether or not the second walls were built at the end of the 12th century."

"One thing we do know," he says. "The walls are a well-preserved time capsule, and that makes them something unique."

A Trail of Seeds
Written by Jane Waldron Grutz

Some are more than 1000 years old. Some are just one tiny jiggle away from turning into dust. But seeds from Merv, and other preserved organic materials, are beginning to tell archeobotanist Sheila Boardman stories about the agricultural economy of the once-thriving city.

The material contains clues, for example, about which crops were grown, and when. After four seasons of excavation and laboratory examination, seeds are also beginning to tell the University of Sheffield doctoral student the true extent of the Mongol cataclysm, whether Sasanian Merv declined along with declining Sasanian prosperity elsewhere, and the role of steel manufacture in the economy. Together with other IMP archeologists, she is learning where some of Merv's crop plants originated, and which crops were exported to which places at which times—all information that opens new windows on the past that were largely closed until recently.

Archeobotany, explains Boardman, has been around for a long time, "but it's a much more rigorous discipline now than even 10 years ago. It's gone from counting the numbers of impressions of seeds on clay pots to doing a lot of microscope work on piles of refuse to try and understand the relationships among different crops."

A full collection of seeds from all periods is difficult to come by. Only those that were burned (thus carbonized) or petrified (mineralized), or that have left phytoliths (the tiny silica structures unique to each plant type) can be analyzed. So far, Boardman has gathered her samples from hearths, refuse heaps and dung heaps—"It's not very glamorous work," she says—at both IMP sites and at several Turkmen and Russian-Italian sites in the region. She does not pick seeds out of the dust and earth on the site, she explains. Rather, she bottles what her practiced eye tells her are likely to prove productive samples. Back in Sheffield, she separates the organic material by floating it out on water, after which it is dried and prepared for microscopy.

To date Boardman has good samples for the Sasanian period (roughly the fifth through the seventh centuries), and for the ninth century, near the end of the early Islamic period. She is beginning to collect samples from around the time of the Mongol invasion.

Already, she has found a surprise: Cotton, which archeologists consider a cash crop, because it supported the export-oriented textile industry, was under cultivation in Merv by the fifth century of our era, some 200 years before it is mentioned in any text.

"Cotton was the way people in this region began to use agriculture not just for subsistence, but to produce salable products," she says. "Merv was famous in the Islamic era for its textiles, and this shows that cotton production didn't start then, with the Arabs, but had been around for at least a couple of centuries before the Arab invasion. What we still don't know," she adds, "is just how far the growth of cotton extended back into the Sasanian period."

She is also finding that, throughout the Sasanian period, Merv grew cereals, fruits and pulses such as beans. She has good evidence for barley and wheat, too, but so far none for rice. She has established that during the long spring season the farmers of Merv grew cereals, and during the short summer season they turned to cotton and to melons and/or cucumbers—it is almost impossible, she says, to distinguish those two seeds.

"Most of the cereals and pulses common in the West today originated in the Near East," explains Boardman, "and it's generally believed that apricot, pistachio, cucumber, apple and a whole range of spices originated in central Asia as well."

But what is not well understood is exactly where they originated and how they spread. Tracing the movement of plant genera from one area to another is very difficult archeology: It can only be done by comparing crop patterns from many places and times. Because no environmental studies like Boardman's have been done at any other dig in Central Asia, Merv is becoming a benchmark site for tracing crop diffusion into, out of and within the region. But reaching conclusions, cautions Boardman, will take time and many more samples.

One problem that intrigues Boardman now is the matter of Sasanian soil salination. For years, says Boardman, archeologists of the region hypothesized that the contraction and apparent impoverishment of Sasanian communities in the years prior to the Islamic era—the Sasanian decline—was due to gradual salination of the soil: Salt accumulated in the soil thanks to high evaporation rates in the hot desert sun, and reuse of water for irrigation made "flushing" the salt out of the soil impossible. But at Merv, she adds, "there was never any physical evidence for this contraction."

Boardman suspects that there was no contraction at Merv, or, if there was, it was not caused by salination. Her first evidence is coming through comparisons among samples of wheat and weeds.

"Wheat is very sensitive to changes in water quality," she says. "It will not appear in depleted or salinated soils. Certain types of weeds, on the other hand, will thrive." What she has found so far is that wheat was one of the primary crops at Merv throughout the Sasanian period. Salination, therefore, was probably not a problem there.

In time, she will apply the same "wheat-and-weed test" to samples from the period of the Mongol invasion, which will give her an indication of the extent to which Merv's agricultural economy was affected. That will be a useful indicator of the extent of the destruction. Using data from her samples, she expects to postulate whether or not enough people were left living at Merv after the invasion to tend enough of the vast irrigation system to enable them to grow a few crops.

But to form a more complete picture of what happened after the Mongol destruction—or, indeed, at any time in the history of Merv—bioarcheology involves more than seeds. Charcoal and animal bones, too, can be analyzed.

Thus Boardman also collects charcoal from hearths, furnaces, and areas of destruction, and sends it for analysis to archeological wood anatomist Rowena Gale at the Royal Botanical Society in London. From Boardman's samples, Gale hopes to piece together what types of trees—especially fruit trees-were grown at Merv, starting with the Sasanian and Seljuq periods.

She has already found that juniper and pistachio twigs fueled the steel furnaces at Gyaur Kala. (Pistachio is one of the few woods that burn at a temperature high enough to make steel.) Since, even in ancient times, pistachio probably grew only in the mountain foothills some 200 kilometers (125 mi) west of Merv, the wood had to be carried in from that distance. That would make it relatively expensive. Thus the ability of the steelmakers of the Seljuq capital to procure pistachio wood is further testament both to the city's wealth and to the relative value of its steel industry.

It is little findings like this that, piece by painstaking piece, connect the economy of Merv with what is known about its political and physical history.

"It seems to be coming together rather well so far," says Boardman. "But," she cautions, "there's still so much more work to do."

This article appeared on pages 16-27 of the July/August 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1998 images.