Using modern, high-tech analysis tools, anthropologist Michael Frachetti is leading groundbreaking research on an ancient city high in the Uzbekistan mountains. The site may hold clues to how medieval civilizations changed when diverse communities integrated — and even suggest how we might consider our own current initiatives of global community-building.
Lost and abandoned for a thousand years, the ancient medieval city of Tashbulak lies buried inches below the close-cropped grass of an isolated pasture high in the mountains of Uzbekistan.
Once a bustling mountain stronghold of the Qarakhanids — a nomadic civilization that conquered and controlled a vast central corridor of the Silk Road trade network — Tashbulak and its inhabitants have remained unknown and overlooked by modern archaeology.
When Washington University anthropologist Michael Frachetti first visited the site in 2011, he expected to find little more than remnants of small nomadic campsites. He and his Uzbek co-investigator, Farhod Maksudov, had made a last-minute decision to scout the high pasture after spending weeks in nearby valleys documenting ancient nomadic campsites as part of high-risk research funded by the National Science Foundation.
Using predictive computer models, they determined searching in the high mountains near the Tajikistan border should also yield discoveries. So they loaded their gear on donkeys and set off on a three-day excursion to the plateaus of the Malguzar range, more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) high.
“On the plateau, we found a hidden valley with large mounds and undulations on the surface, as well as an unusually large density of broken ceramics scattered across the structures,” Frachetti recalls. “It was obvious that the ceramics were ancient and probably medieval and that we had stumbled across something much larger and different from the typical campsites we had expected.”
For Frachetti, an expert on Bronze Age nomadic pastoralists in Central Asia, the possibility of a large urban settlement at this high elevation was both surprising and intriguing. Nomads have summered their herds in these highland pastures for millennia, but most return to the foothills each winter.
Who were these people, he wondered, and why would they build a city so high in the mountains?
As Frachetti, Maksudov and their team of WashU graduate students walked the rolling green hills gathering tiny shards of ceramic, they traded theories about the history that might lie buried beneath their feet. What may have been harder to imagine, though, was the barrage of intellectual curiosity and scientific exploration their discovery would soon unleash on this remote corner of the Malguzar mountain range.