Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters

DFG Project Dzhankent

Nomad state formation and urbanization on the northern Silk Road: The early medieval town of Dzhankent (Aral Sea region, Kazakhstan)

The Site and the Project

Nomad state formation and urbanization on the northern Silk Road: The early medieval town of Dzhankent (Aral Sea region, Kazakhstan)

Funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) – project number 389351859 

Start of work: March 2018

PIs: Prof. Dr Heinrich Härke (Universität Tübingen, Germany)

        Dr Azilkhan Tazhekeev (Korkyt-Ata State University of Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan)

Project description (2017, revised March 2019):

This cooperative project explores the process of early medieval urbanization on the northern Silk Road in the context of nomad state formation and long-distance trade. The key site is the deserted town of Dzhankent which is recorded in Arab sources of the 10th to 12th centuries as the ‘capital’ of the Oguz nomad empire. Key questions include the date of the foundation of the town and its predecessor settlement; its lay-out and functional elements; the composition, structure and changing economic activities of its population; and the reasons for its demise. These questions are tackled with an interdisciplinary geoarchaeological approach by non-destructive prospection, excavation and enviromental studies in the interior of the town and in its immediate surroundings, and by analysis of finds and findings. The project is intended to give an impetus to the study of early medieval urbanization in western Kazakhstan by introducing new methodologies, and by putting the subject for the first time in the context of theories and debates from Central Asia to Western Europe.

The significance of the site derives from its historical context as well as its natural environment: the formation of the Oguz nomad state in the 9th/10th centuries and its contemporaneous urbanization, with its main towns located in the huge river delta of the Syr-Darya. One of the main stimuli for urban development here may have been the location at the intersection of the Northern Silk Road (running east-west in the Syr-Darya corridor) and the north-south trade with slaves, furs and livestock to Central Asia. The role of Khorezmian middlemen in this trade appears to be reflected in the pottery, domestic architecture and urban planning of Dzhankent. Its location gives the project an added environmental relevance in that it contributes to the wider study of the desertification of the Aral Sea region. Environmental elements of our research programme will include the dating of river delta palaeochannels close to Dzhankent, and scientific analyses of soils, animal bones and fish remains from the site.

The project addresses, thus, socio-economic as well as environmental factors in the analysis of the urbanization process east of the Aral Sea. The results are to be interpreted within the wider framework of Central Asian and European debates about urban origins and functions in early medieval state formation; these have so far been virtually unconnected debates.

Site Director of Excavations: 
Dr Irina A. Arzhantseva (Moscow)

Science collaborators of the project:

Prof. Igor Modin (Moscow – geophysical prospection)

Prof. Andrej Panin (Moscow – geomorphology)

Dr Maria A. Bronnikova (Moscow – soil science)

Dr Ashleigh Haruda (Halle, Germany – animal bones)

Dr Alicia Miller (Jena – stable isotopes)

International Advisory Committee:

Prof. Jörn Staecker† (Tübingen)

Prof. Grenville Astill (Reading, UK)

Prof. Jonathan Shepard (Oxford, UK)

Dr Luke Treadwell (Oxford, UK)

Dr Oleksii Komar (Kiev)

Dr Veronika Murasheva (Moscow) 

Prof. Zholdasbeg Kurmankulov (Almaty, Kazakhstan).

Co-opted 2018:

Dr Yurij Karev (Paris)

Dr Agusti Alemany (Barcelona)

Dr Natalia Khamaiko (Kiev)

Ph.D. students working on Dzhankent topics:

Gulmira Amirgalina (Tübingen – pottery)

Zhetesbi Sultanzhanov (Tübingen – urban planning and domestic architecture)

Sejdaly Bilalov (Almaty – fortifications)

Field Season 2018

Geophysical prospection was continued, and now covers about two thirds of he interior. Our geomorphologists and soil scientists carried out coring inside the town and in the vicinity, looking for palaeochannels of the Syr-Darya where a river port of the town may have been located. Within the town, their cores showed that in all trenches the occupation layers have a depth of about 4 metres or more – a finding that may necessitate a re-thinking of the fieldwork strategy.

New trenches were started in the citadel (no. 6), inside the west gate (no. 8) and outside the northern wall (no. 9); existing trenches in the lower town (no. 1) and at the citadel wall (no.2) were continued and extended. Trench no. 8 produced new insights into the end of the town: this did not come about by destruction, but by abandonment after which water accumulated inside the town’s enclosure and building walls collapsed. According to the latest pottery finds from the citadel, this is likely to have happened early in the 12th century. The new radiocarbon dates just coming in (February/March 2019) seem to confirm the beginnings of the settlement in the 6th or 7th century. The 2018 fieldwork has produced no new evidence that would suggest a change of the 10th century date for the fortifications (and thus, the date for the urban lay-out of the town).

In the second week of September, the project’s International Advisory Committee convened at the site for a workshop to discuss excavation techniques and the results obtained so far. On the final day, the workshop moved to Kyzylorda State University for a discussion of current interpretations, hypotheses, and prospects for further work at Dzhankent.

Field Season 2019

Excavations and related fieldwork were continued this year from the last week of July to the first week of September. The existing trenches in the citadel (Trench 6), on the citadel wall (Trench 2), and in the lower town (Trenches 1 and 8) were extended and taken deeper, providing new information on domestic architecture and the stratigraphy of the town walls. Geophysical prospection now covers all of the interior, providing a plan of the town in the 10th – 11th centuries and pinpointing a number of features (e.g. a circular trench in the centre of the town) which we intend to look at in the final fieldwork season.  

Having seen the sheer depth of occupation layers in the manually obtained cores last year, we have, supported by the advice of our geomorphologist (Prof. A. Panin), changed our fieldwork strategy by shifting the emphasis this year towards coring. A grid of 25 coring points was set out across the town where a mechanical drill (hired from a geomorphology firm from Moscow) dug cores of 10 cm in diameter and up to 8 m in depth – at each point down to natural. These cores are now being analysed by our soil scientists, and after C14 dating they will give us an outline of the entire occupation history of the site. Visual inspection of the cores on site already provided first essential insights, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, after all) destroying some cherished hypotheses and tentative identifications of features. 

Special finds in 2019:

This year, we found and excavated again a large number of modern (probably Soviet-period) burials in our trenches, more than ever before. These are a challenge for several reasons, but mostly because they are assumed to be Muslim burials, which means that they cannot be kept for later analysis: they have to be buried on the present-day village cemetery immediately after the end of the annual season. This year we were lucky to have on site a Tübingen student with relevant expertise, Sandra Reininghaus, who excavated, inspected and documented a total of 16 graves and the human bones from them. Her observations of malnourishment and stress indicators appear to lend support to our assumption that these may be burials of famine refugees of the early 1930s. 

Two other Tübingen students, Raija Heikkila and Robert Selan, paid particular attention to the processing of the numerous animal bones. This resulted in the discovery of several worked bones and a number of markings on vertebrae and knuckle bones, suggesting that they may have been used for games. Incidentally, our animal bone specialist, Dr Ashleigh Haruda, had discovered last year the bones of a cat in the stores of finds from 2014. Following this, she put together an international and interdisciplinary team for palaeopathological, genetic, stable isotope and radiocarbon analysis of the bones. Their typescript (submitted for publication in November 2019) highlights that this is the first domestic (or hybrid?) cat from a settlement context in Central Asia. With a C14 date around AD 800, Dzhanik (as we now call the cat) actually pre-dates the 10th century lay-out of the town by almost a century – and this is significant because cat-keeping was essentially an urban phenomenon, it was not a nomad habit. (see attempto article)

Some outstanding discoveries were also made in 2019, notably a large bronze vessel in a house in Trench 8, in the lower town. But the most surprising, even sensational find of 2019 was made after the end of the fieldwork season. One of our conservators, Elena Pshenichnova, discovered in one of the Dzhankent pottery vessels on her workbench a ‘nest’ of three eggs – with Arabic script on them! These are now with a specialist in the Kunstkammer Museum workshop at St Petersburg, and we eagerly anticipate the decipherment of the texts on them once her restoration work is completed. Perhaps that will help to explain the nature of this exceptional deposit against the outside of the town wall, below the citadel. 

Publications and reports about our Dzhankent project have generated a good deal of interest among foreign specialists, and members of the team have been kept busy in 2019 following invitations to conference and lecture presentations in Russia, Kazakhstan and China – and last not least, Tübingen. 


Publications (selection 2012 - 2018)

I.A. Arzhantseva, M.S. Karamanova, S.A. Ruzanova, A.A. Tazhekeev, I.N. Modin and H. Härke 2012. Early medieval urbanization and state formation east of the Aral Sea: Fieldwork and international workshop 2011 in Kazakhstan. The European Archaeologist 37. 14-20.

I. Aržanceva, A. Tažekeev and H. Härke 2013. Džankent – eine frühmittelalterliche “Sumpfstadt“. Archäologie in Deutschland 3/2013. 60-61.

I.A. Arzhantseva and A.A. Tazhekeev 2014 (2016). Kompleksnie issledovaniya gorodishcha Dzhankent. Raboty 2011-2014 gg. [Interdisciplinary research in the town of Dzhankent. Fieldwork 2011-2014]. Almaty: Arys.

I. Arzhantseva, H. Härke and A. Tažekeev 2017. Between North and South: Dzhankent, Oguz and Khorezm. In: N.N. Kradin and A.G. Sitdikov (Hrsg.), Between East and West: The movement of cultures, technologies and empires. III Congress of Medieval Archaeology of the Eurasian Steppes. Wladiwostok: Dalnauka. 12-16.

I. Arzhantseva and S. Gorshenina 2018. The patrimonial project of Dzhankent: constructing a national symbol in the longue durée. Ancient Cultures from Scythia to Siberia 24. 467-532.

H. Härke and I. Arzhantseva 2016. Some theories, models and analogies for Dzhankent: A context for early medieval urbanization on the lower Syr-Darya. World of the Great Altai 2 (4.2). 886-896.

Publications (from 2019):

I. Arzhantseva and H. Härke 2019. “The General and his Army”: Metropolitans and Locals on the Khorezmian Expedition. In: S. Gorshenina, P. Bornet, M.E. Fuchs and C. Rapin (eds.). “Masters” and “Natives”: Digging the Others’ Past (Worlds of South and Inner Asia, vol. 8). Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter. 137-176. 

H. Härke and I. Arzhantseva 2019. Am Südost-Horizont der Wikingerwelt. Die Seidenstraße. In: J. Staecker and M. Toplak (eds.). Die Wikinger: Entdecker und Eroberer. Berlin: Propyläen 2019. 295-302.

Haruda, A.F., Ventresca Miller, A.R., Paijmans, J.L.A., Barlow, A., Tazhekeyev, A., Bilalov, S., Hesse, Y., Preick, M., King, T., Thomas, R., Härke, H. and Arzhantseva, I. 2020. The earliest domestic cat on the Silk Road. Scientific Reports 10: 11241. Open-access publication: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-67798-6#citeas

Härke, H., I.A. Arzhantseva and A. Tazhekeev 2020. The early medieval town of Dzhankent (Kazakhstan): from initial hypothesis to new model. The European Archaeologist 66, Autumn 2020. 27-34. Online https://www.e-a-a.org/EAA/Publications/Tea/Tea_66/Research_news/EAA/Navigation_Publications/Tea_66_content/Research_news.aspx


Some of the above publications, as well as other related titles, may be downloaded from: