“Margiana” – A Journey into Prehistoric Turkmenistan

At first, I did not know where Turkmenistan was located and had to look it up.” Herlinde Koelble’s reaction to an inquiry to photograph excavations in Gonur Depe is quite illustrative. As Turkmenistan was proverbial for periphery in Soviet times, the country is still by far the least known and most mysterious of the five independent Central Asian countries. It is not uncommon to know someone who visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, but few know someone who travelled through Turkmenistan. As she loves adventures, the renowned German photographer agreed at once to document the excavations and findings at the Bronze Age city of Gonur Depe (“grey hill”) in the historical landscape Margiana in Eastern Turkmenistan.

Not only interest in prehistorical cultures, but also curiosity and longing for adventure are probable reasons for the success of the exhibition “Margiana. A Bronze Age Kingdom in Turkmenistan”. It is the first exhibition in a Western country that covers the “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex” (BMAC) as the ancient culture is called. The term “Oxus civilisation” is also frequently used, however, it has a broader meaning with regard to the timeframe and the geographical scope (Teufer 2018: 80-81). The exhibition displays prehistoric artefacts and Koelble’s photos of the objects, the excavation site and modern Turkmenistan, which she took during her expedition to the country. Being on display at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim until 16 June 2019, the exhibition raises awareness of the little-known and politically isolated country.

When the idea for this exhibition was first presented to the Turkmen government and then to president Saparmurat Niyazov in 2004, he allegedly gave green light. However, after his death in 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov seemed rather occupied with consolidating his power and installing the cult around his person so that the project advanced only slowly. There were also concerns on the Turkmen side that the exhibits could be damaged or even stolen while displayed in Germany or that the Germans could keep the original artefacts while returning only copies to Turkmenistan. Eventually, Berdymukhammedov agreed that the presentation of Turkmen cultural treasures (of a highly developed culture) would be a good idea and would serve the prestige of the country abroad as well as enhance cultural exchange.

Discovered by Viktor Iwanowitsch Sarianidi in 1972, excavations at Gonur Depe started more than 40 years ago (Wemhoff/Nawroth/Weiss/Wieczorek 2018a: 12). The at least 28 hectares large city of Gonur Depe included a palace, fortifications, irrigation systems and cemeteries with richly decorated graves. The objects found in the city are witness of the outstanding craftmanship of the BMAC and its long-distance trade relations (Luneau 2018) along what should later be known as the Silk Road. The region seems to have been a melting pot with frequent migration as the analysis of skeletons revealed a considerable heterogeneity of the inhabitants of Gonur Depe with regard to their physical anthropological characteristics (Dubova 2018: 112). However, not being of interest for Soviet archaeologists, the knowledge about the BMAC is still very limited. E.g. it is unclear how such a sophisticated culture – much more advanced than societies in Europe at that time – developed, flourished at Gonur Depe from 2,800 until 1,800/1,500 B.C. and then vanished.

The limited knowledge about the prehistoric society is reflected in the “Margiana” exhibition, which currently tours in Germany. The presented variety of technologically advanced consumer goods and delicate objets d’art testifies to an outstanding craftmanship. However, the exhibition struggles to put the accumulated objects into a broader context. The purpose of some findings is still unclear (Wemhoff/Nawroth/Weiss/Wieczorek 2018b: 12), degrading them to objects whose timeless beauty can be admired, but not understood. Despite some insights, the exhibition also lacks a broader understanding how the people at Gonur Depe lived together. Displaying different categories of findings, the exhibition spotlights separated aspects of their life. However, it fails to bring these aspects into a coherent understanding of the BMAC.
Of course, such criticism from a social science perspective is somewhat unfair as it is not the curator’s fault that research on BMAC will have to continue for some decades until another exhibition can provide the broader understanding of the Bronze Age culture by putting the objects into context. At least the Turkmen government seems to have an interest in supporting research. BMAC has moved from the periphery of Soviet archaeological interest to a higher position on the Turkmen (national) agenda of historical research. The pioneering work of the decade-long planning of the “Margiana” exhibition was also an exercise of mutual trust-building with Turkmen authorities on which future cultural joint ventures can – hopefully – build.

As the findings themselves are the centrepiece and strength of the “Margiana” exhibition, it was an excellent choice to have Herlinde Koelble on board for documenting them in the exhibition and the catalogue. While her pictures of the excavation site and its surroundings are solid craftwork, she shows real mastery when photographing the objects. Especially the figurines seem alive in here photos (Wemhoff/Nawroth/Weiss/Wieczorek 2018b: 140). She is first and foremost a portrait photographer as can be seen in her seminal work “Spuren der Macht” (Koelble 2010). Her close-ups of some objects reveal the artistry of the Bronze Age craftsmen in a way which would otherwise remain invisible for the visitors in the showrooms.

The “Margiana” exhibition is not only groundbreaking in combining archaeological findings and modern photography, but also in bringing isolated Turkmenistan closer to Germany and Europe. A task which the upcoming SEnECA Photo Exhibition on Central Asia at Bozar in Brussels on 4-5 April 2019 will continue.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Julian Plottka and Yvonne Braun, IEP