FAYE FLAM, KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
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. Hiebert 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.
On May 12, Hiebert will 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.
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.