Case Studies

Posted: 10 September 2020

Documenting archaeological heritage in Central Asia

  • Programme:

    Preserving endangered culture

  • Focus area:

    Heritage sites

  • Grantee:

    University College London

  • Project:

    Central Asian Archaeological Landscape Project

  • Grant awarded:


  • Years:

    2018 - 2023

Led by UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, the project is a five-year partnership between some 20 institutions from the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Republic of Uzbekistan, and the People’s Republic of China (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).

The project documents the archaeological heritage of Central Asia, an area of about 5.7 million km2 stretching from the Caspian Sea to western China. The area has some of the most significant heritage of the Silk Roads, from megacities to market towns, mountain forts and desert caravanserai, complex water and irrigation systems, as well as religious sites which testify to the spread of ideas and beliefs through the area?. It also includes a vitally important range of prehistoric sites, evidence of agricultural development and early urban civilizations. Much of this heritage is undocumented, understudied and under threat from development projects, changing agricultural practices, urban expansion and the effects of the climate crisis.

Although some sites in the region are well documented, the information is often scattered across many archives. Also, the location of many sites is poorly recorded, especially where the record was created in the days before GPS and accessible maps. The project digitizes the disparate archives, drawing the data together to produce accurate locations for the sites. It links this information with official monument records to create a geographic information system for each country’s national record.

Local knowledge is crucial to safeguarding Central Asia’s cultural heritage and so CAAL is making information and training available locally. The project’s digital open access sites inventory will help local agencies to ensure that archaeology is considered as part of sustainable development policies.

Project examples

Tumsukly Minara caravanserai, Turkmenistan

The site, located in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, lies some 90 km north of the fertile delta that was home to Merv, one of the great cities of the Silk Roads in Central Asia. The CAAL project identified and surveyed the site, revealing how well it had survived in this remote location.

Burial mounds in Eastern Kazakhstan

The project is identifying new sites and improving the documentation of known sites. This satellite image shows clusters of kurgans (burial mounds) and enclosures in Eastern Kazakhstan. The standing sites were known, but the scale of complexity of the landscape was not.

Shakhristan, Tajikistan

The Altykul river, which would normally be low at this time of year, is now completely dry. Central Asian countries are vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. Aridification and glacier shrinkage are threating buried archaeology, through tree planting, changes to river systems and irrigation projects.

Photo by Annamyrat Orazov. Courtesy of CAAL.
Courtesy of CAAL.
Courtesy of CAAL.
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