Reasoning with GIS : Tracing
the Silk Road and the Defensive
Systems of the Murghab Delta
ver the past fifteen years, a
major joint Italian-Russian-
Turkmen project has enabled the
creation of an archaeological GIS
of the Murghab delta. This project
has involved some fifty different
specialists, resulting in numerous
studies and a preliminary project
publication [Gubaev et al. 1998].
The GIS is still under construction.
However, it already
includes over 1000 sites with
associated archaeological data
and a great deal of cartographic
and other geographical information.
The project evolved at a
time when GIS was only just
starting to be applied to
archaeology, and all information
was classified in codified
categories developed ad hoc
The Murghab delta is a
Fig. 1. The Upper Eastern Murghab Delta.
terminal alluvial cone situated in
the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan
(Fig. 1). The only supply
of water before the construction
of the massive Karakum Canal
during the Soviet period came
from the Murghab River itself, a
single trunk-course deeply
encased near its source in the
hilly piedmont of the northern
which spreads into a wide alluvial
fan of rich farmlands in the
terminal delta. This became one
of the largest irrigated areas in
Central Asia as early as the
Bronze Age. After Alexander’s
conquest in 332 BCE, Margiana,
and in particular the ancient
capital of Merv, developed as a
nodal point along one of the most
active Silk Road sections, opening
direct trade relations with China
[Cattani et al., p. 125; Bader et
al. 1993-94, p. 51].
While developing the archaeological
map of the Murghab
delta from field surveys and
archival data of the Soviet period,
we have assembled a vast
collection of maps and rare data
concerning the climate, soil,
vegetation and economy of the
region, including statistical
spreadsheets from government
agencies from the late 19th
century to World War II [Cerasetti
2000-2001]. One of the main
aims of our research concerns
the definition of the chronological
sequence and reconstruction of
the main irrigation systems,
elaborating the data on the
river’s morphological evolution by
means of GIS applications.
Surface and historical mapping [Abbott 1843; Stewart 1881; Lumsden 1885] and intensive
walking transects with aerial
photos from low altitudes and
space platforms (CORONA 1964,
Landsat-7 2001, NASA Landsat
Mosaic 1999, IKONOS 001
[Ziebart et al. 2002]), as well as
reconnaissance flights for oblique
observation along sub-fossil
meanders, allowed us better to
understand the main changes
characterizing the life of the
Fig. 2. Ancient dam of the Sultan Band.
Murghab river [Cerasetti 2002;
Cerasetti and Mauri 2002].
One of the first targets is a fine-grained reconstruction of the delta configuration
before the large scale development projects carried out under Russian rule
(Fig. 2). The combined support of digital archive data from GIS and the analysis
of satellite imagery of the alluvial fan allow us to understand the complex
processes based on settlement fluctuation, and to reconstruct the palaeochannel
network of the Murghab delta (Fig. 3).
Another aspect under investigation is the evolution of patterns of fortification.
The employment of remote sensing data allowed us to study the defensive fronter
systems in Margiana from the Iron Age 2 (Yaz II/900-550 BCE) until the Parthian
period (190 BCE-550 CE). Before the consolidation of Achaemenid central power,
two impressive south-north fortress lines were erected along the northeastern
side of the Murghab delta [Genito 1998, p. 125, Fig. 1], probably defending
the cultivated area and
the main waterworks (Fig. 4). The
lack of water must have been a
problem for the subsistence of an
increasing population and the
water source control of the
Fig. 3. Reconstruction of the palaeochannel network of
the Murghab delta.
Murghab River presumably
corresponded to a “territorial
control” of the Margiana region.
Today much of the Murghab delta
is covered by vegetation, making
it impossible to collect data by
survey. However, the observations
made on CORONA
satellite imagery have made
it possible to localize the
southernmost complex of
the eastern frontier, known
as Garry Kishman [Cerasetti
and Mauri 2002, p. 2],
founded during the Iron Age
3 (550-340 BCE) period (Fig.
5, next page).
With the beginnings of
large scale trade along the
Silk Road, we can detect the
appearance of another form
of fortification. By using
multispectral ETM Landsat
images from NASA Landsat
Mosaic (1999) (Fig. 6) we
have been able to locate a
line of fortresses along a
new Silk Road section to the north of the Samarkand-
Hecatompylos trade route,
crossing Merv in the Murghab
delta. We singled out seven
rectangular plan fortresses,
measuring approximately 10 ha.
each, and situated at a distance
of about 50 km (Fig. 7, next page)
along the Kelif Uzboi riverbed, the
southernmost dry canal of Uzboj
[so-called in Russian scholarship:
Bader and Usupov 1995, p. 29,
Fig. 1]. The fortresses are well
defended by impressive walls,
and their regular plan and their
size suggest a date in the
Parthian period. Many exotic highquality
objects have been found
dating to this period, a fact linked
to the increase of trade
exchanges between China and
the Parthian kingdom of the
Arsacids, in particular under
Mithradates II (123-87 BCE)
[Boulnois 2001, p. 59; Frye 1984:
360; Bader and Usupov 1995, p.
27; Callieri in press, p. 541].
The fortresses probably
defended caravans and exotic
goods coming from Bukhara or
Khiva and also constituted a rest
point for travelers and animals.
Pack animals were mainly
camels, the most adapted
species to hot and dry climates
and, in particular, to long
distance travel across the Central Asian deserts [Wapnish 1981, pp.
104, 108, 121]. Numerous and
different criteria characterized
caravan travel of the time: camel
number, loaded weight, strong
temperature range etc. “...the
average rate was fifteen to
sixteen miles [per eight-hour day]
for a heavily laden caravan,
seventeen to eighteen for a
moderately laden, and twenty to
twenty-two a day of ten hours
for a lightly laden caravan”
[Zoghby, p. 1]. This means that
Fig. 4. Fortress lines along the northeastern side of the Murghab delta.
a distance of 50 kms. (= 31 miles)
from one station to the next
corresponds to approximately a
two-day journey, and maybe a
one-day journey for a lightly
laden caravan [Boulnois 2001, p.
209-210]. From Hecatompylos to
Bukhara at the North of Merv, a
lightly laden caravan would
therefore employ three weeks to
cover 1046 km. (= 649 miles),
crossing the Amu-darya river in
the proximity of the modern
centre of Chorjuyu. We hope to
confirm the present working
hypothesis by the acquisition of
higher resolution imagery.
About the Author
Barbara Cerasetti (email@example.com) holds a PhD in
archaeology from the Oriental University Institute, Naples. She is the field
director for GIS and remote sensing of the joint project “The Archaeological
Map of the Murghab Delta” (Turkmenistan) and a research fellow at Bologna
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Fig. 6. NASA Landsat Mosaic with Hecatompylos-Bukhara
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