Pastoralist/Environmental Mapping



Archaeological context and methods:

Recent archaeology within the borders of former Soviet Republics such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, has sparked considerable changes to our understanding of prehistoric economies and regional interaction among agricultural and nomadic civilizations of the remote deserts, mountains, and grasslands of Central Asia.  Building on this progress, we started the Zaamin Archaeological Pilot Project (ZAPP), which consists of two field-seasons of archaeological survey and test excavations in the Zaamin territory of eastern Uzbekistan. 

The goal of the ZAPP is to investigate two of the most central issues to the region’s prehistory:  When did mobile pastoralists begin to occupy the highland territories of Central Asia and how did mountain nomads interact with agricultural populations living in oasis towns over 5000 years ago?   This project represents the first archaeological exploration of the Zaamin Mountain region and is one of the only active collaborations between Uzbek and American archaeologists. The research team includes a variety of specialists and graduate students to study the subsistence strategies, trade, and settlement ecology of mountain nomads in the Zaamin region with the goal of understanding one of the earliest diffusions of specialized herding economies in Central Asia.

The geography of the Zaamin region of Uzbekistan spans from lowland semi-arid deserts to grassy mountain meadows and alpine forests above 2000 meters asl.   Although the Zaamin region has never been comprehensively surveyed for prehistoric archaeology, its location presents an ideal context for addressing the issues of emerging specialized pastoralism for several reasons.

First, the Zaamin piedmont region is located along the grassy ecotone between highland environments (Pamir Mountains) and lowland floodplains in Samarkand basin.  This setting provides an ecologically attractive territory for mobile pastoralists, rich with excellent natural pasture and well situated as a refuge from the summer heat and aridity of the lowland deserts. Viewed from the perspective of prehistoric regional populations, the northern side of the Zeravshan Range in particular would have provided one of the most productive environmental niches in the region, since the territory experiences greater precipitation and better pasture resources due to its exposure to the moist side of the local rain-shield.   Because we are hoping to locate campsites and other archaeological contexts of prehistoric pastoralists, the ecological setting of Zaamin provides a logical starting point for investigation.

The Zaamin study region also is ideally located to test the hypothesis that 4th millennium BC communities living throughout the IAMC were the agents for expanding pastoralism to Inner Asia. This is because the territory is approximately 75 km from the site of Sarazm—the northernmost agricultural village of the 4th millennium in the montane-valley interface. Proximity to Sarazm would have provided mountain communities in Zaamin with easy accessibility to their neighbors’ agricultural products (both plant and animal), as well as relative autonomy in the highland territories. In addition, Zaamin is an interstitial territory between the Ferghana Valley to the north and regions of agro-pastoralism to the south.

Thus, for a variety of reasons, Zaamin represents a crossroad territory that would have been a point of transfer for regional innovations, while also facilitating the development of distinct pastoralist strategies due to its ecological differences from the lowlands. In fact, these same logistical qualities of proximity and differentiation (from the perspective of valley populations), contribute to the paradox of the region today: the Zaamin study zone is an area of extreme archaeological potential that has remained unstudied to date.

Discovery Highlights

Project timeline:
Initial field touring will be performed as part of a pre-fieldwork logistical assessment in the late summer of 2010. Starting in early summer 2011, the first primary research phase entails a 4-week archaeological survey of the piedmont territories ranging from lowland plains to the highland territories of the Zaamin Mountains.

The survey method uses a spatial modeling method that combines archaeological data with eco-data (in GIS format) to map survey finds dynamically in the field (using Toughbook laptops).  Anthropogenic and related environmental features will be recorded with a standardized survey form, positioned using remote sensing and GPS (Global Positioning System), photographed, and shovel sampled for archaeological and organic materials.

After mapping and documenting the surface archaeological remains a small number of sites will be selected for more systematic mapping and subsurface testing (research phase 2). These test excavations will provide a limited array of stratigraphically documented archaeological data including organic material for radiocarbon dating, soil samples for paleobotanical flotation, material culture, and archaeofauna, which will provide key information about the chronology and the organization of early nomadic societies and their interactive networks in the region.