Hunting for archaeological clues in the Bronze Age

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Lynne M. Rouse studies the past. Which is precisely what makes her optimistic about the future, she explains. An anthropologist and archaeologist with a PhD under her belt, she knows that humans always find ways to adapt to new situations and survive. "Everything will be okay", she likes to say, a cheery note in her voice.

In 2015, the 37-year-old Californian completed her doctoral thesis on "mobile pastoralists, sedentary communities, and local production systems in Bronze Age Turkmenistan" at the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2016 she was awarded a Volkswagen Foundation scholarship and moved with her family to Berlin. She describes the city as a "wonderful" place for continuing her research work on social developments during the Bronze Age. "Berlin is a fantastic base for conducting my research, not only for the concentration of Central Asian archaeologists here, but for the overall vibrancy and internationalism of the city itself."

Insights into a highly developed ancient culture

Hunting for archaeological clues in the Bronze Age

She now researches and teaches at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) on a Humboldt Foundation fellowship for postdocs. She is studying lesser-known aspects of the Oxus culture. A Bronze Age oasis civilisation, it is named after a river (whose ancient name was the Oxus) in the Karakum Desert in modern-day Turkmenistan. Based at the DAI’s Eurasia Department, Rouse and a handful of renowned experts are investigating artefacts from the Bronze Age that they date back to between 2200 and 1700 BCE. Their attention is focused on finds such as stylised animal figurines and numerous tools that have been unearthed at the Ojakly excavation site and surrounding small rural settlements on the fringes of the Karakum Desert. They offer great insights into a highly developed culture characterised by know-how that was remarkable at the time, concerning textiles production and agriculture. What is particularly unusual is that the artefacts belonged to herdsmen who probably moved around and passed their knowledge on throughout the region. Rouse is fascinated by their technical skills, for example their ability to produce everyday objects and clothing.

Every fragment of clay is a clue

She has travelled to the Karakum Desert countless times in the last few years. As the leader of the Project for the Ancient Murghab (PAM), Rouse explores questions such as: How did people structure their lives back then? With whom were they in contact? What did they eat? "People who lived as nomads did not leave a lot behind", says Rouse, though she assumes that they were very flexible and would repeatedly return to specific places. No matter how tiny, every fragment of clay or remainder of wall that is discovered around the historic settlement of Gonur Tepe reveals something about how people lived there. A water duct for example points to irrigation and farming, which in turn suggests permanent structures. The stone and terracotta representations of women, bronze amulets and ornamental pearls found in the Margiana area are also revealing: they are an important indication that people in the Bronze Age were able to work metal and fire ceramics.

An exhibition for the general public

The Gonur Tepe settlement was discovered in the early 1970s by the Soviet archaeologist Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi. It is one of the largest settlement complexes of the Bronze Age, not only in Central Asia. Given its size, it was probably the capital of the Oxus culture. City structures and royal tombs were found and reliably dated using the carbon 14 process.

Since 2010, the Berlin-based DAI has been involved in the research work being conducted at various excavation sites in Turkmenistan, as well as in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The research pursued by the Eurasia Department always takes place within the framework of international scientific networks and in cooperation with local partner institutions. Consequently, the projects go far beyond mere excavations – they serve in a wider sense as platforms for dialogue between different academic cultures. The excavation findings from Turkmenistan are being shown until 7 October by the Neues Museum in Berlin in a special exhibition entitled "Margiana. A Bronze Age Kingdom in Turkmenistan".

Various options for young researchers

Students and young researchers will find good conditions for studying prehistoric and protohistoric archaeology at German universities. The following is a small and non-representative selection:

Freie Universität Berlin

Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Kiel University

University of Tübingen

Leipzig University

Archaeologists can also find a wide range of research opportunities at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example at the:

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena

Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum – Forschungsinstitut für Archäologie, Mainz (only in German)

Staatssammlung fuer Anthropologie und Paläoanatomie München (SAPM) (only in German)


German Archaeological Institute (DAI)

The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has its roots in Rome, where it was founded in 1829. A research institution that is active internationally, it now has its head office in Berlin and belongs to Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. It is the largest institution of its kind in Germany, and one of the most important worldwide. More than 350 experts from all over the world are currently conducting researching at 20 sites, primarily in the Mediterranean and Western Asia. Through its work, the DAI uncovers ancient monuments and helps to preserve and generate awareness of them as part of cultural identity.