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Towns of the Karakum Archaeological Project

The Museum has supported archaeological research on Islamic periods at different intervals since the 1930s, at Ctesiphon in Iraq, Qasr-i Abu Nasr and Nishapur in Iran, and Merv in Turkmenistan. Towns of the Karakum (ToKa) is a current archaeological project in Turkmenistan. It explores how medieval cities were connected across Khurasan, the historical region between eastern Iran and Central Asia. The project also aims at building bridges with scholars and colleagues in Turkmenistan through joint investigations.

The excavation focuses on the urban landscape, life, and culture of Dandanakan, a medieval walled city whose remains are located in Mary province. Until the twelfth century, the town served as a stop along the main route across Khurasan and was known for the large number of scholars who originated there. Our first results have shown the potential for radically rethinking the site’s post-medieval history, which was earlier believed to end in the twelfth century but continued well into the fifteenth. They also shed light to the city's life in the eleventh to the fifteenth century, through changes in use of domestic buildings, streets, and the main mosque, as well as insights into local and regional networks of ceramics production and consumption. Recent findings of sophisticated stucco carvings are reshaping our understanding of how in the early Islamic period artists and artistic languages moved across a vast geography.

A close up of a tan twelfth century carved stucco mihrab partially exposed from the ground on an excavation site

A close up of the recently uncovered early stucco mihrab (ToKa 2023)

ToKa was established in 2019 and is jointly directed by Martina Rugiadi (Department of Islamic Art, The Met), Paul Wordsworth (University College, London), Muhammed Annaevich Mamedov (Director of the National Administration for the Protection, Study, and Restoration of Cultural and Historical Monuments of Turkmenistan), and Rejepmurad Akmuradovich Jepbarov (Director of Ancient Merv Historical and Cultural Park). The project was initiated after years of collaboration between Turkmenistan and the Met for the exhibition Court and Cosmos in 2016 and aims to encourage scholarly exchanges with Turkmen colleagues. The project’s research builds on the existing work of our Turkmen colleagues, who have been excavating at the site since 2017. Finds from the excavation are the property of Turkmenistan and are exhibited in the national and provincial museums in Asghabat and Mary.

This project is supported by the Adelaide Milton de Groot Fund, in Memory of the de Groot and Hawley Families.

Keep reading to find out about our fieldwork in 2019 and 2023, and further readings.

A Google map of the site and region

2023 Fieldwork: An Early Stucco Mihrab and a Sophisticated Urban Plan

ToKa’s second field season, in June 2023, aimed at partnering with the Turkmen team on the newly unearthed mosque, as well as expanding our understanding of the city’s life in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. Our team produced a photogrammetry of the mosque, which is allowing us to understand the building’s plan and different construction phases and will be the basis for a 3D digital reconstruction of the mosque and its twelfth century stucco mihrab. A new trench was opened in the area we believed was the prayer hall of the mosque, which revealed the qibla wall and the upper portion of an earlier mihrab, fully covered in carved stucco with interlaced patterns, vine leaves, bunches of grapes, and trefoil motifs. The remains of more stucco decoration were also located on the qibla wall. A tentative date in the tenth century is being suggested, making this the second earliest stucco mihrab in Central Asia, together with that near Balkh in Afghanistan.

An expansion of the trench excavated in 2019 revealed more permanent occupation in the late medieval period, as well as domestic rooms and houses that were in use at least until the twelfth century. One of the most interesting findings was that of a sewage system that runs below the street, connecting different houses all provided with toilet devices. Other finds, such as a square pool and pipes, suggest that the houses were likely also provided with clean water supply. Archaeobotanical remains of mineralized seeds confirmed that the underground network was indeed used for sewage.

A 3D photogrammetry video of the twelfth century stucco mihrab (Paul Docherty, ToKa 2023, work-in-progress)


2019 Fieldwork: A Medieval City and Its Recycling

The goal of the first field season, in April 2019, was to gain an initial understanding of the archaeological landscape of Dandanakan, which is known locally as "Dash Rabat." ToKa’s team carried out a topographic survey to create a 3-D model of the ground surface, which allows to identify the walls and a regular internal grid of the medieval city. This urban plan was further confirmed with the excavation of a trench across one of the alleged streets and adjacent domestic areas. Carbon-14 analyses from the street confirmed abandonment of this area by the mid-twelfth century. Meanwhile, analyses from a kiln south-east of the city suggested that bricks were manufactured at some point between the eleventh and the mid-twelfth century. The excavation also revealed late-medieval presence in the area, as well as the systematic removal of the medieval walls made from baked bricks at some point in the early twentieth century, in order to recycle them for construction.

Archaeometric analyses conducted on the ceramic samples exported in 2019 allowed us to characterize the clays used in the manufacture of ceramics found at Dandanakan. Broadly speaking, very few long-distance imports could be identified, with the majority of vessels made from a clay consistent with the geological features across southern Turkmenistan. These included slip-painted, buff, sgraffiato, and other glazed wares. The same core material has also been identified in the bricks from the kilns south-east of the town. Analyses on new comparative material obtained in 2023 will help us identify if these ceramics were made at Dandanakan itself or were brought from nearby production centers in the Karakum.

In September 2019, we conducted a geophysical survey to understand the subterranean archaeological features of the city. A main outcome was the identification of the area which Soviet archaeologists excavated in 1942 as the Friday Mosque of medieval Dandanakan. Subsequently, this aided our Turkmen colleagues to relocate the original trench and expose the mosque’s features in 2020–2023.

Further Readings:

Paul Wordsworth, Martina Rugiadi, “Towns of Karakum archaeological project at Dash Rabat (Dandanakan) 2019-2023,” Traces of Ages. International Scientific Almanac 1 (2023), pp. 201-207.

Carmen Ting, Martina Rugiadi, & Paul Wordsworth, “Towards an Integrated Approach to Studying the Stratified Ceramics from Dandanakan/Daş Rabat, Turkmenistan (9th–12th Centuries A.D.),” Journal of Field Archaeology 48.7 (2023), pp. 502–517.

Paul Wordsworth, Martina Rugiadi, Mukhammed Mamedov, Rejep A. Jepbarov, “Digging deeper into the urban history of Dandanakan – Daş Rabat,” in Antiquity of Turkmenistan. Scientific research and restorations of monuments, Ashgabat 2020, pp. 259–266.


Color photograph of the team of 10 people in front of a tent

Part of the team in 2019