December 7, 2017

Also known as: Самаркандская Стоянка (Russian for ‘Site of Samarkand’)

Coordinates: c.39.65° N, 66.94° E (Rabett, 2012)

Image 1. Showing approximate coordinate location of Samarkandskaya from Rabett (2012) at an elevation of 24.05 km. Coordinates put site in center of city, not near a ravine as described by Vishnayasky (2004). There is a river 6 km southwest (measured on Google Earth) which could possibly be the Chashmasiab ravine; however, the exact location of the site could not be found. 

Samarkandskaya is an open air Paleolithic site within the limits of Samarkand, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, close to the Tajikistan border (Image 2). The city is located in the Zeravshan basin, a fertile area created by mountain runoff and the Zeravshan river. The site itself is located in the center of the city, on the right bank of the Chashmasiab ravine (Image 1).

Image 2. Map of Central Asia showing location of Samarkand site and other relevant paleolithic sites (Davis & Ravnov 1999).

Cultural remains are confined to deposits in two terraces, originally thought to make up three cultural layers (Vishnayatsky, 2004). From its discovery in 1939 by N. G Kharlamov, Samarkandskaya was a site of intensive study by multiple successive researchers until the 1970s. It was M.V Voevodskyi who initially lead the research on the site. The next excavations were done by D.N Lev in 1958 and 1967, which revealed the multilayered nature and numerous peculiarities of the materials. The next excavations from 1967-72 were done by M.D Djurakulov and E.N Amartzeva who focused mainly on the lower sediments of the upper terrace (Korobkova & Djurakulov, 2000). A total area of 1000m2 has been excavated and no new excavations are taking place.

The cultural layers of the site are complicated by the extremely complex stratigraphy of the site, poor excavations, and inadequate documentation. In 1980, Nesmeyanov used geological investigations of the site to argue against Lev’s hypothesis of the site containing three unique cultural layers. The layers instead may represent periods of intensive occupation that are marked by deposits of tools, bones, charcoal and ocher (Vishnayatsky, 2004). Nesmeyanov identified four layers of habitation in the lower terrace and three in the upper terrace. This has also complicated the dating of the site.

The occupational episodes are thought to have occurred between the Middle to the late, final Pleistocene. Earlier excavators and researchers, such as Lev, dated the site to 20,000 b.p (methods of dating are not published/accessible); however, the work by Nesmeyanov and closer examination of the upper terrace by Korobkova, Djurakulov, and Amartzeva resulted in a date of 40,000 b.p. Presumably the date was obtained from examination of the materials found. The oldest lithic materials were from the lower level of the upper terraces which is now thought to represent the first habitation of the site. Davis & Ranov (1999), Korobkova & Djurakulov (2000), and Derevyanko & Zun (1993) all decisively place Samarkandskaya in the Upper Paleolithic. This makes Samarkandskaya one of the few Upper Paleolithic sites in the region. The other well known site is Shugnou in eastern Tajikistan (Fig. 1). Vishnayatsky (2004) mentions the finding of charcoal at the site; however, it is unclear if carbon-14 dating has been done to date the site. These dates are mainly based on the lithic composition and its similarity to other sites such as Kulbulak and layer 2 of Karasu.

Fig.1 Chart summarizing the relative dating of Samarkandskaya and other paleolithic sites in the region. The left-hand column represents hypothesized dates while the right hand column is the majority of absolute dates known for Central Asia (Davis & Ranov, 1999).

There is nothing published on the complete composition, numbers, or distribution of stone tools at Samarkandskaya, but from what is reported the tools show a mixture of Mousterian with Upper Paleolithic technologies. Pebble-chopper technology is present with tools such as choppers, side-scrapers, axes, discoid and Levellois type cores (Fig.2). This is mixed with artifacts attributed to the Upper Paleolithic such as retouched bladelets, chisel-like tools, micro-scrapers, and microcores (Fig 3).

Fig. 2. Chopper tools and flakes from Samarkandskaya (Korobkova & Djurakulov, 2000).


Fig. 3. Stone tools demonstrating some the Upper Paleolithic technologies used at the site (Vishnayatsky, 2004)

Samarkandskaya is not the only site in this area or from this time that shows mixed tool technologies, such as Maikop or Shugnou. Although each site has a unique lithic composition, some have used the similarities to make possible cultural and developmental connections between Paleolithic sites in Central Asia. Derevyanko & Zun (1993) describe what they call the Samarkand culture, which in theory, is a step in the line of evolution influenced by the Asia Minor ‘Mediterranean’ province. In this line of evolution, the cultural development started with the site of Karasu, then to the Samarkand culture, and ended with the post-Palaeolithic Hissar culture. This hypothesis is based on qualitative similarities between the tools, such as the knife shape and hollow tools. This hypothesis was strongly supported by Lev; however, little to no concrete evidence is available to support this (Derevyanko & Zun, 1993).

Excavations in 1962 and 1966 resulted in the findings of the only human remains at the site; two fragmented mandibles and teeth. These are attributed to modern Homo sapiens, but there provenance is unknown. Their affiliation with the rest of the paleolithic assemblage has also been questioned. The mandibles have been described as being of  ‘Mediterranean-type,’ supporting the Asian Minor line of evolution. More recent descriptions of the remains are not available and may contradict this description (Derevyanko & Zun, 1993). Aside from human bones, there are more than 3,000 identifiable bones and bone fragments. The majority of the remains are from horses followed by pleistocene ass and aurochs. Also present are remains of camel, red deer, wild boar, steppe sheep, gazelle, wolf and wild ass but in lesser quantities. There are also long bone fragments that most likely correspond to an elephant or rhinoceros (Vishnayatsky 2004).

The vast number of animal bones and the high percentage of tools suggests that Samarkandskaya was a base camp for steppe/desert hunters, who mainly hunted wild horse and Pleistocene ass. There is evidence of almost constant tool production and retouching, as well as evidence of preparing carcasses and skins from kills (Korobkova & Djurakulov, 2000). The culture and chronology of the site have not been determined, but traditionally the archaeological assemblage has been treated as belonging to the same culture. However, this may be incorrect considering there were likely multiple episodes of habitation that occurred widely spaced in time (over tens of thousands of years). More analysis of the tools found and of the geography of the site is still needed for any conclusions on the dates of the site and the culture or cultures that were present.

Works cited

Davis, R. S., & Ranov, V. A. (1999). Recent work on the Paleolithic of Central Asia.  Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 8(5), 186-193.

Derevyanko, A. P., & Zun-E, L. (1993). Upper Paleolithic Culutre. In History of Civilizations of  Central Asia(Vol. 1, pp. 89-98). UNESCO.

Korobkova & Djurakulov. (2000). самркандская стоянка как эталон ерхнего палеолита средней азии (The Site of Samarkand as a Model of the Upper Palaeolithic in Central Asia). Stratum plus,1, 385-462.

Rabett, R. J. (2012). Human adaptation in the Asian palaeolithic: hominin dispersal and behaviour during the Late Quaternary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 92-95.

Vishnayatsky, L. B. (2004). Paleolithic Interface in Central Asia. In The Early Upper Paleolithic Beyond Western Europe (pp. 151-159). CA: University of California Press.

Comments are closed.