Ancient Art brought to Light

Ancient Art

Archaeologists working in Uzbekistan have uncovered an extraordinary group of 2000-year-old wall paintings - the most extensive, best preserved and among the oldest murals ever discovered in Central Asia.

The team of University of Sydney archaeologists and specialists from the Uzbek Academy of Sciences found the paintings in a monumental building, probably a temple, within the massive fortified settlement of Kazakl'i-yatkan near the Aral Sea. On the evidence so far, the paintings may have covered more than a kilometre of wall.

The team leader, Associate Professor Alison Betts, said: "In just 40 metres, we opened up a procession of animals–probably a caravan of horses and camels–and a gallery of magnificent portrait heads, possibly depicting members of a ruling family. "It's a completely unique piece; nothing like it has ever been found before," said Professor Betts, who has been directing the project for almost ten years.

The site lies in modern day Karakalpakstan, part of north-western Uzbekistan, in the delta of the Amu-darya river, the ancient Oxus. This was a flourishing centre of civilisation from the seventh century BC until it was laid waste by the Mongols.

Many magnificent ruins lay undisturbed for centuries until the early years of the 20th century when the canals were rebuilt and the land was turned over to cotton production. The work of the Karakalpak-Australian Expedition has shown that many secrets are still waiting to be uncovered beneath the desert sands. "We are trying to discover where the people who did the paintings got their ideas from, what kind of cultural background they had and what these pieces mean because obviously there was symbolism built into them," said Professor Betts. "We are still working on finding out whether they are just portraits of kings and queens, or whether they are in some way related to gods. The king was regarded as a god or given the right to rule by god - it reflects a connection between religion and kingship," Professor Betts said.

The paintings were lifted from the ground and walls before being cleaned and transferred to local museums. Some of them are expected to feature in a travelling exhibition.

Kazakl'i-yatkan became independent around the 5th century BC and grew increasingly isolated, but during this period it developed a rich indigenous civilisation. The region was never conquered by Alexander and remained cut off from almost all outside influence until around the 1st century AD.

By Claudia Liu

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