A Bronze Age mound in Central Asia yielded a tantalizing clue to a “new” ancient civilization. For archaeologist Fred Hiebert, it was one more reason why Raphael Pumpelly was right.

Clockwise from top left: Dr. Fredrik Hiebert (photo by Candace diCarlo); Raphael Pumpelly; the 15th-century mosque at Anau, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1948. The city of Anau, about a mile from the excavation sites, was abandoned in 1844; the south kurgan at Anau.


The journal entry for May 31, 2ooo, is uncharacteristically laconic for Fred Hiebert. It mentions a stone step, a few pieces of charcoal, some clay lumps. Then, finally: “Found a small black stamp seal in the backdirt from 221.” There are no exclamation marks.

IT WAS HOT THAT DAY, but then, it’s always hot in Turkmenistan that time of year. By 10 a.m., the sun was over the walls of the main trench and the wind was whipping dust into the eyes and sweaty brows of the crew. The three Americans (all from Penn), six Turkmen, one Russian, and one Dane were digging in a small area of Unit 221, a Bronze Age storage or administrative room—hauling the dirt to the backdirt pile and sifting it through a quarter-inch-mesh screen.
      Hiebert, the Robert H. Dyson Assistant Professor of Anthropology and assistant curator of the University Museum’s Near East section, was directing the dig at the base of the south kurgan at Anau. That great mound of mud-brick walls and rubble, nearly 50 feet high, is all that’s left of a Bronze Age civilization that flourished some 4,500 years ago in the fertile strip between the Kopet Dag mountains and the Kara Kum desert. (The name Anau comes from old words meaning “new water.”) Another mound, the north kurgan, dates back more than 6,000 years to the Copper Age.
      During the past few weeks, the crew had uncovered a complex of rooms, surprisingly large and well built. From the charcoal, they were able to date it to 2300 B.C. But getting to the bottom was taking a lot longer than they had expected.
      From his perch at the top of the south kurgan, Hiebert could see a white Niva driving toward them. It belonged to his Turkmen colleague on the dig, Dr. Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov, better known as Murad. His arrival was a perfect excuse for the crew to break for “second breakfast”: tea and cookies on the ornamental felt mats while a group of camels munched on camelthorn nearby.
      The white Niva pulled up. Murad got out. As he walked past the backdirt pile from Unit 221, he noticed something in the still-moist soil and picked it up. He chided Ana and Kakish, the young Turkmen screeners, for tossing onto the pile what must have looked to them like a dirt-encrusted pebble. Then he called Hiebert over and handed the tiny object to him.
      Hiebert looked at it carefully, then took it over to a nearby irrigation canal and washed off the dirt. One crew member—Lauren Zych C’99 G’00, then a graduate student in anthropology—recalls that he became “very excited.” That would not be out of character for Hiebert, whose enthusiasm is legendary. But he himself recalls being “deep in thought.” It was a stamp seal, clearly, though he couldn’t decipher its inscription. At the time he thought it was probably Harappan—another ancient civilization from the Indus Valley, some 1,600 kilometers away. A nice find, good evidence of interregional trading—one of his passions—but not what he was hoping for. After passing it around to the other members of the crew, Hiebert put it in a baggie, numbered it, and went back to work.

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