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Ceramics at the Emergence of the Silk Road: A Case of Village Potters from Southeastern Kazakhstan during the Late Iron Age

  • MaryFran Heinsch (a1), Pamela B. Vandiver (a2), Kyra Lyublyanovics (a3), Alice M. Choyke (a3), Chandra Reedy (a4), Perry Tourtellotte (a5) and Claudia Chang (a5)...

Abstract

Between the fourth century B.C. and second century A.D., changes in climate, culture and commerce converged to extend networks of influence and intensify social stratification in communities situated along the Silk Road. The horse-riding nomads and agro-pastoralists of what is now Southeastern Kazakhstan were important actors in the unfolding of these events. The settlements and kurgan burials of the Saka and Wusun could be found dotting the alluvial fans north of the Tien Shan Mountains just a short time before Alexander the Great founded outposts in the Ferghana Valley and Chinese emissaries formalized relations with their periphery. In other words, the appearance of Iron Age Saka-Wusun sites anticipated the formation of the Silk Road’s northern branch and subsequently helped mediate long-distance relationships connecting East and West. Historical accounts appear to confirm the presence of the Saka and Wusun in this role, but there is much that remains unknown regarding relationships both within and across their communities. Typological variability in their material culture has fed speculation concerning their position within trade networks, but there has been very little in the way of materials analysis to test the validity of these assumptions.

The ceramics recovered at Tuzusai near Almaty provide an excellent opportunity for examination of the impacts and implications of extended regional contacts throughout the region. Although no Persian or Chinese ceramic imports were identified, an extensive vocabulary of pot forms was locally produced. However, the pottery, particularly pitchers, drinking cups and bowls, and, especially with bright red surface decoration, is found in elaborate burial kurgans. The pottery is coarse, perhaps better called a “rock body” than a clay body, as very little clay is present. The frequency of sherds from the excavation (over 1000) and from surface survey is very low (e.g. 3 surface sherds for one-half days effort) compared with excavations in Southwest Asia or China. Rims are unusually worn. Thus, we suggest pottery was precious and high status, but difficult to make. A local survey of clay resources produced meager results. Tests showed that the finest sediments had perhaps 3% clay-sized particles. Among the adobe houses at Tuzusai is evidence of courtyard work areas for pottery production with fired remains of a possible firing pit or kiln and bone potting tools. Other courtyards were areas for dairying and spinning and some copper alloy and iron metal working. Our aim was to establish the life history, production sequences, status and uses of the pottery. Given our current understanding of local production resources and the technical difficulty associated with the production of thin walled forms using these materials, we suggest that these ceramics were high-status goods, many used in feasting activities, and valued not solely for their function in feasting activities, but for the labor and skill required to produce them. Study of the ceramics, clay sources, production methods, and decoration suggests greater social permeability of Saka-Wusun communities than was previously proposed and allows us to understand the formative dynamics of village along the Silk Road.

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