I-CARES funded research looks at environmental legacy of lost Uzbek city

Panoramic view of the central mound at Tashbulak and test excavations under way (Photo credit: Michael Frachetti 2012)

Panoramic view of the central mound at Tashbulak and test excavations under way (Photo credit: Michael Frachetti 2012)

High in the mountains of southeastern Uzbekistan is a buried city that dates back 1,000 years. Unmodified by modern development, it provides a unique understanding of the impact of intensive industrial development on local environmental dynamics, centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

Preliminary fieldwork indicates this medieval Silk Road city called “Tashbulak” was built for the express purpose of exploiting the abundant iron ore in the Malguzar Mountains, as well as the vast, nearby juniper forests essential for firing high-temperature iron smelting kilns.

The city was discovered in 2011 by an archeological team led by Michael Frachetti, PhD, associate professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and Uzbek scientist Farhad Maksudov.

Project Co-directors, (right) Dr. Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis and Dr. Farhad Maksudov of the Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences in Uzbekistan (Photo credit: Taylor Hermes 2012).

Project Co-directors, (right) Dr. Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis and Dr. Farhad Maksudov of the Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences in Uzbekistan (Photo credit: Taylor Hermes 2012).

“We discovered an anomaly in the landscape, and at first we didn’t know what to make of,” Frachetti said. “It was much larger than a typical nomadic campsite but from the surface we couldn’t make any sense of its structure.”

On the surface researchers found ceramic fragments strewn over a large area. Subsequent test excavations revealed substantial stone architectural walls buried underneath this grassy plain. In 2013, the team carried out geomagnetic survey and ground penetrating radar (funded by the National Geographic Society) which showed the massive architecture and layout of a high mountain town.

“It was a very exciting discovery,” said Frachetti, who set out in 2014 to raise a substantial amount of funding to return to the site and do a large-scale excavation.

“We knew we needed to come at this project with multiple lines of inquiry,” he said. “The environment component is a major one and that’s where I-CARES came in.”

Frachetti received a grant in 2014 from I-CARES to conduct laboratory and field research.

Near the research area is a vast juniper forest. The rings of some fallen trees shows they are at least 500 to 600 years old. Some are even larger and probably date back 1,000 years – the same time period as the site.

So the question for Frachetti and his team members is – how did the environment shape this city and why was it deserted? He feels the trees, soil, and sediment record may hold some clues.

It’s possible, given the profile of the trees up there, that what we’re talking about is a massive deforestation event at which point the site might have been simply abandoned,” Frachetti said. “They might have literally used up the resources for firing industrial furnaces”

With funding from I-CARES, Frachetti and his team intend to evaluate tree-ring records of juniper developed from archaeological charcoal, remnant wood and living trees. In addition, they plan on analyzing burned plant remains at the site and published pollen records to evaluate the possible deforestation process and its scale. Researchers will also study sediment samples, carbonized wood and carbonized botanical material, especially seeds, which will be collected and identified based on morphology.

Alternative hypotheses for the inhabitants abandoning the site include – they left because they outsourced all of the iron, tapped out the water resources, or possibly they maintained a totally sustainable approach and simply did not want to live there anymore.

“One of the major questions is, ‘What is the environmental relationship between the rapid industrialization of this site and its potentially rapid abandonment at the end?” he said. “This is the core of the I-CARES project – to apply various methods to understand the environmental impact and environmental sustainability of this early medieval industrial center.”

Frachetti said the site is the perfect mini-laboratory to study human impact on the environment, because no one ever lived on the site again after it was abandoned.

“There’s no modern settlement. The ancient settlement just stops and was sealed like a time capsule. We’ve got a pristine moment of industrialization and environmental impact,” he said.

Frachetti and Maksudov will return to the site for six weeks in May and June and conduct additional fieldwork. They have a five-year permit with the Uzbek government to work at the site.

Their project collaborators from Washington University are a diverse, interdisciplinary group that includes T.R. Kidder, PhD, chair of anthropology and the Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor in Arts & Sciences; Daniel Giammar, PhD, the Walter E. Browne Professor in Environmental Engineering and Robert Spengler, PhD, a paleoethnobotanist and research associate in Arts & Sciences.

Frachetti hopes the expected results from the first year of funded research will set the stage for a larger sustained program of research at “Tashbulak.”


I-CARES Media Contact: Myra Lopez, myralopez@wustl.edu