Sarazm (Саразм)

May 7, 2017

Sarazm ( Саразм) is an Aneolithic site located in Western Tadjikistan in the Sughd region about 5.0 km from the Uzbekistan border. Situated on the Samarkand plain on the left bank of the Zarafshan river, Sarazm provides evidence for a sophisticated sedentary settlement with agricultural and metallurgical advancements in the Steppic landscape (Isakov 1981). Sarazm is located at  N39 30 28 E67 27 37 (UNESCO World Heritage Convention).

The site is easily identified using Google Earth, coming into view at approximately 6,500 ft. The entire site’s total area is approximately 130,100 m2 and its perimeter is approximately 1,682 m. Its elevation is around 3020 ft (Google Earth).

Excavations sponsored by the USSR began in 1976 under Abdullah Isakov. During this initial period there were two small villages, Avazali and Sokhibnazar, on either end of the site and Penjikent was the nearest city at 15 km east (Spengler and Willcox, 2013, 213). Today the area is more populated, featuring developed areas on the outskirts of the site (Google Earth). Later excavations were done collaboratively between Isakov, his team and French and American archaeologists after the dissolution of the USSR. The site has been excavated and researched continuously since the initial dig.

Circular building (Besenval and Isakov 1989, 9)

According to Isakov et. al (1987) Sarazm dates back as early as the fourth millennium BCE placing it around 6000 years old via radiocarbon dating of materials such as clay and bones (90).  Isakov et al.(1987) divides the chronological frame of Sarazm into three distinct phases; Sarazm I is dated to the early fourth millennium, Sarazm II to the late fourth and early third millennia, and Sarazm III to the later half of the third millennium (90).  According to a later archaeologist Razzokov (2008) there are four distinct occupation phases; Sarazm I dates from 3500-2900 BCE, Sarazm II from 2900-2600 BCE, Sarazm III from 2600-2300 BCE, and Sarazm IV from 2300-2000 BCE (Spengler and Willcox 2013, 213). Razzokov’s phases are more supported and concrete, as dating techniques have improved.

Isakov’s initial excavations unearthed multiroom buildings, burials, and other artifacts including pottery, stone objects, and metal pieces. During the second excavation, evidence of occupation during all three of Isakov’s phases was discovered.The findings from the Sarazm I phase were limited due to disturbances from later building by the former occupants of the site. A courtyard and three rooms were found; two of the rooms were connected by a doorway. The Sarazm II phase findings included five living complexes, each having an exit to a courtyard containing a hearth and bread oven (Isakov 1981, 274). Within the Sarazm III phase, more rooms were found along with five burials of two children and three adults. These graves had no grave goods, instead artifacts such as bones, ceramics, and ashes were found in courtyards (Isakov, 1981, 276). Circular hearths found within some of the rooms showed parallels in design to those in Turkmenian sites Geoksyur and Aina-depe.

Excavation II map (Isakov 1981, 275)

Isakov’s third excavation contained the remains of seven rooms constructed from brick unlike the former excavation which had clay as the predominant material. This complex is suggested to be a communal building with storage areas for grain, supported by its layout and the lack of material remains within the complex (Isakov 1981, 278). The ceramic fragments found are of particular interest to researchers because of their painted nature and similarity to those of the Namazga culture from southern Turkmenistan. The pottery was either polychrome, featuring dark-brown and dark-rose designs on red or light-yellow backgrounds, or monochrome with dark-brown designs on a lighter background.  The triangles and sawed designs within rectangles on certain ceramics parallel designs from Geoksyur and Kara-depe (Isakov 1981, 278). Issakov and Lyonnet (1988) note that there is an absence of local ceramics and suggest that this is because those from Turkmenistan colonized Sarazm (42). Sarazm was an ideal location because of its proximity to lapis-lazuli and mineral rich mountains, its proximity to the Zerafshan River, and its formation and preservation of long term trade (Issakov and Lyonnet 1988).

Ceramic fragments studied by Issakov and Lyonnet (1988, 41)

Reconstructed ceramics (Isakov and Besenval 1989, 15).

According to Isakov (1981) stone objects such as plummets, cups, mortars, grinding stones, pestles, spindle whorls, beads, jambs, and whetstones showed similarities to those from Anau, Kara-depe and other non-Central Asian sites including those in Iran and Afghanistan (279).  Bronze knives, daggers and an axe-adze were found indicating the presence of metallurgy.

Excavation III Map (Isakov 1981, 277).

During Isakov’s fourth excavation four terracotta venus statuettes were found (Isakov 1994, 4). One statuette with a bird-like head shows similarities to statuettes found at Göksür, but, overall, the statuettes resemble those found in Southern Turkmenistan. Bone awls, piercers, and needles were found, suggesting they were used in conjunction with bronze tools. Shells were also found suggesting that contact was established and maintained with distant places (Isakov 1994, 5). Four other burials with grave goods were found, contents included domestic and cosmetic objects including a bronze mirror, seashells, and gold and silver beads indicating the high statuses of those buried (Isakov 1994, 6).  Isakov’s later excavations revealed religious buildings along with more communal buildings and residential buildings.

Evidence for metallurgy at Sarazm include vast amounts of bronze tools and ornaments along with stone metal-casting molds and crucibles. Tools included daggers, knives, a fishhook, spear tips, darts and needles while other objects included beads, a mirror, a stamp and pins. (Isakov 1994, 9).  Isakov et al. (1987) studied the chemical composition of metals present in the objects found, showing that many are essentially pure copper combined with lead or iron in some cases (100). Cold-working produced the bronze mirror found; this process involves hammering the metal to the desired shape and then heating it to 500 Celsius. Other objects were produced in the more traditional manner of heating and then pouring into a mold. The latter method is similar to other metallurgical contemporaries in Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus Valley (Isakov et al. 1987, 101). Sarazm’s copper was likely smelted from malachite, cuprite, or azurite from the Zerafshan Valley. The settlement likely had its own stores of metal since many objects come from the same smelting batches (Iakov et al. 1987, 101).

Bronze daggers and bronze axe-adze (Isakov 1981, 284)

Evidence for the agricultural nature of Sarazm include archaeobotanical analysis of seeds at the site. (Spengler and Willcox 2013). Seed samples, taken from hearths, house floors and middens, were analyzed by flotation, allowing comparison between native flora of the area. Wheat and barley seeds were found along with other wild flora suggesting that the settlement did grow crops but also still depended on native flora to survive (Spengler and Willcox 2013). Lentils were also found, however, their wild or domestic origin is unclear. Sarazm’s granary along with bread hearths near residential areas suggest that they had a surplus of grain from farming (Benseval and Isakov 1989). Sarazm also depended on herding, as shown by the remains of sheep, goat and cattle, however hunting of gazelle, wild pig, fox and birds also supplemented their diet (Spengler and Willcox 2013, 214). It is theorized that since the area is unable to be irrigated traditionally that dry farming was implemented (Spengler and Willcox 2013).

Sarazm is an ancient permanent settlement known for the presence of agriculture and metallurgy. The site contains multi-room residential complexes, communal buildings complete with granaries, religious buildings, and areas where burials have occurred. Sarazm demonstrates a greater span of communication during the Aneolithic period as evidenced by the similarities its ceramics and metal objects show compared to Turkmenian, Iranian, and Mesopotamian sites. It is likely a member of the same culture that Namazga sites as evidenced by the analogous designs and paintings on ceramics.

Besenval, R. and Isakov, A. “Sarazm et les débuts du peuplement agricole dans la région de Samarkand.” Arts Asiatiques Vol. 44 (1989), pp. 5-20.


Isakov, A.Excavations of the Bronze Age Settlement of Sarazm.” Soviet Anthropology and Archaeology, 1981, 19:3-4, 273-286,


Isakov, A. “Sarazm: An Agricultural Center of Ancient Sogdiana.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute. Vol 8, 1-12. 1994.


Isakov, A., Kohl, P. L., Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. and Maddin, R. (1987), Metallurgical Analysis  From Sarazm, Tadjikistan SSR. Archaeometry, 29: 90–102. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4754.1987.tb00400.x


Isakov, A., and Lyonnet, B.. “Céramiques De Sarazm (Tadjikistan, URSS): Problèmes D’échanges et de Peuplement à la Fin du Chalcolithique et au Début de l’âge du Bronze.” Paléorient, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988, pp. 31–47.,


Spengler, R. and Willcox, G. “Archaeobotanical results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an Early Bronze Age Settlement on the edge: Agriculture and exchange.” Journal of Environmental Archaeology. 2013. Vol.18:3. 211-221.


UNESCO “Proto-Urban Site of Sarazm”


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