Gonur Tepe: A Marvel in the Karakum Desert

NEAF Board member Ben Churcher had the pleasure to led a NEAF tour to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in 2009. On this tour he visited the site of Gonur Tepe and met the chief excavator Viktor Sarianidi. This is a brief account of that visit. Text and photos by Ben Churcher.

Group at Gonur Tepe

In 2009 I lead a tour of NEAF members to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Prior to the tour I'd heard a little about the site of Gonur Tepe located in Turkmenistan but had little concrete knowledge about it. For me this is one of the beauties of leading tours in that it gives you a chance to visit places you ordinarily might not.

Image: The 2009 NEAF group at Gonur Tepe.


My motivation to take the tour to Turkmenistan was primarily to visit the city of Merv (Mary): once one of the great cities of the ancient Silk Road. The location of Merv in eastern Turkmenistan necessitated a break in the itinerary and when planning the tour I researched what else we could visit in the region. This reading led me to 'discover' Gonur Tepe that is located about 60km to the north of Merv in the Karakum (Black Sand) Desert and I immediately placed it in the itinerary.

Image: A camel passes in front of the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv. Sultan Sanjar was the last Seljuk monarch in this part of the world before the Mongul invasions changed everything forever.


On the day of the visit the tour group divided up into 4WD vehicles for the desert crossing and we had a great trip across the Karakum that still contained a spring flush of vegetation and flowers.

Our guide, a doughty Russian, told me along the way that there was a team of archaeologists working at Gonur Tepe and that we would be able to see their recent work. I've heard this a dozen times in a dozen different places and normally it means that you see archaeologists with their heads down and not much else. In the case of Gonur Tepe I was pleasantly surprised.

Image: Our Soviet era transport during a pit stop on the way to Gonur Tepe. 

 Gonur Tepe

On arrival at Gonur Tepe you don't, at first, see much. A few makeshift huts where I was told the archaeologists lived, a stray dog and an older woman selling a very brief site guide. Around you the flat desert extends to the horizon: you feel very remote. Although the weather was delightful when we visitied in May, you could feel how cold it must be there in winter and how hot it must be in summer.

The first thing that struck my archaeologist's eye was an immense amount of well-preserved pottery spread out on the sandy ground. Pieces were grouped together in quadrants marked out by string, but other than this, identification was minimal. Additionally there were many complete pieces including chalices, bowls and jars: any one of which would be a major find at other sites. This introduction told me Gonur Tepe was not only a rich site with what looked like a lot of tomb material but that it was rather eccentrically run stuck as is was literally in the middle of nowhere.

Image: Just some of the pottery laid out for conservation and study at Gonur Tepe.


When we met Viktor Sarianidi on site he was cordial and through our interpreter explained a little about the site. According to Viktor the inhabitants of ancient Gonur Tepe had migrated here from the Near East at a time when this location was on the banks of an inland delta of the Murghab River that made the region well-watered and fertile. While this migration theory is debated by archaeologists, along with Viktor's early third millennium BCE dates (as many would prefer an early to mid second millennium BCE date for Gonur Tepe), the passion and dedication of this now 80 year old archaeologist was obvious. When Viktor heard that we were 'archaeologists' from the University of Sydney he offered to show us some of his more recent finds.

Image: Viktor Sarianidi with his assistant wearing blue and our national Turkmenistan guide. What can not be seen here are the crutches that enabled Viktor to walk around the site. The sight of this indomitable 80 year old still carrying on his work filled me with admiration.  

 Gonur Tepe Palace

Around us was a vast complex of walls, rooms and streets that has been excavated from the desert sands - and just as painstakenly conserved. As most of the walls were orignally of mudbrick, each and every wall had been replastered in a new layer of clay and straw. While this gives the site a slightly surreal feel of being somewhat modern, as an archaeologist who has excavated mudbrick features, I know this is the best way to preserve the original walls beneath without the expense of roofing the site which, even when it is done, does not allow a site to be interpreted in a readily accessible way.

Image: A view across Gonur Tepe showing the central palace area with a local visitor inspecting a water pipeline, in clay pipes, in the foreground.


The first remarkable find Viktor allowed us to see was a royal tomb. As local workmen scrambled down into a pit that had been artificially cut from the surface, they pulled away sheets to reveal a fascinating tableau. In one corner, pottery amphora and bowls were stacked while, face-down on the tomb's floor, was a large bronze plate. With another sheet removed, the burial chamber was revealed covered in intricate mosaic work. To see this in the middle of Central Asia staggered me as it all felt somewhat familiar: the pottery shapes, the bronze work - all would not have been out of place in the Near East. I could easily see where Viktor got his migration theory from!

Image: A Turkman worker reveals the burial chamber covered in mosaic work in one of the royal tombs at Gonur Tepe.


The second royal tomb Viktor showed us had just been excavated. Beneath a canvas cover that was pulled away for us by local workmen was a roughly circuler pit: again artificially cut down from the surface. When first constructed these were chamber tombs with a dromus or entrance to one side that would have been accessed by steps from the surface. Excavation of the tomb would have been nearly impossible by keeping the original roof in place as it would have been cramped and dangerous and digging down on the tomb from above was a practical solution.

Image: Turkmen workers peel away the canvas covering of the second royal tomb at Gonur Tepe. 

 Gonur Tepe

Beneath this canvas covering was a find that took my breath away. Clustered around the largest bronze cauldron I've ever seen from antiquity were the skeletons of humans and horses, bronze 'standards' and calcite vessels. Even more remarkable were the bronze rims of chariot/cart wheels still held in place by a slender column of sand. These horse burials mark the inhabitants of ancient Gonur Tepe as Indo-Europeans and therefore close cousins to the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Iranians and Sanskrit speaking Indians. Like Michael Wood who also visited the site for his documentary The Story of India, I found this a tantalising glimpse of an Indo-European community bridging the Aryan homelands of modern Iran with northern India.

Image: A royal tomb at Gonur Tepe showing bronze standards, a cauldron and wheel rims. A human skull is in the foreground.


To further back the Indo-European credentials of ancient Gonur Tepe, Viktor has excavated what he calles a haoma (soma) mixing installation. Haoma, a sacred concoction for ancient Hindus, as well as Zoroastrians, was made from a mixture of cannabis, poppy and ephedrine. Although Michael Wood was able to track down and try some haoma in the markets of Pakistan for his documentary, I have to take his word for its spiritually uplifting effects! Instead, in the modern world, I was able to thank Viktor for showing us around with a bottle of good local Vodka (hard to find!!). I hope he enjoyed it sitting in his ramshacle hut in the middle of the Karakum desert. With his passing, an old breed of archaologists fade from view and I feel privilaged we were able to meet with him and see some incredible finds at a site that will always be synonymous with Viktor Sarianidi. May he rest in peace.

Image: The Haoma (soma) mixing installation at Gonur Tepe.