PHILADELPHIA - A major early civilization - rivaling in sophistication the ones that emerged in the Indus Valley or Mesopotamia, the famed Cradle of Civilization - apparently thrived in central Asia between 2200 B.C. and 1800 B.C.
These people, who lived in desert oases in what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, used irrigation to grow wheat and barley, forged distinctive metal axes, carved alabaster and marble into intricate sculptures, and painted pottery with elaborate designs, many with stylized versions of local animals, according to discoveries that have emerged over the past decade or so.
"Who would have thought that now, at the beginning of the third millennium A.D., we'd be discovering a new ancient civilization," said Fred Hiebert, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, who has excavated in the region nearly every year since 1988, shortly before the Soviet Union fell.
Some researchers consider writing a criterion for any true civilization, and now Hiebert thinks he may have evidence for that, too - a tiny stamp seal carrying four letter-like symbols in an unidentified language. He has dated it to 2300 B.C.
Hiebert is to present his findings at an international meeting on language and archaeology at Harvard University.
"The implication of the seal is incredible," he said, because there's no existing evidence that these people had a written language. And the characters engraved in the stone stamp are unlike any ever seen.
"It's not ancient Iranian, not ancient Mesopotamian. I even took it to my Chinese colleagues," he said. "It was not Chinese."
How could such an advanced culture have been so overlooked?
In the 1970s, Soviet archaeologists working in remote deserts west of Afghanistan came upon vast ruins, each one bigger than a football field.
All were built with the same distinct fortress-like pattern - a central building surrounded by a series of walls.
By the mid-'70s, the Soviet archaeologists had discovered several hundred of these structures in the areas known as Bactria and Margiana.
But their findings remained little known to the outside world because they had been published in Soviet journals, and never translated.
"I was absolutely stunned," said Harvard archaeologist Carl Lambert-Karlovsky, who knows Russian and who, 20 years ago, first read some of the Soviet literature on this unknown world. He transferred his amazement to Hiebert, who was one of his graduate students.
No one knows the extent of this civilization, which may reach beyond Margiana, deep in the Kara Kum desert, and Bactria, which straddles the Uzbek-Afghan border.
Hiebert believes that a third area, Anau, near the Iranian border, is connected to this civilization, perhaps even the origin of the culture. It is about 2,000 years older, going back to 4500 B.C., or the Copper Age.
Discovery in 1904
A New Hampshire archaeologist, Raphael Pumpelly, had discovered ancient ruins at Anau in 1904, but the site did not receive much attention from the Russians. Only now, said Hiebert, are all the pieces, once divided by political boundaries, falling into place.
Hiebert, 40, had graduated from college with an art degree when he was asked to do some drawings for an anthropologist. He was fascinated by the field and went to Harvard for his doctorate. As an archaeologist, he decided to specialize in ancient trading practices and wanted to go to Central Asia to study the famed Silk Road, used from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500 by camel caravans transporting goods between the Middle East and China.
It was never a road, exactly, but a general route that wound through the waves of sand dunes and stopped at various oases in the desert.
Soviet officials restricted foreign access to the area, but Hiebert, in his quest to study the Silk Road, managed to get a privately funded fellowship that allowed him one visit, which he made in 1988.
"I stayed for 15 months," he said, trying to make the most of his one chance to see the archaeological riches of the area.
Hiebert and his Soviet guides had to cross miles of empty desert by jeep with no phones or radios and with daytime temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Blinding sandstorms posed a constant threat. One stranded him and his guides for seven days.
When he realized the extent of the Bronze Age civilization in the oases, however, he turned his attention to studying them. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has been able to return each spring when the weather was tolerable.
The oases, built in moist areas, created natural stepping stones on a trading route that reached from China, through the Indus Valley to Mesopotamia - all Bronze Age civilizations of the third millennium B.C.
'Middle of nowhere'
The oases "looked like they were in the middle of nowhere," Hiebert said, "but they are part of the route everyone went on from west to east for thousands of years."
Moreover, the fortress-like buildings are larger than the biggest structures of ancient Mesopotamia or China, said Harvard's Lambert-Karlovsky.
"The size at the base of some of the buildings is equivalent to the base of the pyramids," he said.
The Russians determined them to be temples because of their size and distinctive layout, but Hiebert, who spent time looking for bone shards, seeds and other remnants of living patterns, came to a different conclusion.
He believes the buildings were more like housing complexes, with areas for ordinary people to live, others for the elite, storage areas, and what appear to be areas for ritual.
The dwellers were industrious in other ways as well. In Bactria and Margiana, there was no natural stone or metal.
"It was nothing but sand," Hiebert said, and yet the ruins contained elaborate works in alabaster, marble and bronze. "The oasis people would import materials and manufacture them in their own art style."
Many artifacts buried
Lambert-Karlovsky said that many of the artworks, utensils and jewelry were buried with the dead. In an unusual pattern for other early people, the women were buried with more valuables than the men.
Most of the artifacts Hiebert found remain in Turkmenistan - the politically correct way to do archaeology today. But in his office on the fifth floor of Penn's University Museum, he displays a few.
There is a foot-tall alabaster column, a carved marble plate on a stand, an alabaster bowl, pieces of delicately painted pottery, and a bone pipe, possibly for drug use, carved into a little stylized human figure.
Near the pipe, Hiebert found remains of the herb ephedra as well as poppy, which might have been made into opium.
Small bronze axes carry designs, including one of a wild boar, and a piece of pottery is decorated with leopards.
"Their world was full of dangers - wild boars, snakes, scorpions," Hiebert said. These animals show up in their ritual art.
The animal patterns support an idea, suggested by the Soviet archaeologists, that the people practiced an early form of the religion known as Zoroastrianism, invented in ancient Persia. Animal worship was part of Zoroastrian ritual, as was the use of fire, suggested by some hearths, or altars found in the remains of ancient buildings.
Hiebert is convinced that this oasis civilization originated around Anau. Not everyone agrees with him. At the meeting in Boston, he expects a French team to present findings pointing to a migration from the north, rather than from Anau.
More laboratory work might reveal what the climate was like during the Bronze Age - probably much wetter and more conducive to farming than it is now.
Hiebert plans to go back in June, armed with satellite maps he obtained with the help of NASA. These reveal wet oasis areas - where other lost cities are likely to be found.