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After an exploratory visit to Kazakhstan (reported here in 2009), Heinrich obtained funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation (USA) for an initial excavation season in 2011 at Dzhankent, just east of the Aral Sea. This proved highly successful in showing the potential of the site for a major project, and it provided new dating evidence (see the interim report).

Dzhankent location in Central Asia

The first series of radiocarbon dates from Dzhankent, and pottery finds from sections inside the town walls have key implications for the starting date of the town: its origins are not in a 9th century fortified capital of intrusive Turkic nomads (which is suggested by writings of 10th century Arab geographers), but in an open settlement of a local sedentary fishing population in the 7th century. This is changing our ideas on the medieval urbanization of this region, and instead of looking for explanations in nomad state formation started by the arrival of the Turkic tribe of the Oguz from Mongolia, we now have to look for other factors two centuries earlier. And the most important event affecting this region on the river Syr-darya in the 7th century was the establishment of the northern Silk Road along the river, around the northern shores of Aral Sea and Caspian Sea, and continuing from there southwest to Byzantium, or northwest along to Volga linking into Viking trade routes in Eastern Europe.

2011 Trench 2 at citadel of Dzhankent

Now Heinrich has obtained funding from the Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft (DFG) for a major three-year project to explore the relationship between this deserted town on the steppes close to the Aral Sea, and the wider world of trade in the 7th to 11th centuries. The main collaborative partner will again be the regionally important Korkyt-Ata State University of Kyzylorda. There is a whole series of key questions to be tackled: How long did that fishing village exist on this spot before it was turned into a trading site? Does the archaeological evidence suggest the presence of traders from the southern Silk Road civilization of Khorezm (Chorasmia)? There are substantial quantities of Khorezmian pottery in the occupation layers, and even the lay-out of the later fortified town appears to copy a Khorezmian type of urban lay-out. When did the Oguz nomads arrive to make this trading town their capital? Did they live in the citadel? Did they contribute livestock trade to the regional exchange patterns? Where are the cemeteries which might prove or disprove the multi-ethnic nature of this town? Where is the river channel which must have run past Dzhankent before the delta dried out, and where is the river port implied by a short note in one 10th century text? Is the hump outside the east gate of the town a caravanserai? And why did the town falter in the 11th century?

2011 GGA visiting the site

These questions require a multidisciplinary approach, and Heinrich envisages close collaboration of the German and Kazakh archaeologists with geophysicists, geomorphologists and soil scientists from Russia, American animal bone specialists based in Germany, a German radiocarbon laboratory, and numismatists and historians from Britain. It is hoped that the answers will have an impact not just on debates within Central Asian archaeology, but well beyond. After all, the 7th to 11th centuries AD were the period when a trading network flourished in northwestern Europe – and Dzhankent, with its connection to the northern route leading to the Volga, may have provided a link from the Silk Road to the East European and Scandinavian trade network of this time.

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On Wednesday 14th October, Mike Fulford gave a public lecture on the results of the Insula IX ‘Town Life’ Project: 500 years. The fieldwork aspect of the 18 year excavation project came to an end in 2014, but a large team are busy undertaking the post-excavation analysis. Mike’s last public lecture at Reading was 5 years ago, so there was plenty to talk about – the lecture theatre was fully booked, and the audience was packed with old friends from fieldwork, local residents, staff and students.

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After an introduction from archaeologist and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof Stephen Mithen, Mike started off by setting the scene. Calleva Atrebatum is one of only three major Roman towns in Britain on a greenfield site, meaning the archaeology is preserved much better than places like London and York. The Society of Antiquaries excavated the site from 1890-1909, but they missed an awful lot of the archaeology and stratigraphy. Insula IX was chosen back in 1997 as there were plenty of gaps on the map (meaning undisturbed archaeology), plus buildings on the ‘Late Iron Age’ alignment.

Mike casually offered some impressive stats – Insula IX has produced 62486 finds and 16240 contexts! Based on all of this information, the current chronological outline of Insula IX was presented. The Late Iron Age phase of occupation is currently dated from c. 20 BC to AD43, consisting of a ‘Great Hall’, a series of trackways, pits and wells. After the Roman conquest in AD43, activity within the Insula became much more intensive, but still clinging on the northwest-southeast alignment. At the end of the first century AD, there was a major reorganisation of buildings within the Insula, and again in the late Roman period.

Mike with the Silchester artist in residence, Jenny Halstead

Mike with the Silchester artist in residence, Jenny Halstead

Faced with the wealth of material and environmental evidence for life in Insula IX, Mike highlighted a few key themes. Firstly, the wealth of Silchester was shown through objects such as Harpocrates, the Silchester eagle and imported glassware. Secondly, dogs! From the Late Iron Age lap dog buried in the foundation trench of the Great Hall, to the dogs buried in a later Roman pit along with a raven and the famous mating dogs knife handle, and the evidence for dog skinning in the mid Roman period, dogs were a theme of the excavations. Thirdly, the living conditions within Insula IX were a key point, with trickling filter fly, whipworm and maggots all found through the environmental analysis of wells and cesspits. Along the way, Mike highlighted the work of researchers in the Department of Archaeology, including Rowena Banerjea’s study of floors and buildings through soil micromorphology, John Allen’s work on building stone, and Lisa Lodwick’s research on early food imports. Plus of course the amazing archaeological work of Amanda Clarke and her team of excavators!

Mike rounded proceedings off with the end of Insula IX, the mysterious ogham stone, and the role Silchester may have had in the fifth century AD. There was time for questions at the end – with lots of interest in the Insula IX dogs, the decline of Silchester, plus the important question “would you choose Insula IX again?”

The lecture was accompanied by a display of artwork from the Silchester artist in residence Jenny Halstead. Jenny’s paintings and sketches will be on display at the Old Fire Station Gallery, Henley-on-Thames from Saturday 24th October – Tuesday 3rd November.

Looking forward, work is steaming ahead on preparing the next Insula IX monograph on the Late Iron Age archaeology. Meanwhile, the exciting new Iron Age environs project is using a range of techniques, from LIDAR to geophysics, to investigate Iron Age activity in the wider area – something which will provide a vital prologue to the Insula IX story.

You can watch the video of the lecture here.

 

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