Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex

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The extent of the BMAC (after EIEC).
The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age culture of Central Asia, dated to ca. 2200–1700 BC, located in present day Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan, centered on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus). Its sites were discovered and named by the Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (1976). Bactria was the Greek name for the area of Bactra (modern Balkh), in what is now northern Afghanistan, and Margiana was the Greek name for the Persian satrapy of Margu, the capital of which was Merv, in today's Turkmenistan.


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Archaeological cultures associated with Indo-Iranian migrations (after EIEC). The Andronovo, BMAC and Yaz cultures have often been associated with Indo-Iranian migrations. The GGC, Cemetery H, Copper Hoard and PGW cultures are candidates for cultures associated with Indo-Aryan migrations.

Sarianidi's excavations from the late 1970s onward revealed numerous monumental structures in many different sites, including Namazga-Depe ("governmental centre"), Altyn-Depe ("secondary capital"), Delbarjin, the Dashly Oasis, Toholok 21, Gonur, Kelleli, Sapelli, and Djarkutan. The sites were fortified by impressive walls and gates. Reports on the BMAC were mostly confined to Soviet journals until the last years of the Soviet Union, so the findings were largely unknown to the West until Sarianidi's work began to be translated in the 1990s.

Scholars do not agree on either the origins of the Bactria-Margiana complex, or the reasons for its decline. Its distinctive material culture disappears from the archaeological record a few centuries after it appears.[1] Radiocarbon dating suggests dating the complex to the last century of the 3rd millennium and the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC.

Geographically, the Bactria-Margiana complex spans a wide area from southeastern Iran to Balochistan and Afghanistan. Possibly the archaeologically unexplored terrain of Baluchistan and Afghanistan holds the heartland of the complex (see Lamberg-Karlovsky 2002).

BMAC materials such as seals have been found in the Indus civilisation, on the Iranian plateau, and in the gulf. BMAC finds are coming onto the international trade in illicit antiquities and are finding their way into Western collections and museums.

A previously unknown civilization?

The inhabitants of the BMAC were sedentary people who practised irrigation farming of wheat and barley. There seems to have been interaction with the nomadic people of the contemporary Andronovo culture of the steppe to the north. With their impressive material culture including monumental architecture, bronze tools, ceramics, and jewellery of semiprecious stones, the complex exhibits many of the hallmarks of civilization.

The discovery of a tiny stone seal with geometric markings from a BMAC site in Turkmenistan in 2001 led some to claim that the Bactria-Margiana complex had also developed writing, and thus may indeed be considered a civilization. It is not clear however if the markings represent a true writing system as opposed to isolated pictographs. Nevertheless, the BMAC seals contain motifs and even material that are distinctive from seals of Syro-Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, showing they form a type not derived from any other region.

The Indo-Iranian hypothesis

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Golden bull's head from Altyn-Depe.
The Bactria-Margiana complex has also attracted attention as a candidate for those looking for the material counterparts to the Indo-Iranians, a major branch that split off from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Sarianidi himself advocates identifying the complex as Indo-Iranian, going as far as to identify evidence of proto-Zoroastrian objects and rituals. James P. Mallory argues
"The geographic location of the BMAC ... conforms, it is argued, with the historical situation of the Da(h)a and Parnoi mentioned in Greek and Latin sources, which have, in turn, been identified with the Dasas, Dasyus, and Panis of the Rig Veda who were defeated by the Vedic Arya." --EIEC, p. 73.
Similarly, he argues that the design of the BMAC forts "matches the description of the fortified sites depicted in the Vedas"[2] and mentions evidence for the presence of the soma-cult.

Others maintain there is insufficient evidence for any ethnic or linguistic identification of the BMAC solely based on material remains, in the absence of written records. The archaeological record is inconclusive with regard to a migration of Indo-Aryans or Indo-Iranians to the BMAC[3], or with a migration of Indo-Aryans from the BMAC to the Indus Valley.[4] There is no archaeological evidence for an invasion into Bactria and Margiana.[5] Furthermore, there is no evidence that the complex even represented an ethnic/linguistic unity. Moreover, cultural links between the BMAC and the Indus Valley can also be explained by reciprocal cultural influences uniting the two cultures, or by the transfer of luxury or commercial goods.[6]

The BMAC complex is also poor in horse remains, which are often seen as a sign for Indo-Aryan presence.[7]

The Indo-Iranian substratum

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Altyn-Depe location on the modern Middle East map as well as location of other Eneolithic cultures (Harappa and Mohenjo-daro).

As argued by Michael Witzel (1999) [1], (2003) [2] and Alexander Lubotsky[8], there is a pre-Indo-European substratum in proto-Indo-Iranian which can be more plausibly identified with the original language (or languages) of the BMAC, which was, then, eventually given up by the locals in favour of proto-Indo-Iranian.

Moreover, he points out a number of words apparently borrowed from the same language, which, however, are only attested in Indic. Provided this is not an accident of attestation, it may mean that the area where the language (or language family) in question was spoken included at least Gandhara as well, if not the Indus Valley also. This would fit the archaeological evidence mentioned above, pointing to a connection of the BMAC to these areas. Considering that the BMAC is suspected to extend into Afghanistan and Baluchistan (see above), these areas may be included as well.

The assumed Indo-Iranian substratum, then, is potentially relevant to the question about the language of the Indus Valley Civilization, as well.

As to known languages which might be related to the Indo-Iranian substratum, the most obvious candidate, geography considered, is the Burushaski language[9].


1. ^ "the settlements of this culture are characterized by a very feeble accumulation: they were constructed in haste, apparently on the basis of a pre-established plan, and have not been occupied for very long" Bernard Sergent. Genèse de l'Inde. 1997, quoted from Elst 1999
2. ^ Lyonnet (1993) and Sethna (1992) have noted that only one circular fort with three walls has been discovered (Dashly-3), or that the circular walls had no value of defence (Jettmar 1981). See Bryant 2001:220
3. ^ Francfort H.-P. in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. 2005
4. ^ Bryant 2001; Francfort H.-P. in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. 2005
5. ^ Bryant 2001:220 (quotes Lyonnet 1993 and Parpola 1993); Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. 2005
6. ^ e.g. Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. 2005; Bryant 2001:215-16
7. ^
8. ^ The Indo-Iranian Substratum
9. ^ compare an essay by Michael Witzel, page 6, note 11.
Sarianidi, V. I. 1976. "Issledovanija pamjatnikov Dashlyiskogo Oazisa," in Drevnii Baktria, vol. 1. Moscow: Akademia Nauk. Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. 2002. "Archaeology and Language: The Indo-Iranians," in Current Anthropology, vol. 43, no. 1, Feb. year University of Chicago

Further reading

  • Edwin Bryant (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516947-6. 
  • CNRS, L'archéologie de la Bactriane ancienne. Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1985
  • Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X.: Aryas, Aryens et Iraniens en Asie Centrale. (2005) Institut Civilisation Indienne ISBN 2-86803-072-6
  • J. P. Mallory, "BMAC", Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997 EIEC.
  • Lubotsky, A., "Indo-Iranian substratum" in Early Contacts between Uralic and Indo-European, ed. Carpelan et al., Helsinki (2001).
  • Sarianidi, V. I., Preface, in F.T. Hiebert, Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization of Central Asia, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 1994 ISBN 0-87365-545-1
  • Sarianidi, V. I., "Soviet Excavations in Bactria: The Bronze Age," in G. Ligabue and S. Salvatori, editors, Bactria: An ancient oasis civilization from the sands of Afghanistan, Venice, 1990
  • Forizs, L. Apâm. Napât, Dîrghatamas and the Construction of the Brick Altar. Analysis of RV 1.143 (pdf, 386 kB), paper read at the Vedic Panel of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference, Motilal Banarsidass, 2007 (in preparation)

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The term Bronze Age refers to a period in human cultural development when the most advanced metalworking (at least in systematic and widespread use) consists of techniques for smelting copper and tin from naturally occurring outcroppings of ore, and then alloying those metals in
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Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate,") generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significant importance.
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Central Asia is a vast landlocked region of Asia. Though various definitions of its exact composition exist, no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics.
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Ҷумҳурии Тоҷикистон
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Origin Pamir Mountains
Mouth Aral Sea
Basin countries Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Length 2,400 km (1,500 mi)
Source elevation ~6,000 m (15,000 ft)

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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (abbreviated USSR, Russian: ; tr.
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Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi or Victor Sarigiannides (Russian: Виктор Иванович Сарианиди; Greek:
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Province Balkh
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See also the related deity Satrapes.
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Margu (Greek Margiana) was a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, mentioned in the Behistun inscriptions of ca. 515 BC by Darius Hystaspis. It was centered at Merv in modern Turkmenistan.
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State Party  Turkmenistan
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Namazga-Tepe (Namazga-depe) is a Bronze Age (BMAC) archaeological site in Turkmenistan, some 100 km from Ashkhabad, near the border to Iran. Excavated by Masson, Sarianidi and Khlopin from the 1950s, the site set the chronology for the Bronze Age sites in Turkmenistan
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Altyn-Depe (Алтын-Депе, the Turkmen for "Golden Hill") is a Bronze Age (BMAC) site in Turkmenistan, near Ashgabat, inhabited in the
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Balochistan or Baluchistan is an arid region located in the Iranian Plateau in Southwest Asia and South Asia, between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The area is named after the numerous Baloch (or Baluch, Balouch, Balooch, Balush, Balosh, Baloosh, Baloush) tribes, an
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Iranian plateau can refer to either a geological formation in Eurasia or a historical region in western Asia home of ancient civilizations.[1]

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Andronovo culture is actually a collection of similar local Bronze Age cultures that flourished ca. 2300–1000 BCE in western Siberia and the west Asiatic steppe. It is probably better termed an archaeological complex or archaeological horizon.
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