Ulug Depe

May 9, 2017

Ulug depe, in what is now the nation of Turkmenistan, is an important Central Asian archaeological site. It is known for its pottery assemblages and citadel structural remains from multiple cultural layers, from the Late Namazga IV and V (Bronze Age) to the Yaz II and III (Iron Age). The remains of the site lie in the steppe of the eastern Kopet Dagh piedmont zone where alluvial fanning spread throughout the land starting from the Kelet River (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). The nearest major city is Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, which is 175 km west of the site. The nearest small town is Dushak, about 5 km north. (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). Ulug depe’s coordinates according to Google Earth are 37 ° 09’17.38”N, 60 ° 01’46.42”E, and its elevation is 931 feet. The main citadel’s area is 1.7 square km. Although Ulug depe is the most common spelling, occasionally the archaeological site is referred to as Ulug tepe.

Archaeologists V. I. Sarianidi, K. A. Kachuris, and I. S. Masimov conducted multiple excavations at Ulug depe starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). From 2001-2010, Lecomte, Bendezu-Sarmiento, and Mamedov took part in the Turkmen-French Archaeological Expedition (also known as the French-Turkmen Archaeological Mission) and excavated multiple trenches by Ulug depe’s main citadel. (Bendezu-Sarmiento & Lhuillier, 2011).

Various Yaz II potsherds from Ulug depe.

Ulug depe contains many cultural layers that denote its ages of occupation; in fact, it contains the longest stratigraphic sequence in Central Asia (Boucharlat et al., 2002). The main mud-brick citadel has been dated to the Iron Age/Yaz II period according to ten charcoal samples upon which radiocarbon dating was performed. This dating process determined the structure was built between 979833 BCE to 799759 BCE at 99% probability (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). Going deeper into the soil (and therefore further into the past), older ceramics were dated to the Bronze Age/Late Namazga IV and V periods. Potsherd slip testing specifically provided the dates of 2646 ± 100 BCE – 2690 ± 100 BCE (Masson, 1988). Clearly, Ulug depe was inhabited during drastically different time periods, and therefore it can be argued that different “cultures” lived at the site. However, it is most likely that the people who occupied the site during the different eras were actually similar people. Nomadism, trade, and environmental changes could have caused them to leave, then come back again generations later.

Many materials, especially pottery, have been found at the site of Ulug depe. Approximately 40 different pottery shapes have been discovered dating to the Iron Age/Yaz II period. In particular, pieces of large jars with convex walls and sealings typical of the Iranian Iron Age/Yaz II period were found in ground floor rooms of the citadel, indicating the citadel’s possible function for food storage (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). The jar sherds appear to be mainly coil-built and wheel-fashioned (despite a few handmade coarse wares for storage. Potsherds for the Yaz II period number in the hundreds, and more than half indicate closed, rather than open, profiles (Bendezu-Sarmiento & Lhuillier, 2011). Fine horizontal lines on much of the Yaz II period pottery walls indicate the wheel-throwing technique of pottery (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). Three paste types were found: fine and light, coarser paste with mineral temper, and very coarse. About a quarter of the pottery from Yaz II was decorated with painted motifs (Bendezu-Sarmiento & Lhuillier, 2011). What is unique to Ulug depe is the red slip covering some sherds.

Skeletonized remains of about 15 people were discovered, associated with potsherds and animal bones from the Iron Age. One of these graves included a two to four year old child from the Middle-Late Iron Age, with his arms positioned bent against the thorax and his body bent so that his feet almost touch his skull. These remains possibly indicate sacrifice and decarnization based on Zoroastrian religion and culture (Bendezu-Sarmiento & Lhuillier, 2011).

Pottery from Ulug Depe with characteristic red slip.

Ulug depe was probably the village center based on its large size and centrality of the citadel, which was built on the highest elevation of land in the immediate vicinity. The high concentration of pottery and evidence of a main road also point to its importance as a settlement center (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). Other smaller buildings that indicate the existence of a city were also excavated, such as a treasury and palatial complex associated with a fortification wall (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). In some of the remains of multiple-room houses at the site, two-story kilns were uncovered point to pottery firing in the Early Bronze Age (Kohl, 2015).

Many of the ceramics unearthed at Ulug depe represent the Yaz II culture, which is characterized by beak- and hooked-rim jars. Yaz II has been identified in other sites such as Bektepa, Kuchuk II, and Kyzylcha 6 (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). Chronologically, the Yaz II cultural period in Ulug depe dated to more recent times than these other sites, possibly because aspects of Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) culture took a longer time to reach the Kopet Dagh foothills. Related to this, the use of red slip indicates cultural contact with people of the Iranian plateau because similar slip has been found at sites such as Sialk A in modern-day Iran (Bendezu-Sarmiento et al., 2013). The archaeological evidence of wheel-made pottery beginning in the Yaz II period marks the transition between Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures. In the Bronze Age, pottery was mainly handmade coarse ware (Bendezu-Sarmiento & Lhuillier, 2011). The painting of pottery occurred in all layers including as far back as Namazga IV, but became the predominant style by Yaz II across Central Asia, and specifically at Ulug depe (Kohl, 2015). This evidence of cultures comes together to the conclusion that the Yaz II type artifacts did not arise autochthonously, but rather as a result of cultural contact between those at Ulug depe in the foothills of the Kopet Dagh and other cultures in the BMAC (Kohl, 2015).


Works Cited

Bendezu-Sarmiento, J., Dupont-Delaleuf, A., Lecomte, O., Lhuillier, J. “The Middle Iron Age in Ulug-depe: A preliminary typo-chronological and technological study of the Yaz II ceramic complex.” Marcin Wagner. Pottery and chronology of the Early Iron Age in Central Asia, The Kazimierz Michalowski Foundation. 2013.

Bendezu-Sarmiento, J. and Lhuillier, J. “Iron Age in Turkmenistan: Ulug depe in the Kopet-Dagh piedmont.” M. Mamedow. Historical and Cultural sites of Turkmenistan. Discoveries, Researches and restoration for 20 years of independence, Turkmen state publishing service, 2011.

Boucharlat R., Francfort H.P., Lecomte O., Mamedow M. “Recherches archéologiques récentes à Ulug Dépé (Turkménistan).” Paléorient, Vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 132-131. 2002.

Kohl, P. L. The Bronze Age Civilization of Central Asia: Recent Soviet Discoveries. Routledge, 2015.

Masson, V. M. Altyn-Depe. UPenn Museum of Archaeology, 1988.