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Victor I. Sarianidi

1929 – 22nd December 2013

Appreciation by
Nadezhda Dubova*

*Department of Ethnic Ecology, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, 119991 Moscow, Leninski Prospekt 32a, Russia (Email: dubova_n@mail.ru)

Victor I. Sarianidi

Victor Sarianidi died on 22 December 2013; he was the last of the founders of Central Asian archaeology. He was a world-famous archaeologist who made two major discoveries, described in many scientific and popular publications: the so-called 'Bactrian Gold' in Afghanistan—six Kashan period tombs with more than 20 000 gold items—and a new civilization in the Kara Kum desert (in Turkmenistan) with its brilliant capital and ritual centre Gonur Depe.

Victor was born on 23 September 1929 in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), where his Greek parents had a small bakery. After joining the History Faculty of the Central Asian State University at Tashkent in 1947, the young archaeologist missed no opportunity to excavate: in 1948 he was already working on excavations of the Ulugbek observatory in Samarkand, where Valery Shishkin and a team from the Institute of History in the Academy of Sciences of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic were unearthing its foundations. That was also the first time Victor came to Turkmenistan. He subsequently returned in different teams of the South-Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition: working at Nisa (1949–1954), Sultan-Kala (1950–1954) and participating in pioneering investigations in south-west Turkmenistan at Meshed-Misrian (1949). His teachers in the faculty were Alexander A. Semyonov, Mikhail E. Masson and Boris A. Litvinski. During his student years he began a friendship with Vadim M. Masson. Around the same time (1953) his first scientific article devoted to ceramic kilns of ancient Merv was published.

His life was long and full, not only of important discoveries but also of many vicissitudes. Most of it was spent on excavations in the desert, far from home. This was where he was happiest. Finishing a season, he always became sad that it was necessary to break off the work, and was already thinking about what he would do the next season.

From sites at which Victor Sarianidi worked and studied in detail, and from his written output of over 30 monographs he wrote, his enormous knowledge and breadth of view becomes clear. These sites are: the Togolok, Gonur, Takhirbai, Ajikui, Kelili and Auchin oases in the ancient Murghab delta; Geoksyur, Ulug Depe, Altyn Depe, Namazga Depe, Khapuz Depe (in Turkmenistan), Tillya Tepe, Dashly in Afghanistan and other smaller sites. His ability to compare finds from sites separated by thousands of miles made him the first to formulate the idea of a Bronze Age lapis lazuli route linking Badakhshan with Ur, Lagash and the Indus valley (Sarianidi 1968, 1970). Many scholars later agreed that it was one of the first elements of the Medieval Great Silk road.

His excavations at Chalcolithic Geoksyur (1956–1959) were the subject of his doctoral degree (1963) and led to the first recognised evidence of movement from the Elam and Mesopotamia regions to the east, not only north (through the Kopet Dagh), but also south (through southern Iran) (Sarianidi 1969, 1975). These were the first steps to formulating the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological complex (BMAC), which was thoroughly documented in his book Ancient agriculturalists of Afghanistan (1977: 5). These parallels were also the beginning of his conviction that there had been many waves of migration from south-west Asia to the East, which later even reached the Ordos in China. He had few followers, most disagreeing with him, but his arguments, and the evidence and artefacts unearthed by his fieldwork, could not be ignored and must be taken into account by all those working in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Sarianidi made many important discoveries: tens or even hundreds of Bronze and Early Iron Age sites in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan were found; multiple burials (toloses) at Geoksyur were excavated; thousands of shaft tombs (of the same type as modern Turkmen tombs) at Gonur necropolis, and underground house tombs at the royal necropolis at Gonur were also excavated (Sarianidi 2001, 2007). Huge numbers of artefacts of a previously unknown culture were found (Sarianidi 2002, 2005, 2008); the earliest fire temple (1989) and evidence of a cult of fire (Sarianidi 2010, 2012) were described, along with evidence of Soma-Haoma ritual drink production at Togolok 21 and Gonur (Sarianidi, 1990, 2005, 2006). Sarianidi also believed that the sources of the cults and customs of Zoroastrianism were connected with Bronze Age traditions and rituals, which he could identify in the archaeological material from Margiana (Sarianidi 1991, 2007, 2010). Furthermore, the six tombs he discovered at Tillya Tepe containing 'Bactrian Gold' were the first that could be accurately attributed to the Kashan aristocracy. Their funerary rituals, physical anthropology and art can now be studied in greater depth.

Many have expressed the view that Victor Sarianidi was just lucky, that finds just fell into his hands, but that is an illusion. Only one who devoted his life to archeology, by working day and night, in the field and in libraries, seeking to learn as much as possible about sites and periods of history, can know where to excavate.

Victor Sarianidi left us a huge amount of new factual material that will allow further exploration and interpretation. Throughout his life he sought to publish what he found as soon as possible (more than 250 articles and 30 books in total), and to explain to all interested parties what sites meant and how they could be investigated in the future. His bold ideas, which frequently went against prevailing beliefs, were often proved correct in due course. A full list of Sarianidi's publications is published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies (2014) and is also available online (available at: http://www.margiana.su/publication/sarianidi/bibliografy_Sarianidi.pdf; accessed 26 August 2015).