Visiting Research Fellow Heinrich Härke will excavate an early medieval town on the northern Silk Road

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).

Location of Dzhankent 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.

Excavations in 2019 of the citadel wall of Dzhankent where the cat remains were found.

Excavations in 2019 of the citadel wall of Dzhankent where the cat remains were found.

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?

Professors G. Astill (UoR, right) and J. Staecker (Tübingen, left; † 2019) visiting the site in 2011.

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.

 

Update on new fieldwork in Kazakhstan (2018-19)

Drone photo of Dzhankent (copyright M. Goffriller).

Since 2018, the international multi-disciplinary team of the Dzhankent project has been working hard on site as well as in stores and labs, helped by local workers and student volunteers. Several carefully placed trenches have revealed small houses of Central Asian type, one of them with a fragment of decorative wall painting. Large buildings such as temples or palaces have not been discovered so far. The southern town wall was found to stand on top of an occupation layer with 8th century pottery, implying the existence of an open settlement before the building of the walled town in the late 9th or 10th century. Finds from the buildings confirm the presence of three main pottery styles which suggest a mixed population made up of locals, nomads, and southern traders. Regular links to the south, by then Islamic, are also shown by a 10th-century pot with three chicken eggs bearing Arabic lettering, by about half a dozen vessels with Arabic graffiti, and by Samanid coins of the 10th century.

Mechanical coring in 2019 inside Dzhankent.

Extensive prospection (magnetometry, electric resistivity, electrotomography, georadar) and manual coring in 2018 highlighted the dense arrangement of buildings within the town walls, and a depth of occupation layers of several metres across the site. So, in order to obtain meaningful information on the history of Dzhankent within the project period of three years, the team changed its fieldwork strategy in 2019 by shifting the emphasis to coring. Our geomorphologist (Prof. Andrej Panin) laid a grid of coring points across the site and used a lorry-based mechanical drill to obtain cores down to natural, through all occupation layers. More than 100 samples from these cores are currently being C14 dated and analysed by soil scientists for their composition, aiming for an outline history of occupation of all areas of the town.

But there is already enough information to draw up a provisional model of the origins and development of Dzhankent. The later town of the 10th century grew out of a large fishing village which, as early as the 7th/8th centuries, had trade links to the south, to the Iranian civilization of Khorezm (Chorasmia) on the Amu-Darya river. Khorezmian traders became interested in Dzhankent because it was located on the river Syr-Darya which, from around AD 600, was part of the route of the Northern Silk Road, connecting Central Asia (and ultimately, China) to the Volga, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the Mediterranean. Turkic nomad rulers of the Oguz tribe instigated the building of a fortified town at this location around AD 900, making it the centre of their steppe empire. Dzhankent thrived for more than a century, perhaps also playing a role in the north-south slave trade from the Baltic region and Eastern Europe to Central Asia, until it was abandoned in the 11th or early 12th century – for reasons which we still have to find out.

Dzhanik: the earliest cat on the Northern Silk Road

Remains of the early medieval cat from Dzhankent (copyright A. Haruda)

The sharp-eyed archaeozoologist on the team, Dr Ashleigh Haruda (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany), spotted the bones of a feline while looking through the large quantities of animal bones from the site. She immediately realized the significance of the find and assembled an interdisciplinary team to extract all possible information from the largely complete skeleton. As a result, we now have an astonishingly detailed biography of a tomcat that lived and died in the late 8th century AD here in a village on the Syr-Darya river. X-rays and 3D imaging revealed a number of healed fractures of bones, meaning that humans must have looked after the animal while he was unable to hunt. In fact, he was looked after quite well: he had reached an age of several years, helped by a high-protein diet, probably fish (as shown by stable isotope analysis). And his DNA shows that he was most likely a true representative of the species Felis catus L., the kind of modern domestic cat – not a tame wildcat. This makes him the earliest domestic mouser in Eurasia north of Central Asia and east of China, about 1200 years ago.

Full open-access publication: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-67798-6#citeas

 

Meet our #UoRWomen!

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we asked some of our brilliant staff to answer a few questions about their research, their career highlights, and their inspirations. Read on for a selection…

 

Ms Elaine Jamieson

Research/teaching specialisation

I am interested in inter-disciplinary approaches to landscape archaeology, with a particular specialism in analytical earthwork survey. Although I have worked on sites of all periods, my current research is focussed on the archaeology of medieval monuments and landscapes.

What made you choose this area?

As a student I did my first archaeological survey work on Exmoor with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and found myself tramping across the open moor surveying everything from prehistoric cists to post-medieval industrial sites. That experience shaped my future career and left me with a love of landscape archaeology.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

When my first monograph was published.

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

I am currently working on the Leverhulme Trust funded project Extending Histories: From Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds. The recent discovery by the project team that Skipsea Castle motte may have its origins in the middle Iron Age raises interesting questions about the composite nature of medieval castles, as well as contemporary perceptions of ancient places and landscapes.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

If you have keen observation skills and an inquisitive mind then landscape archaeology, particularly non-intrusive survey and investigation work, can be a really rewarding area of study. I would say just get out there and start exploring the landscape around you!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy spending time outdoors, watching rugby union and relaxing at home.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

The many wonderful landscape archaeologists I have worked with over the years, but particularly Paul Everson who first sparked my interest in medieval landscapes.

 

Dr Hella Eckardt

Research/teaching specialisation: 

Roman Archaeology

What made you choose this area?

I studied Latin at school and read books about what life in ancient Rome would have been like – but really wanted to see for myself how ordinary people lived.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

Securing a permanent job!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

I have loved having so many Roman PhDs in the department and within Roman archaeology generally there has been a real resurgence in artefact studies.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

My advice would be the same for men or women: this is a brilliant job – but it is important not to take on all the competing demands and targets – or you will simply not have a life!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Gardening and spinning (cycling, not textile working).

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My parents were very influential – they actually met on an excavation and both had a deep interest in history.

 

Dr Wendy Matthews

Research/teaching specialisation

Origins of early agricultural and urban lifeways/microscopic analysis of building and settlement histories and the ecological and social strategies and relations and lives that shaped them.

What made you choose this area?

My love of the Middle East and the powerful forensic-scale insights that micromorphological analyses provide into study of the lived histories of past peoples and environments.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

As we are always learning and there are always new discoveries and ways of looking at things, there always seems to be more to strive for!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

New high-resolution integrated archaeobotanical studies of the diverse plants used in the past and their ecological and social significance.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

Engage in current exciting interdisciplinary research and partnerships and link your research to meaningful past, present and future global challenges.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Walking in the country, kayaking, art, and many years ago – windsurfing and horse-riding.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

Professor Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge and Dr Marie-Agnès Courty, CNRS

 

Dr Catherine Barnett

Research/teaching specialisation

The practical application of Archaeological Sciences (in my case archaeobotany, geoarchaeology and dating) to sites of all ages

What made you choose this area?

It was a natural progression from a background in environmental sciences coupled with a real curiosity about our shared past. I first contemplated a career in forensic biochemistry but archaeological science struck me as just as much an exercise in detection and a lot less messy.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

One of my most nerve-wracking days was giving a talk at the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic day conference at the British Museum while first working as a sessional lecturer and doing my PhD. To my surprise, I did not go up in a big ball of flames but instead vastly more experienced and well-known colleagues from the profession showed a genuine interest in what I was doing and talked to me at length after the talk. I’d found my people!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

The systematic application of AMS radiocarbon dating to well-stratified remains associated with prehistoric sites is profoundly changing our understanding of the timing and nature of developments in human adaptations to rapid climate change and in securing food supplies in an evolving landscape.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

Be curious and get as much experience as you can on digs or volunteering in the lab. Personally I’ve found the science side a great way into archaeology, and there are many possible careers within the subject.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Spare what? I love spending time with my herd of little boys and prowling the landscape with friends and dogs. I won’t deny visiting archaeological sites and museums on my days off too.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My parents, both of them scientists in different fields showed me there is no limit to what any of us can do but it was a series of kind and enthused university lecturers who gently steered me in the right direction to get where I wanted to be.

 

Dr Mary Lewis

Research/teaching specialisation

Child bioarchaeology/human osteology

What made you choose this area?

My love of history, biology and medicine

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

Do you ever? But it was exciting the first time one of my papers was cited!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

The use of stable isotopes to enable us to ask detailed questions about people’s diet, health and migration patterns, it has completely transformed the discipline.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

Be persistent, it takes time but opportunities do come available. Be prepared to work your way up.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Gardening, walking the dog and running

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

A female bioarchaeologist who was an amazing and generous mentor. Still is.

Professor Richard Bradley nominated for Archaeologist of the Year – vote now!

Richard-Bradley-225x300The Current Archaeology Awards 2017 are open for voting, and for the third year in a row we have a contender in the ‘Archaeologist of the Year’ category – our Emeritus Professor, Richard Bradley!

In the past two years, Professor Roberta Gilchrist (2016) and Professor Mike Fulford (2015) took home the prestigious ‘Archaeologist of the Year’ award.

The award is given based on popular vote, so make sure you click on the link and cast your vote: http://www.archaeology.co.uk/vote

Roberta Gilchrist and Hella Eckardt nominated in Current Archaeology Awards!

RobertaGilchrist_3283-e (1)Professor Roberta Gilchrist has been nominated for ‘Archaeologist of the Year’ in the 8th Annual Current Archaeology Awards.

Roberta’s nomination recognises her work as a pioneer of social approaches to medieval archaeology, a champion of equal opportunities, and her work with Norwich Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. The full nomination reads:

“Roberta Gilchrist is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading.  She has pioneered social approaches to medieval archaeology, opening up new questions on gender and age and publishing important studies on medieval nunneries, hospitals, castles, and burials. Roberta has been a champion for equal opportunities, promoting women in archaeology and leading initiatives to integrate disability into the teaching of archaeological fieldwork. She was archaeologist to Norwich Cathedral and published a major study of Norwich Cathedral Close. Her monograph on the excavations at Glastonbury Abbey (1904–79) has just been published, making the results of 36 seasons of antiquarian excavations available for the first time. She is currently working with the Abbey on digital reconstructions and educational resources to make this work accessible to visitors.”

 

Objects-and-Identities_opt-195x300

Dr Hella Eckardt’s book ‘Objects and Identities: Roman Britain and the North-Western Provinces’ has been nominated for ‘Book of the Year’!

“Every object, however humble, has a tale to tell, and in this fascinating book carefully-chosen case studies tease out the ways that artefacts reflect their owners’ values and aspirations. From utilitarian kit to imported luxury goods, the items examined paint a vivid picture of regional variation, and approaches to consumption and display.”

 

You can cast your vote for both nominees here.

Dr Hella Eckardt wins Faculty of Science prize for Best Research Output

HellaEckardt_1940_wCongratulations to Dr Hella Eckardt, who has won the Faculty of Science prize for Best Research Output for her single author volume: Objects and Identities – Roman Britain and the North-western Provinces.

Hella’s book won the prize against stiff competition from all the Schools in the Faculty of Science. Ben Cosh, Dean of Science, described the book as an outstanding example of Reading’s world leading research in Heritage, Creativity & Values.  He went on to say: ‘As far as it is possible for a non-specialist to draw such a conclusion, it seems clear to me that you have introduced an entirely novel theoretical approach and methodology in the use of artefacts and the integration of archaeological evidence during consideration of fundamental aspects of our culture and heritage. I fully concur with the expectation expressed in the supporting nomination that this work will bring about a step-change in how artefacts are used in archaeological investigation and that, as such, it will have a major influence on the manner in which a range of social and economic questions are addressed by researchers worldwide.’