Gonur Depe

May 10, 2017

Also: Gonur Tepe / гонур депе (Russian)

Location: 38° 12′50′′N 62°02′15′′E (Vladimir Kufterin)

Elevation: 635 feet

Gonur-depe is a Bronze Age archeological site in Southeastern Turkmenistan, specifically located north of the city of Bayramaly (Kufterin). Researchers now know that this site, which has been translated from Turkmen and means “the gray hill”, is not a stand alone prehistoric site; it is one of and the largest of about 500 sites all located in the Murghab River delta (Molodin). Though the site seems barren now, situated in the Kara-Kum deserts of Turkmenistan, the roughly 4000-year-old site is believed to have thrived for a few centuries as ancient civilization and to have been dependent on the Murghab River, the sole stable water source with the Kara-Kum (Lawler).

Gonur’s initial discovery and preliminary archeological finds are interwoven into the past political and historical circumstances of the region. Even though Gonur’s civilization was initially studied in the early 1970’s, investigations came to a halt in 1979 due to Iran’s revolution and a war in Afghanistan, which blocked any archeologists from accessing the site (Lawler). Furthermore, Russian archeologists avoided investigating the area after the Soviet Union fell in 1990. These conditions stalled a thorough archeological study of Gonur until 35 years ago, when V.I Sarianidi was finally able to lead a thorough excavation (Molodin). The historical and political factors affecting Gonur’s discovery are interesting to consider when thinking to larger questions considering the relationship between science and politics.

Sarianidi’s excavation of Gonur proved to be fruitful, as this settlement is one of the largest Bactria-Margiana archeological complex (BMAC) sites, which was inhabited between 2300 – 1500 BC (Kufterin). For context, the term BMAC arises due to “Bactria” being the Greek term for modern day northern Afghanistan and “Margiana” being the Greek term for a town in modern day Turkmenistan (Molodin). Gonur’s discovery was significant not only because of the structures and artifacts found, but also because of the way it pushed scholars to acknowledge the region’s participation in and major contributions to an overall global trade amongst goods, ideas, and technologies (Lawler).

Archeologist Frederik Heibert observed Sarianidi’s initial observations, conducted field research under Sarianidi, and built upon the foundational knowledge known about Gonur-Depe. This site is one of many that he discusses in his text, Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization in Central Asia. Heibert’s text allows us to learn about specifics of the site, what it looks like, and the artifacts researchers have found there. To begin, he explains that the site is made up of several low-lying mounds that span 22 hectares (Heibert). Ceramic scatter and sherds can be found all over the area, and these, along with other artifacts found, show variances (in the materials from which they were made) based on the specific regions they were found. The architecture of the Gonur-depe site is also worth noting, and Heibert discusses one building, called the kremel, in particular. This building was excavated by Heibert from 1981 till 1983. The kremel exhibits strong external walls and carefully designed linear internal rooms. Burials and cenotaphs widely surround this structure as well (Heibert).

Heibert also conducted a deep sounding stratigraphic excavation of Gonur North in 1989, although his analysis of the different layers is not presented with dates. Although he does provide a reason for not being able to date the top layer (surface level objects can be windblown so dating is difficult in multiperiod sites), he does not provide reasons for not being able to date the other layers. However, his analysis of the different layers – there being 7 in total – did provide some insight into people’s lives who lived there at the time. For example, Heibert states that in layers 3 and 4, evidence of fragments from a kiln or oven were found (Heibert).

Transitioning from overall structure and artifacts found at Gonur-depe, Kufterin’s paper, “A preliminary analysis of Late Bronze Age human skeletal remains from Gonur-depe, Turkmenistan” delves into providing a summary on the paleopathology of the population, made up of 920 individuals, whose remains were found at the Gonur Ruins. The researchers are also careful to differentiate between the Gonur Ruins and Gonur’s necropolis. The former refers to burials found directly in the walls of the architectural structures, while the latter refers to a large cemetery. In Gonur’s necropolis, the burial constructions are looked at closely. Specifically, of all the burials in Gonur-depe necropolis, more than half are shaft graves, which are either oval or rectangular wells with a depth of about one or two meters (Molodin). As for the burials from Gonur’s ruins, however, researchers state that they mostly date back to the last period of Gonur’s existence (Kufterin).

Aerial View of Gonur-depe. Photo From Lawler 2006.

As for their findings, Kufterin implements macroscopic investigation in order to compile and discuss the common paleopathological conditions that they find evidence for: dental abscesses and antemortem tooth loss (AMTL), cribra orbitalia, traumatic injuries, degenerative joint diseases and infectious processes (Kufterin). In comparing the frequency of these paleopathologies from the Gonur Ruins to the necropolis, researchers ultimately found that most of these conditions were more prevalent in the latter location. As a result, they conclude that the population that inhabited Gonur–depe towards the end of its existence was well adapted to not only their lifestyles but also their environmental conditions.

Transitioning, once again, from the specifics of paleopathologies and burial sites to artifacts found at the Gonur-depe site allow for a different perspective of understanding of time period in which this site was inhabited as well as its ties to other parts of the world. Archeologist D.T Potts discusses these topics via his discovery of an Umm an-Nar-type vessel found in the Gonur-depe site. For context, Umm-an-Nar refers to a period of history in the Oman peninsula at around 2500 BC (al-Jahwari).Pott’s article describes the presence of typical Umm-an-Nar-type, rectangular, compartmented vessel that had two rows of five double-dotted circles on either sides. This vessel was found in one of the graves at the Gonur-depe burial excavation sites.

Potts 2008.


Potts uses this discovery to encourage other scholars to acknowledge the possibility of contact between the Bactria, Margiana, and eastern Arabia (Potts). He proceeds to include possible routes that people might have taken in order to travel from Oman to present day Turkemenistan, and though he can not definitively prove these routes existed, he does state that the Umm-an-Nar-type vessel at Gonur-depe, and other finds like it, support the theory of interconnectedness between societies and their cultures in the Bronze Age era.

Hopefully, research in the Gonur-depe and surrounding Turkmenistan region will continue in order to more fully build a picture of what life in this ancient civilization along the Murghab River was like. Though the architecture, pathologies, burial rituals, and artifacts discussed above begin to paint a picture, Gonur-depe can definitely be better understood and contextualized within a larger prehistoric Central Asia context.



Al-Jahwari, Nasser Said. “The Agricultural Basis of Umm An-Nar Society in the Northern Oman Peninsula (2500-2000 BC).” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 20.2 (2009): 122-33.

Hiebert, Fredrik Talmage., C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, and Viktor Ivanovič. Sarianidi. Origins of the Bronze Age: Oasis Civilization in Central Asia. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 1994

Kufterin, Vladamir, and Nadezhda Dubova. “A Preliminary Analysis of Late Bronze Age Human Skeletal Remains from Gonur-depe, Turkmenistan.” Bioarchaeology of the Near East 7.33 (2013): 33-46.

Lawler, Andrew. “Central Asia’s Lost Civilization.” Andrew Lawler. WordPress, 23 Nov. 2006.

Potts, D.t. “An Umm An-Nar-type Compartmented Soft-stone Vessel from Gonur Depe, Turkmenistan.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 19.2 (2008): 168-81.

Кузьминой, Елена Ефимовны. “Арии Степей Евразии: Эпоха Бронзы И Раннего Железа В Степях Евразии И На Сопредельных Территориях.” Барнаул: Издательство Алтайского Государственного универцитета, 2014. **


**My last source is the one I translated in Russian and is cited in my text using the editor’s last name, Molodin. The English name of the book is: THE ARYANS IN THE EURASIAN STEPPES: THE BRONZE AND EARLY IRON AGES IN THE STEPPES OF EURASIA AND CONTIGUOUS TERRITORIES.

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