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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.


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 Persian 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?Edit

The inhabitants of the BMAC were sedentary people who practised irrigation farming of wheat and barley. There has been interaction with the nomadic people of the contemporary Andronovo culture of the steppe to the north, as the findings of steppe pottery in the BMAC indicate. 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 single 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 literate civilization. It is not clear however if the markings represent a true writing system as opposed to isolated pictographs.V. Mair (2001) has shown that the Chinese-like signs are indeed parallel to Chinese inscriptions used some 2500 years later in Xinjiang. The tiny seal has been dislocated down from its original, much later layer. 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 hypothesisEdit


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. The alleged findings of ephedra stems in BMAC context have however been disproved (Bakels 2003).

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 very poor in horse remains or representations, which are often seen as a sign for Indo-Aryan presence.[7]

The Indo-Iranian substratumEdit


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. However, some BMAC words have now also been found in Tocharian (G. Pinault 2003), which renders a wide-spread BMAC language, from Xinjiang to the Panjab, unlikely and points to cultural influence. This, however, suggests the possibility that the language in question was spoken natively in a more limited area (such as the BMAC), but used in a larger area as a lingua franca, considering the fact that the evidence is exclusively in the form of loanwords rather than grammatical or phonetic structures. Hence, it would originally have functioned as a superstrate language.[9]

As to known languages which might be related to the Indo-Iranian substratum, the most obvious candidate, geography considered, is the Burushaski language[10].

Sites Edit

Notes Edit

  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. Bryant 2001
  8. The Indo-Iranian Substratum
  9. Sarah Thomason and Terence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics (University of California Press 1988)
  10. 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 readingEdit

External linksEdit

Template:Ancient India and Central Asia

bg:Бактрийско-маргиански археологически комплекс de:Oasenkultur es:Complejo arqueológico Bactria-Margiana eo:Baktria-Margiana Arĥeologia Komplekso fr:Complexe archéologique bactro-margien ko:박트리아 마르기아나 ka:მარგიანული ცივილიზაცია ja:バクトリア・マルギアナ複合 ru:Маргианская цивилизация fi:Margianakulttuuri tr:Baktria- Margiyana Arkeoloji Bölgesi

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