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University College London – Institute of Archaeology

Central Asian Archaeological Landscape Project

$3,857,000; 2018–2023

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The Central Asian Archaeological Landscape (CAAL) project works to document, digitize and help protect Central Asia’s rich archaeological heritage. 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 region includes major deserts (such as the Karakum, Kyzylkum and Taklamakan), mountain chains (including large parts of the Pamirs, Tian Shan, and Hindu Kush) and fertile river deltas and oases (e.g. Zarafshan, Turfan, Syr Darya and Amu Darya – the Oxus of antiquity). It has some of the most significant heritage of the Silk Roads, from megacities to market towns, mountain forts and desert caravanserai, complex water management and irrigation systems, as well as religious sites which testify to the spread of ideas and beliefs. It also includes a vitally important range of prehistoric sites – including nomadic camps, burial mounds and rock art – evidence of agricultural development and early urban civilizations. Much of this heritage is undocumented, understudied and under threat.

The project works to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the archaeological landscapes of Central Asia. It aims to improve existing documentation as well as to identify and record new sites.

Around 25,000 sites and monuments across the region are legally protected: some are well documented, but often the information is 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.

The challenge of digitizing old archives: important information and photographs glued on to reused newspaper and school notebooks, at a time when paper was in short supply in the old Soviet Union. Photograph by Anastasia Stepanova, 2019. Courtesy of CAAL

The project team estimates that as many as 100,000 sites exist across the region, many of which have never been recorded.  To identify the sites, the project uses satellite images and aerial surveys. It its first year, the project recorded nearly 10,000 sites, many of which had not previously been identified.  Some of these are now being explored through fieldwork. This provides an opportunity to train local archaeologists and heritage professionals in approaches to documentation, including the use of photogrammetry to create high-resolution 3D data, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to accurately map extensive landscapes.

Tumsukly Minara caravanserai in the Karakum desert, Turkmenistan. The site 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 (Photograph Annamyrat Orazov). The CAAL project identified and surveyed the site, revealing how well it had survived in this remote location. Learn more. Courtesy of CAAL.

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. Courtesy of CAAL.

Kalai Sar fort, Tajikistan. The CAAL team conducted training and a survey in October 2019. They documented the landscape, where two roads diverge either side of hill, with the Sogdian fort at its summit controlling the passes. Learn more. Courtesy of CAAL

3D landscape model of Kalai Sar fort. See more

The CAAL project is also exploring the scale and nature of threats to heritage in the region. These range from development projects, changing agricultural practices, urban expansion and rural depopulation, to the dramatic effects of the climate crisis. The collapsing glaciers of the “third pole” are having a significant effect on irrigation patterns. Learn more.

Shakhristan (ancient Bunjikat), Tajikistan, October 2019. 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, and have. Aridification and glacier shrinkage are threating buried archaeology, through tree planting, changes to river systems and irrigation projects. Learn more

CAAL is making information and skills available locally. These are crucial in safeguarding Central Asia’s cultural heritage. The project’s digital open access sites inventory will help local agencies to engage in strategic planning to ensure that archaeology is considered as part of sustainable development policies.

Denis Sorokin, from the CAAL team, with a fascinated audience, during the documentation of a mausoleum in Tajikistan. Courtesy of CAAL

Training and developing local skills are key parts of the project. Gai Jorayev, from the CAAL team, conducting training at the Khujand workshop, Tajikistan. Courtesy of CAAL

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