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date: 26 April 2019

Social Complexity and Political Capitals in Ancient Eurasia

Abstract and Keywords

This article draws upon archaeological evidence of settlement and enclosure sites as key indicators of social complexity in agro-pastoral societies of Central Asia and Inner Eurasia during the Late Iron Age–Late Antique periods. Large fortified enclosures (kalas) were the political capitals of mobile states and empires, embodying and displaying the power, status, and prestige of ruling elites. Low-density “urban” sites were located in dispersed settlement zones associated with rivers or water management systems in the Eurasian steppe and oases. These capitals were an alternative form of urbanism suited to the political organization of mobile ruling elites. This analysis provides insights into the varied modes of settlement utilized by agro-pastoral and mobile societies in extreme environmental zones.

Keywords: Low-density urbanism, settlement, mobility, agro-pastoral societies, ancient Central Asia, Eurasia, fortified enclosure, kala, nomad capitals.

Tracing the development of social complexity and early states within Central Asia and Inner Eurasia can be difficult due to the lack of textual sources and the apparent lack of large nucleated settlements or urban centers.1 The scarcity of primary textual sources means we are more reliant upon archaeology for information about past societies. Central and Inner Eurasia has been dominated throughout history by mobile or nomadic groups exploiting a diverse range of agro-pastoral subsistence and production strategies in order to survive in the environmentally extreme areas that characterize the region. These ancient societies were similarly diverse in their social and political structures, and sedentary societies were not necessarily the norm. This can cause problems for researchers employing neoevolutionary frameworks who use urbanism, large-scale agriculture and sedentism as markers of emerging social complexity.2 Within Inner Eurasia, these are not necessarily the best indicators of developing states or polities.

However, monumental fortified enclosures and ceremonial sites constructed on large scales are a recurrent phenomenon that can be associated with more complex sociopolitical organization. These type of sites may be considered the equivalent of urban sites and indeed have even been dubbed “steppe urban centers” or “steppe cities” (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007: 58).3 However, as Kohl (2007: 10–15) has pointed out, in ancient Eurasia sedentarization and urbanism are nonlinear, episodic processes that do not fit with evolutionary paradigms (see also Baker Brite 2011: 22–23; Boucharlat 2001: 264; Hiebert 1992: 111; Tosi 1973: 72–73; Vogelsang 1992: 278–279). Similarly, although we speak of early states or developing social complexity in Inner Eurasia, these processes should not be regarded as linear and evolutionary but as intermittent phenomena, with periods of waxing and waning.

This article will consider the archaeological evidence for urbanism and its equivalent in Central and Inner Eurasia in the Late Iron Age and antiquity, c. seventh century BC to fourth century AD, and the implications of this evidence for understanding developing social complexity in the region at that time. Although there were equivalent periods of sociopolitical complexity in the Bronze Age, such as the Oxus Civilization (the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex [BMAC]) the later time period has been chosen because it was characterized by a relatively sudden flourishing of fortified sites and changes in settlement patterns and water management systems in many areas of the steppe and oasis zones spread more broadly across Eurasia. This time period covers a range of political fluctuations from the Achaemenid period to the Kushan and Hunnic eras. Strong commonalities exist between the settlement patterns of various societies across Inner Eurasia during this period, with enclosure sites and low-density, nonnucleated settlements being characteristic features of human occupation of steppe and oasis zones. These ideas will be discussed further with reference to specific archaeological sites and to the interpretations of various scholars.

Mobile Societies

A key to interpreting the ancient settlement evidence from Inner Eurasia is mobility. The current Anglo-American discourse on Eurasian steppe archaeology has employed the paradigm of mobility to understand past societies of the region. This discourse has demonstrated that mobility is a highly useful conceptual framework that is more inclusive of the broad range of socioeconomic strategies used by ancient and medieval Inner Eurasian societies. Previous scholarship oversimplified ancient societies into a binary dualism of steppe versus sown (Khazanov 1984; Kradin 2015; Sinor 1990), where steppe peoples were characterized as being exclusively nomadic pastoralists, whereas oasis dwellers were primarily sedentary agriculturalists defending themselves from the predations of steppe nomads (Frachetti 2008b: 5; Negus Cleary 2013: 6, 8–9; 2015a: 48–49.). Recent archaeological work has shown the situation to be more complex and interconnected. The framework of mobility encompasses the diversity of mixed agro-pastoral societies that existed in the steppe, oasis, and mountain zones of Inner Eurasia (Baker Brite 2011: 9; Frachetti 2008a).

The diversity in agro-pastoral subsistence and production strategies seen in Eurasian steppe and oasis societies was in response to dynamic environmental, political, economic, and ideological contexts. Variations in steppe societies ranged from “pure” nomadic pastoralism with fully mobile livestock grazing, to seasonal transhumant pastoralism, to partially or fully sedentary mixed agro-pastoralism. Some groups also employed additional subsistence activities such as hunting and gathering, predatory raiding, and trading practices (Cribb 1991; Dyson-Hudson and Dyson-Hudson 1980; Frachetti 2008b; Irons 1974; Salzman 2002). Sections of a single community may move periodically for cattle grazing or raiding or trading activities, and others remain settled, being tethered to raise crops and flocks (Baker Brite 2011: 8–9; Bernbeck 2008; Frachetti 2008a; 2008b). In the oases, pastoralism, including transhumant pastoralism, has always played an important role in addition to, or in combination with, irrigation agriculture (Baker Brite 2011; Hiebert 1994: 6–8; Holt 1989: 31; Kim 2013: 31–35; Moore et al. 1994: 423–426; Negus Cleary 2013: 78–81; Sala 2003; Stride 2004: 188, 191).

A fundamental characteristic of mobile societies was their adaptability (Cribb 1991: 16–22; Chang 2008: 331–334; Dyson-Hudson and Dyson-Hudson 1980: 18; Frachetti 2008a: 368–369, 372; Houle and Broderick 2011; Kradin 2015; Salzman 2002; 2004). This meant the ability to switch to a greater reliance upon pastoralism when climatic conditions or disease blighted their crops, and vice versa; or the ability to resort to raiding when both crops and herds were affected by disease, weather, or conflict. Anthropologists Salzman and Cribb who have studied twentieth-century AD pastoral nomads in Anatolia and Iran have described the social structures of these groups to be a continuum that ranges between sedentary and nomadic, rather than one or the other, and which may fluctuated seasonally or yearly in response to variations in environmental or political conditions. According to Salzman (2002: 256), “We must also keep in mind that ‘settled’ and ‘nomadic,’ rather being two types, are better thought of as opposite ends of a continuum with many gradations of stability and mobility.”4

Recent work by scholars such as Baker Brite (2011), Bernbeck (2008), Chang (2008), Frachetti (2008a; 2008b), Rouse and Cerasetti (2014), and Spengler et al. (2014) employ this more inclusive view of the lifeways of ancient agro-pastoral peoples. For example, Chang and her colleagues have documented the unfortified settlements, sedentary practices, and mixed agro-pastoral subsistence strategies utilized by Iron Age communities in the Kazak steppe (Chang 2008; 2012; Chang et al. 2003). Rapin (2007: 54–56) has provide new interpretations of archaeological evidence from well-known sites such as Tillya-tepe, where he views the first-century BC elite nomad burials from this site as evidence of steppe nomadic elites occupying and ruling the oasis, rather than raiders passing through the area.

Mobility as a conceptual framework better describes the diverse modes of subsistence and production utilized by steppe and oasis societies where livestock herding and periodic movement was one. It is also more inclusive of the complex political structures present in Central and Inner Eurasia where mobile groups invaded and ruled over more localized, sedentary or semisedentary agro-pastoral communities. These power structures can be seen historically in the empires and states of the Kushan, Parthians, Huns, Mongols, and Timurids, who reigned over vast areas of Central Asia and Eurasia (Andrews 1978; de Clavijo 1859; Golden 2001; Kim 2013; Rapin 2007; Stride, Rondelli, and Mantellini 2009: 80–83).

It is the political structures associated with mobile societies that provide models for the ancient states in Central Asia and Eurasia presented in this article. These polities emerged largely from mobile agro-pastoral societies, with the exception of the Hellenised empire of Alexander the Great and the successive Greco-Bactrian and Seleucid kingdoms. The medieval states and empires of Mongolia, the Kitan, and the Mongols and Uighurs provide important examples of the political model of mobile, agro-pastoral states and the differences in their spatial organization.

Urbanism and Social Complexity

The appearance of urbanism is often a signifier for an emerging state or civilization (Childe 1950; Fox 1977; Trigger 2003; Yoffee 2005). In Central Asia and Inner Eurasian during the Late Iron Age–Late Antiquity period, there are few “urban” sites in the sense of large, nucleated, medium- to high-density settlements providing diverse activities and services to a broader hinterland (Francfort 1979; 1998; Negus Cleary 2013; 2015a). Definitions of urbanism in archaeology can be conceptually diverse and broad in terms of physical size, monumentality, and infrastructure (e.g., Cowgill 2004; Emberling 2003: 255; Johnson and Hanks 2012: 357; Renfrew 2008: 47; Trigger 2003: 120, 121; 2008: 55). The large fortified sites appear and proliferate during these periods. The enclosures are over 15 ha in area, with very low-density, intramural structures and some high-status building complexes within. They were associated with low-density, dispersed settlement zones and with irrigation agriculture in the oases. Many fortified enclosures are also present in a variety of sizes. Examples of fortified enclosure sites from different regions of Eurasia will be discussed next.

Various scholars, including Hiebert and Kohl, have questioned the application of the concept of urbanism in Central Asia and the Eurasian steppes. Hiebert (1992: 111) suggested that a special, regionally specific definition of urbanism should be used for Central Asia. Kohl (2007: 14) exhorted us to broaden our theoretical frameworks and reconsider whether the terms “urban” or “city” even apply to Eurasia during certain periods.

For ancient Inner Eurasia and Central Asia, these large fortified enclosure sites are the equivalent of urban centers. Many are very large in size (e.g., Afrasiab at 219 ha, Kalaly-gyr 1 at 63 ha, Qaleh Kharabeh at 56 ha) monumental, with high-status intramural buildings and evidence of ceremonial activities as well as production at some sites. Occupation at many enclosure sites was episodic and noncontinuous, often with evidence of horizontal stratification (e.g., the various stages of Gyaur-kala at Merv) (Hiebert 1992). Generally, these sites have predetermined layouts that were constructed to formulaic and simplistic schemas and were generally not overridden by subsequent organic settlement development. Enclosure plan shapes were most commonly square or rectangular. The architectural style of the enclosures was militaristic and conservative, indicating that the style was considered culturally appropriate. (Francfort 1998; Negus Cleary 2015a; Rogers et al. 2005)

An important corollary of large enclosure sites was low-density, dispersed settlement close to waterways or water supply canals. The settlements were often of short duration, or periodically or seasonally occupied. Some were campsites or nonpermanent habitations sites without formal architecture. Examples of these settlement types will be discussed next. Hiebert (1992: 111) termed this a nonnucleated oasis settlement pattern and observed that it was typical of the premodern oases of Central Asia. He characterized it as a “pattern of dispersed and separate building complexes” and emphasized the importance of fortified sites, known in Central Asia as “kala” or “qala,” in this settlement system as the residence of local elites (Hiebert 1992; Lamberg-Karlovsky 1994). “Kala” appear in a variety of sizes but on a similar archetypal form, being a mud or earthwork enclosure, surrounded by a ditch or moat, and with an elite residence inside or a complex of several high-status buildings with large areas of open space. Even the very large “kalas” conformed to this general model, but they had two or more enclosures with the primary enclosure being a citadel in which the high-status buildings were located.

These large enclosure sites are indicators of increased social complexity during antiquity. They show that there was large-scale organization, more complex political organization, increased social hierarchy, and the presence of luxury goods and economic surplus. Key sites of Akchakhan-kala and Kiuzely-gyr in Khorezm, Ivolga in Mongolia, Afrasiab/Samarkand in Sogdia, and Dalverzin-tepe in Ferghana will be discussed next in a series of examples by region/area.

In effect, these sites are the equivalent of nucleated urban sites (cities). They are cultural and political centers within a dispersed and low-density settlement system. But the differences between nucleated cities of sedentary states and the low-density enclosure sites of the Eurasian steppe and oases are important because they indicate that a different sociopolitical and economic structure was in place. The enclosure sites and settlement patterns of the Eurasian steppe provide a key for understanding the sociopolitical character of mobile agro-pastoral states.

Eurasian “Steppe Urbanism”

Archaeological research has provided case studies of enclosure sites associated with ancient mobile states in the Eurasian steppe. The Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) empire dating from the late third century BC–mid-first century AD constructed fortified enclosures in the heart of the Mongolian steppe (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2006: 192–193). The fortified enclosures were located within a dispersed settlement pattern extending along river valleys and foothills. The settlement features consisted of open habitation sites or seasonal campsites, ceremonial/mortuary monuments (kirigsuurs), burial sites, and stone stelae. These communities had a diverse agro-pastoral economy incorporating seasonal tethering to specific places (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007: 52–53; Houle and Broderick 2011: 141–144; Wright et al. 2009: 374–375.)

The Ivolga complex was a Xiongnu period site composed of a fortified enclosure site and large cemetery with evidence of agricultural production (Figure 1). The enclosure formed by an earthwork surrounded by multiple ditches, 7 ha in area, and built at the edge of a steep river terrace with a second smaller enclosure nearby.

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Figure 1 Ivolga complex, site plan. I—Ivolga fortified enclosure; II—small enclosure; III—burial ground. 1—excavations in small enclosure; 2—modern roads; 3—estimated boundary of the burial ground; 4—floodpain of the Selenga River.

(Source: From Davydova 1985: fig. 1)

Fifty-one dwellings were excavated, most of which were pit houses (Davydova 1985: 10–22; Wright et al. 2009: 375). Varied production activities occurred at Ivolga, including pottery, bone carving, and bronze and iron metallurgy, with an iron smelting furnace and workshop located inside the main enclosure (Houle and Broderick 2011: 138). The archaeological information from Ivolga indicates that the Xiongnu communities did not rely exclusively on pastoralism but varied subsistence and production strategies, including agriculture, pastoralism, and metalworking (Davydova 1985; Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007: 46–47, 48).

The results of recent investigations of Xiongnu period settlement patterns in Mongolia concluded that habitation sites or seasonal campsites were not in centralized locations but were dispersed, low-density, and itinerant. Honeychurch and Amartuvshin’s (2006: 194, 198, fig. 5) study demonstrated that some campsites in the Egiin Gol river valley were located at the entry/exit points to valley and were therefore related to lines of mobility for potential interaction with external regions. Other habitation/occupation areas were located along river beds and foothills have been interpreted as summer and winter occupations (Houle and Broderick 2011; Wright et al. 2009). Enclosure sites, like Ivolga, were predominately ditched and were located on river terraces and the confluences. Wright, Honeychurch, and Amartuvshin (2009: 381–382, fig. 7) documented the enclosure of Kholtost Khurem (EGS 131) located on high ground by a river. This site had no evidence of use as a settlement site or a fortified refuge, but it was interpreted as a central place for periodic events or gatherings.

In the Semireche region of Kazakhstan, Boucharlat (2001: 262–263) reported the presence of quadrangular fortified enclosure sites such as Kzyl Kainar Tobe. This site was dated to the third–fourth centuries AD, and was 0.132 ha in area, with solid mud walls pierced by loopholes. The enclosure had no intramural structures, but there were traces of human occupation (hearths and ceramics), and the inside of the enclosure walls was lined with rooms. This type of site was always located on the plain and close to a river. Boucharlat (2001: 263) interpreted enclosures like Kzyl Kainer Tobe as facilities of mobile or semimobile pastoralists, and concluded that they were not urban centers but represent the first stages of sedentarization in the area.

Some of these types of sites in the Semireche may have been associated with the Wu-sun, who were a powerful nomadic polity inhabiting the Semirechye region of Kazakhstan and the T’ien-shan Mountains. Although principally pastoralists, they also engaged in agriculture and had walled sites, according to archaeological evidence and the Chinese annals, which described a walled city of the Wu-sun—Ch'ih-ku (“City of the Red Valley”) (Zadneprovskiy 1994: 569–560). Recent work by Chang and colleagues has demonstrated that Iron Age communities in this area (labeled Saka-Scythians, Wu-sun, or Yuezhi) built permanent architecture and engaged in both agriculture and pastoralism (Chang 2008; 2015; Chang et al. 2003). These results dispel the notion of Iron Age steppe peoples as purely nomadic pastoralists and reveal the more complex economic, social, and dwelling practices of these communities.

Kazakh Steppe and Syr-Darya Delta

Similar patterns of low-density, nonnucleated settlement associated with fortified enclosure sites are also found in the Syr-darya delta, east of the Aral Sea. This was a liminal area located within the northern steppe zone, but it was located within an intermittent oasis. The Chirik-rabat culture of the fifth/fourth–third/second centuries BC constructed fortified sites with extensive, low-density settlements and branched water supply systems (Negmatov 1994: 449–450; Rapoport et al. 2000:129–130; Tolstov 1948b). The economy was a mix of agriculture and pastoralism. The Chirik-rabat culture has been linked with the Scythians/Saka (Rapoport et al. 2000: 129; Tolstov 1962: 136ff). The remains of six fortified sites, over two hundred open settlements and funerary monuments, including kurgans and masuolea, were documented by Soviet-era archaeologists.

The settlement pattern was characterized by remains dispersed in zones along river channels and fortified sites and kurgans located nearby on higher ground. The settlements were similar to those found in nearby eastern Khorezm during the same period; they were individual multiroomed farmsteads with associated walled produce gardens, orchards, and fields (Rapoport et al. 2000: 130; Tolstov 1962: fig. 85)

Chirik-rabat culture fortified enclosure sites were not used as settlements. In the Chirik-rabat culture settlement system, the enclosure sites were important ceremonial and commemorative centers that may have also functioned as places for elite occupation, refuges, administrative centers, bases for mustering military forces, or even mercantile activities (Rapoport et al. 2000: 130–142; Tolstov 1962: 136–170, figs. 72–95.)

Two of the well-investigated enclosure sites, Chirik-rabat and Babish-mulla 1, had similar characteristics of multiple enclosures protecting large areas of open space, kurgans, and architectural mortuary monuments. Chirik-rabat itself was a c. 40 ha oval enclosure with two earthwork enclosure walls and an outer ditch, dating to the fourth–third centuries BC (Figure 2).

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Figure 2 Chirik-rabat complex, plan. I—central kurgan group; II—Kurgan No. 1; III—circular funerary building; IV—square funerary building; V—stratigraphic excavation; VI—later (medieval) citadel/enclosure.

(Source: From Tolstov 1962: fig. 74)

The fortification walls of the enclosures were strengthened with rectangular towers and each wall had an internal corridor, or archers’ gallery, and arrow-shaped loopholes. At the center of the site were several large kurgans and there were different modifications to this site in episodic phases continuing into the medieval periods (Rapoport et al. 2000: 130; Tolstov 1962: 147–148).

The enclosure site of Babish-mulla 1 in the Zhana-darya (Syr-darya delta), dating to the fourth–second centuries BC, has many similarities with Chirik-rabat. Babish-mulla 1 was a quadrangular fortified enclosure with monumental building within it and an outer, annex enclosure (Figure 3).

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Figure 3 Babish-mulla 1 complex, aerial photo. I—Babish-mulla 1: 1—donjon; 2—the “Big House”; 3—citadel; II—Babish-mulla 2. III—ancient river channel

(Source: From Tolstov 1962: fig. 88)

It was set in a dispersed settlement system that included canals, kurgan burials, stone stelae, and small-scale but extensive domestic settlement remains along a distributary watercourse of the Zhana-darya (Tolstov 1962: 154–164, figs. 85–90.)

Occupation of the Chirik-rabat culture sites ceased around the end of the third or the beginning of the second centuries BC due to environmental issues with severely reduced water flow through the Syr-darya river distributaries (Rapoport et al. 2000: 142). The Chirik-rabat archaeological evidence closely parallels that of Early Antique Khorezm with which it was contemporary.

Central Asian Oases


Central Oases have a similar pattern of large fortified sites located within nonnucleated, widespread settlement systems. The Khorezmian (Chorasmian) oasis was located in the delta of the Amu Darya (Oxus) river, just to the south of the Aral Sea. During the Late Iron Age and Antique periods, seventh/sixth century BC–fourth century AD, Khorezm saw the sudden appearance of several large fortified enclosure sites, Kiuzely-gyr and Kalaly-gyr 1 (Khozhaniyazov 2005; Negus Cleary 2013; 2015a; Tolstov 1948a). Agriculture was limited to small fields, although water supply canals were constructed leading to fortified enclosures, and perhaps their main purpose was to maintain the water supply to locations that could be defended and provided the combination of good grazing areas and areas where alluvial deposits could be utilized for agriculture (Negus Cleary 2015b: 138–139). This was a period when shifts in the main flow of the Amu Darya were causing the water supply along one of its major distributor channels, the Chermen-yab, to dwindle (Andrianov 1969). According to tenth-century Arab geographers, the settlements and fields were not located directly along the main course of the Amu Darya due to its propensity for flooding and shifting its course (le Strange 1930: 444).

Kiuzely-gyr was the earliest enclosure site, dating from seventh/sixth–fifth century BC, was located on the western side of the delta and was well investigated by Soviet-era and Karakalpak researchers in the mid- to late twentieth century (e.g. Tolstov 1948a; 1962). Kiuzely-gyr was a large double enclosure, covering 26 ha in area, with a citadel or inner enclosure and a larger secondary enclosure encircling a natural hill or plateau (Figure 4).

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Figure 4 Kiuzely-gyr site plan. 1—sand ridges; 2—takyry (clay pans); 3—cleared walls; 4—pits; 5—unexcavated walls; 6—surface clearance strips (hatching denotes areas of cultural deposits; I–VII—excavations.

(Source: From Tolstov 1962: fig. 43)

The enclosures were constructed of mud-brick and rammed earth with triple internal corridors and projecting towers. There were two construction phases to the fortification walls, the first using rectangular mud-bricks, and the second with square mud-bricks, arrow-shaped loopholes, vaulted internal corridors, and rectangular towers (Khozhaniyazov 2005: 71–73). The citadel contained a large building complex that revealed evidence of feasting events, a large platform with evidence of ritual fires, and nearby were several small, monumental single-roomed structures that were most likely used for ceremonial or ritual activities. Much of the rest of the enclosed space was not built up, except in the lower enclosure where the remains of tightly packed wattle-and-daub type dwellings were found against the inside of the fortification walls (Rapoport et al. 2000: 27–29; Tolstov 1962: 101).

Production activities took place within the Kiuzely-gyr enclosure walls, including iron and copper processing and a turquoise workshop (Tolstov 1962: 99; Vogelsang 1992: 290). Scythian style double- and triple-flanged bronze arrowheads were also present. There were connections with the northern Scythian/Saka steppe zone in the style of weapons, horse tack, some cult objects, and items of personal adornment, for example, the golden head of a gazelle (Rapoport et al. 2000: 29, fig. 6).

Kuizely-gyr has been variously interpreted as a proto-urban center, a fortified refuge and enormous cattle corral, or a formalized nomadic camp (Rapoport et al. 2000: 25–26; Tolstov 1962: 103; Vogelsang 1992: 290–291). The use of rectangular mud-bricks for the initial construction phase, and the appearance of many fortified enclosure sites around Central Asia during the Late Iron Age, suggests a wider phenomenon that may have been influenced by the Bronze Age monumental sites in Bactria and Margiana such as Gonur-depe and Togolok. Wheelmade pottery was excavated that had parallels to the southern Yaz III period (Rapoport et al. 2000: 29; Vogelsang 1992: 290).

In the ensuring Antique periods (Early Antique fifth/fourth–first century BC; late Antique first–fourth centuries AD), Khorezmian fortified enclosure sites proliferated and developed from the earlier monumental refuges or campsites, into a diverse range of fortified sites and buildings. Fortified enclosure sites varied greatly in size, 0.23–42.5 ha, and although there was diversity in plan shapes, the majority were quadrangular in shape (Khozhaniyazov 2005; Negus Cleary 2013). Generally, the sedentary settlement and domestic habitation occurred in farmsteads and small dwellings dispersed in very low-density, linear tracts along water supply canals. Fortified sites were significant features within these extended settlement zones, but they were either completely devoid of structures or contained monumental, high-status buildings associated with elites or ceremonial/cultic activities. Very few fortified sites contained domestic occupation evidence. Settlement zones did not always contain a fortified site but were always associated with farming remains such as fields, vineyards, and small enclosures that were possibly orchards, animal corrals, or market gardens. Production activities included metallurgy, precious stone-working, ceramic production, and wine-making. These activities took place in a variety of locations, including farmstead, remote areas near water supplies, and in abandoned fortified sites. Mortuary and cultic activities were similarly widespread around the delta in isolated locations (Negus Cleary 2015a; 2015b; Nerazik 1976).

The largest site within the eastern Khorezmian oasis was the fortified enclosure of Akchakhan-kala. This site has been the focus of ongoing excavations since 1994.5 The site dates to the fourth/third century BC–second century AD, and it is comprised of two square enclosures with a combined area of 42.6 ha (Figure 5).

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Figure 5 Akchakhan-kala site plan showing areas investigated.

The primary enclosure (citadel) is located on higher ground with double-story fortification walls and monumental buildings within it. The recent excavations have recovered a very high level of detailed information about the fortifications and monumental buildings in the Upper Enclosure, including a rich body of mural art (Betts et al. 2009; Helms et al. 2001; 2002; Helms and Yagodin 1997; Kidd and Betts 2010; Yagodin et al. 2009).

The fortifications of Akchakhan-kala are sophisticated and well developed with rectangular projecting towers, at least four large barbican gateways, double-storied fortification walls with internal corridors on both levels accessing the towers, arrow-shaped loopholes, and outworks including two moats (possibly dry moats) and cover walls. Although these fortifications had undoubted defensive and military capabilities, analysis by Helms has demonstrated that their practical functionality was compromised and that their impressive visual presence and the intimidating psychological effect of their bulk and formidable architectural style were perhaps of greater efficacy in deterring raiders or impressing visitors with the might of the Khorezmians (Betts et al. 2009: 43–44; Kidd et al. 2012: 93, 95, 99; Negus Cleary 2015b: 155).

Similar to many other Eurasian enclosure sites from this period, the enclosures of Akchakhan-kala appear to have had very few intramural buildings or infrastructure. Geophysical surveys and excavated soundings conducted within both enclosures did not identify medium- or high-density housing or buildings. Metallurgical slag was found in areas close to the fortification wall in the Upper Enclosure and suggests that some production activities occurred within the site, similar to Kiuzely-gyr and Ivolga in Mongolia. Archaeological investigations so far have not uncovered evidence of intramural dwellings, domestic occupation, or large-scale infrastructure such as streets or water supply systems. There is no evidence that the site was a nucleated, permanent population center, as in a conventional, sedentary city (Negus Cleary 2015a: 192–195, 263–267, 283–289, Appendices 4, 5, 7).

The Upper Enclosure did house several monumental buildings: the Area 07 monumental structure at the very center of the enclosure; the Area 10 monumental building complex; and the Area 11 monumental building. These are all elite, high-status buildings. The Area 10 complex in particular was richly fitted out with decorative bronze and gold sculpted reliefs (Kidd et al. 2004 [2008]: 11–12).

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Figure 6 Akchakhan-kala Area 10 ceremonial complex plan.

The walls and ceilings were adorned with polychrome patterned and figurative mural artworks from its halls and corridors. The building itself is centered upon a small, square, fortified enclosure, with rounded towers, thick walls with internal corridor, a central court with columned hall, and unusual activities involving fire (Kidd and Betts 2010: 654; Negus Cleary 2015a: 184) (Figure 6). The finds include luxury imported materials and goods such as gold, ivory, and bronze. There are the remains of gold sequins from clothing, an ivory carved furniture leg that has close parallels with Achaemenid thrones (Kidd 2011: 249–254), and a gallery of portraits and painted text that refers to a king and a procession of horses, camels, cattle, and humans, among other motifs (Kidd and Betts 2010: 654). This evidence clearly links the Upper Enclosure with ruling elites and specialized ceremonial activities.

Like many other Khorezmian fortified enclosures, Akchakhan-kala enclosure site was purpose built to fulfill distinct, predetermined functions and conformed to a culturally specific architectural tradition. The original layouts of the Khorezmian enclosure sites were not the result of organic growth and settlement nucleation, nor were they overridden by the imperatives of dense habitation, production, or trading activities (unless they were occupied or reoccupied into the late Medieval period, which occurred rarely at sites such as Khiva [Khozhaniyazov 2005: 58–589; le Strange 1930: 449–450]). There was little evidence of major changes in the Antique period fortified sites. Where planning changes occurred, they were associated with episodes of abandonment, reoccupation, and a change in primary function rather than continuous, permanent habitation (Negus Cleary 2013; 2015a).

The evidence for settlement surrounding Akchakhan-kala was very low in density, with isolated farmsteads or small dwellings spaced between the main enclosure site and a major water supply canal to the north (Figure 7).

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Figure 7 Akchakhan-kala extensive survey results showing remains of low-density, dispersed settlement surrounding the fortified enclosures.

Artifact scatters included the remains of ceramics associated with food preparation, copper, and iron metallurgical processing. There are the remains of agricultural fields or possibly vineyards and other mud structures (Negus Cleary 2015a: 200–207, Appendix 5, 60–65).

Akchakhan-kala provides unique insight into the nature of occupation of a significant enclosure site. The citadel or primary enclosure was reserved for ruling elites and specialized ceremonial or perhaps administrative activities took place there in high-status buildings. The secondary enclosure appears to have protected large areas of open space or low-density occupation. Very low-density settlement extended in broad zones around the main site, close to water supply canals and associated with agricultural fields and possibly corrals or other. Overall, the settlement evidence suggests that not all of the population supporting such a large capital site was permanently settled here. Andrianov (1969: 127, 133) observed that despite very long water supply canals, the area of land under cultivation within antique period eastern Khorezm was not very extensive, and he concluded that agriculture alone would not have supported a large population, or a population sufficient to construct and maintain the canals. This suggests that the population of the Khorezm oasis must have been reliant upon a mix of pastoral and agricultural subsistence and production strategies, and that a significant portion of the population at least, much have been mobile. Housing may have been similarly diverse, using mud-brick dwellings, but also more ephemeral structures such as tents, reed, or wattle-and-daub huts. The widely spread character of Khorezmian settlement and the large distances between fortified sites, water supplies, production sites, and mortuary sites suggests that large numbers of the population were mobile and able to easily travel around the oasis (Negus Cleary 2015a: 389–392; 2015b).


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Figure 8 Bala Hissar of Kunduz, plan.

(Source: After Gardin 1995: fig. 11)

Other Central Asian oases have similar evidence of large-scale fortified enclosure sites (kalas) and low-density, dispersed agro-pastoral settlement patterns, particularly during the pre-Hellenistic periods. Gardin (1995; 1998) surveyed many fortified sites in Bactria (principally in northern Afghanistan) dating from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period. Gardin (1995: 99) concluded that although many sites were called “cities” based on being fortified, they could not be considered urban due to their small sizes and limited functions. Examples include Qunsai at 12.5 ha in area, Bala Hissar of Kunduz at 19 ha (see Figure 8), and Kafir Qala at 17 ha but also included numerous extramural mounds and settlement remains (Ball 1982; Gardin 1995; 1998). According to Gardin (1995: 99), they were not urban settlements since they lacked domestic habitations and evidence of multiple functions serving a wider community. He instead suggested that they were garrison forts, caravanserais, or refuges. The sites documented by Gardin were very similar in morphology to the Khorezmian sites, being fortified mud-brick or rammed-earth walled enclosures with plan shapes based on squares, circles, irregular, or even pentagonal (Ball 1982; Gardin 1995: 83–96; 1998; Francfort 1979; Francfort 1985). The use of rounded towers and hollow walls (i.e., double walls with internal corridors known as “archers’ galleries”) were also similar to the ancient Khorezmian architecture. Gardin (1998: 144) identified some sites as urban centers based on the presence of fortification walls and a diversity of built structures indicating a varied set of functions (e.g., Ai Khanum, Qala-i Zal and Zulm).

At a more localized level in Bactria, Stride’s analysis of the Late Iron Age (pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid periods) settlement pattern of the Surkhan Darya valley showed a similar dispersed and decentralized organization. The fortified enclosure of Kyzyl-tepe (16 ha) was not a settlement but was surrounded by scattered dwellings and some irrigated fields with evidence for an agro-pastoral population (Stride 2004: 187, 188, 191). In this context the fortified enclosure sites appear to have been very similar to the small to medium enclosure sites of Khorezm, and their functions may have included refuge and possibly cattle management. The circular, fortified enclosure site of Talashkan Tepe 1, measuring 125–130 m in diameter (1.3 ha), had a 5 to 9 cm thick layer of preserved manure covering the interior of the enclosure, indicating its use as a cattle refuge or corral (Stride 2004: 191n184; Vogelsang 1992: 272).


In Ferghana large sites such as Dalverzin-tepe from the Early Iron Age and Eilatan from the Late Iron Age (Achaemenid period, c. sixth–fourth centuries BC) were fortified enclosures with citadels. Dalverzin-tepe covered an area of 26 ha and was composed of a circular primary enclosure or citadel (2 ha) with a large rectangular secondary enclosure attached (Zadneprovsky 1995: 157) (Figure 9).

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Figure 9 Dalverzin-tepe site plan.

(Source: From Koshelenko 1985: table CXIV)

The fortification walls were 4–6 m thick and made of mud-brick. The economy was based on agriculture (wheat, barley, and millet) and pastoralism (camels, horses, cattle, sheep, and goats) (Gupta 1979: 233). Eilatan in eastern Ferghana was a quadrangular enclosure with double fortification walls and an inner enclosure with towers along the walls that covered 20 ha. The outer enclosure was larger and Zadneprovsky (1995: 158) proposed that it was used to contain livestock rather than a permanent settlement.

Sogdia and Arachosia

The major site of Afrasiab (later Samarkand) during the sixth–fourth centuries BC (the Achaemenid period) encompassed an enormous area of 219 ha within its ramparts. There were several enclosures within the site, including a citadel-type enclosure at the northern end that possibly contained monumental structures during this period. It is uncertain to what extent the intramural areas were built up during the pre-Hellenistic period. Vogelsang (1992: 289) proposed that Afrasiab was an enclosure site “primarily meant to protect, not so much an urban centre, as a group of people and their beasts.” Zadneprovsky (1995: 158) suggested a similar interpretation.

Archaeological evidence from Old Kandahar in Afghanistan during the pre-Hellenistic period suggests that this was also a fortified enclosure site, rather than a permanent nucleated settlement. The enclosure constructed atop a natural elevation had very few intramural structures, but there was a line of rooms built around the interior side of the fortification walls (S. W. Helms, personal communication, August 2002; Helms 1997). This is similar to enclosure sites in Khorezm (e.g., Burly-kala 1 and Gyaur-kala Sultan-uiz-dag and the wattle-and-daub dwellings built against the walls of Kiuzely-gyr) (Manylov and Khozhaniyazov 1981: 41; Rapoport and Trudnovskaya 1958: 358). Vogelsang (1992: 257) suggested that Old Kandahar, like Afrasiab, was a formalized pastoral campsite for a pastoral community and their cattle. Rooms built along the inside of the walls have synergies with the Khorezmian, Parthia, and Bactrian enclosures that have an internal corridor within the enclosure walls. Tolstov (1962: 99) initially suggested that they were inhabited spaces within the earlier Khorezmian enclosures. The presence of rooms and habitable corridors along the enclosure walls raises the possibility of a cultural “habit” of sheltering within or against the walls so that the central space was left for cattle or other activities.

Kala-i Zakhoki Maron in Sogdia provides another example of a very large fortified enclosure that has been interpreted as a fortified capital built by a nomadic ruling class within the oasis zone. The site is a series of three concentric, square enclosures with a square, tower-like citadel at the center and covers a total area of 225 ha (Abdoullaev 2001: 206; Suleimanov 2000: 26–28) (Figure 10).

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Figure 10 Kala-i Zakoki Maron, plan.

(Source: After Koshelenko 1985: table CXXIV [III])

There were no other buildings or infrastructure built within the enclosures. Dating to the second–first centuries BC, Abdoullaev (2001: 206) has interpreted the site as the capital of a nomadic ruling elite; a vast, carefully planned, formalized complex that functioned as a nodal point providing protection and infrastructure and grandeur for a tent settlement associated with mobile rulers. This would have been similar to the itinerant tent-cities of nomadic ruling elites, such as the Mongols during the medieval period, and the Timurid court of the fifteenth century AD (Andrews 1978). Abdoullaev (2001) and Rapin (2007: 53) have suggested that Kala-i Zakhoki Maron was one of a system of capitals of the K'ang-chü nomadic confederation, with Afrasiab another capital. According to Chinese annals, the K'ang-chü elite moved around their territories, and the ruler wintered in their capital of Pi-t’ien and spent summer in the steppe (Zadneprovskiy 1994: 464). This example illustrates the more complex nature of oasis and steppe sites and the mobile political structure behind them.


In the Murghab River delta and the Atrek Valley in Margiana, the Early Iron Age (Yaz I) settlement patterns were characterized by medium to large citadels/fortresses built on high mud-brick platforms with attached settlements and separate small agricultural farmsteads or living compounds (walled enclosures). These sites and features were spatially dispersed across the landscape and were associated with major rivers and also smaller delta river channels. Their artifact assemblage included handmade pottery and some with painted decoration, iron artifacts, and two-flanged bronze arrowheads that Bonora and Vidale (2008: 156–157) suggested may indicate connections with the northern steppe. There were innovations and improvements in the exploitation of hydrological resources via irrigation networks off the branches of river channels (Bonora and Vidale 2008: 158).

Investigations of the later Parthian and Sasanian fortified sites in the Gurgan Plain in northeastern Iran have shown close similarities to the Antique fortified enclosure sites of Khorezm, with double-walled enclosures and large areas of open intramural space (Kiani 1982; Omrani Rekavand et al. 2008). Examples of larger fortified enclosure sites include Dasht Qaleh, Gabri Qaleh, Qaleh Kafar, and Qaleh Kharabeh (Kiani 1982: 41–42, 43, 48–52, 56–57, figs. 33–35, 39, 49–51, pls. 13, 15.2, 16.1, 28). A new investigation of the 56 ha fortress of Qaleh Kharabeh revealed that it has rectangular ditched enclosures within the fortification walls that have been interpreted as drainage or boundary ditches surrounding tents (Omrani Rekavand et al. 2008: 162).

A recent project examining the Gurgan (Gorgan) Wall and the archaeological landscape of the Gurgan River plain in northeastern Iran has yielded preliminary results that indicate a similar dispersed settlement pattern during the Parthian period or slightly earlier. There were fortified sites in a dispersed agro-pastoral occupation of the plain with evidence of more dry-farming in the eastern sites and irrigation agriculture in the west. Extensive flat areas surrounded many fortified sites in both east and west, and they are suggested as ideal locations for mustering livestock (Omrani Rekavand et al. 2008: 154.).6 Unfortunately many of the sites have been destroyed by modern agriculture (Kiani 1982: 61), and there has been little research conducted on them until recently. There is a striking similarity in site size ranges and morphologies between many of these sites and those from Antique Khorezm, such as the mud-brick, double enclosure walls, citadels or primary enclosures in one corner, moats or ditches surrounding the enclosure, and the preference for quadrangular plan shapes. Kiani (1982: 76–77) concluded that most sites were from the Parthian period and were military in nature, as did Omarani Rekavand et al. (2008: 163, 176), but there has been no detailed analysis of the settlement pattern here, and the dating of many sites is not well established.

Kerder Culture

The early medieval Kerder settlements in the northern Amu-darya delta of the fifth–eighth centuries AD had a settlement pattern comprising numerous farmsteads spread out around a fortified enclosure. These settlements were in the marshy areas southeast of the Aral Sea and the fortified enclosures were located on higher ground. Tolstov (1948b; Tolstov 2005: 206–210) identified the Kerders as the Hephthalites, or White Huns, being closely related to the Sarmatians, Alans, and Massagetae tribes. Tolstov and Kurbanov (2010: 13–14, 18–20, 203–205) also concluded that the Hephthalites were associated with the Kerders in Khorezm.

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Figure 11 Kesken-Kuyuk-kala complex, site plan.

(Source: From Nerazik and Rapoport 1959: fig. 1)

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Figure 12 Kesken-Kuyuk-kala complex, site plan.

(Source: From Nerazik and Rapoport 1959: fig. 5)

Several large Kerder sites have been documented, including Kesken-kuyuk-kala, a double enclosure site with a very large (c. 30 ha) irregular rounded outer enclosure located on the banks of a dry river channel (see Figure 11). Inside there were areas of open space and a large square citadel, 210 x 210 m, with walls constructed of mud-brick. Within the citadel were mud buildings, irregularly planned streets, and an ashy cultural layer full of ceramics, copper products, and many animal bones of sheep/goats, horses, and camels (Tolstov 1962: 198, 200, fig. 80a; 2005: 207–208, fig. 80). The complex of Kuyuk-kala was a trapezoidal planned enclosure formed by double walls made of mud-brick. The outlines of a second, earlier enclosure were found just to the west of the main trapezoidal enclosure. Structures were found within the enclosure; some were circular mud-brick bases for circular tents (yurts) (see Figure 12), and others were associated with iron smelting furnace. There was also some evidence that the corridor of the fortifications had been inhabited (Nerazik and Rapoport 1959: 129–133). These archaeological complexes were settlement centers for semimobile, mixed agro-pastoral communities, since there was also evidence of nonirrigated agriculture in marshy fields (Baker Brite 2011: 217; Tolstov 2005: 210).

Eurasian Agro-Pastoral Settlement Adaptation

The discussion of settlement evidence from different regions of Inner Eurasia during the Late Iron Age and Antique periods presented in the preceding discussion illustrated the synergies between diverse agro-pastoral cultures with varied levels of mobility. Fortified enclosure sites are recurrent features as are low-density, nonnucleated settlements with production, mortuary, and other specialized activities spread out around oases in Bactria, Ferghana, Parthia, and Khorezm, or along river valleys in the steppe zones such as the Syr-Darya delta, Semireche, and Mongolia. The large enclosure sites and dispersed, low-density mode of settlement indicate that the populations had a high level of mobility.

Fletcher’s (1986: 71, 73) analysis of historical settlement trends across the globe identified that settlement remains of mobile and semimobile communities have been predominately characterized by sites ranging between 1 ha to 100 ha. These communities can only operate at relatively low densities and in dispersed occupation, especially in larger settlements because of their employment of multiple-resource subsistence strategies that include pastoralism. Un-built-up areas were prevalent within these settlements and these spaces were venues for a variety of services and activities that may not show up archaeologically (Fletcher 1986; 1991; 2009: 8).

Large fortified enclosures were specialized sites within the dispersed settlement systems of non-Hellenised Inner Eurasia, and although they varied in form and size, they appear to have had similar practical, social, and symbolic functions related to refuge, elite/regal residence and administration, ceremony, and accommodation of pastoral groups and their livestock. Importantly, there was no evidence of large, agglomerated, permanent population centers in this pattern.

The monumental capitals of the Achaemenids in Iran, Persepolis, Parsa, and Susa also have many similarities to the larger enclosure sites of Central Asia. The monuments and the architectural style are more sophisticated, but there are correspondences in the creation of a system of fortified ceremonial capitals within an extensive, low-density, dispersed settlement zone that is reliant upon artificial water management systems. The example of Achaemenid Persia provides a parallel for understanding the political system of other mobile states in Central and Inner Eurasia.

Achaemenid Iran

Large areas of Central Asia were under Achaemenid hegemony from the c. sixth to the fifth/fourth centuries BC, and there was a lasting Iranian sphere of influence even after the collapse of the empire. The comparison between the Central Asian and Achaemenid settlement systems, noting significant similarities and differences, is a crucial one to make because of the ties between the two regions (Francfort 1998; Vogelsang 1992: 14–15, 304). The settlement organization of the plains around the royal Achaemenid centers of Persepolis, Susa, and Pasargadae have similarities with the nonnucleated oasis settlement pattern observed in the Central Asian oases (Boucharlat, De Schacht, and Gondet 2012; Boucharlat 2002; Boucharlat 2003: 264; Sumner 1986).

Boucharlat and colleagues (2012: 281–282) characterize the settlement pattern of the Persepolis plain not as a dense occupation zone, but as a low-density, dispersed spread of buildings and sites integrated into a wider cultural landscape of roads, quarries, and production locales irrigated by a large-scale hydrological system. Boucharlat interpreted the settlement evidence around these sites as a series of zones. The first, or “central zone,” was the royal areas of the palaces and administrative buildings. This central zone was surrounded by second or “empty zone,” where the royal court and its followers and the military could camp when the king was in residence. This was also the interpretation of the open plain surrounding the site by Herzfeld (see Mousavi 1992: 213) and Genito (1998: 149–150) and Sumner (1986). In a 15–25 km radius of the central zone was a third zone of low-density farmsteads, large farms, elite residences, and paradises (paradeisos, a royal hunting park and garden [Boucharlat 2003: 265]), small sites, and a few towns. This third zone was where important agricultural and pastoral production activities occurred. It was also where raw materials were obtained and crafted, mainly stone and clay for construction purposes. Beyond this was an extensive fourth or “outer zone” associated with herding activities (Boucharlat 2003: 264–265). The third zone of low-density settlement with agro-pastoral and production activities fits Hiebert’s nonnucleated oasis settlement system.

The imperial centers of Persepolis and Susa and possibly also Pasargadae were not sites created out of an organic nucleation of population. As with the other sites discussed earlier, they were new foundations, preplanned and carefully formalized as statements displaying the wealth and power of the Achaemenid Empire and its kings and not settlements or cities in themselves, but rather political and administrative facilities in a dispersed, decentralized settlement system. Essentially these sites consisted of building complexes related to the royal court and administration (Boucharlat 2002; 2013; Boucharlat et al. 2012: 281).

The royal Achaemenid court, composed of thousands of people, was itinerant and moved seasonally between Persepolis, Susa, Pasargade, Ecbatane, and Babylon. Xenophon recounts the movements of the royal court of Cyrus, and Strabo the movements of later kings. The duration of stay at each location varied but was estimated as being for several months each year. The travel between these centers took time; 24 days between Susa and Persepolis and 12 days between Persepolis and Ecbatane. The royal court moved in a large camp, centered around the enormous royal marquee. This tent was equipped with rooms, banquet hall, offices, and apartments with bathrooms and was supported by 30 posts, 15 m high. The political and administrative power of the state was located in this royal tent during the travel between capitals. This demonstrates that the heart of the Achaemenid state was accustomed to constant movement and dwelling in tent cities covering many hectares (Boucharlat 1997: 217–219; Briant 1988: 269).

Boucharlat, following Herzfeld, contended that the many areas of open space at the sites of Persepolis, Susa, and Pasargadae were most likely for the accommodation of the tent city of the royal court, its visitors, and the military. Although there were some buildings, structures, and landscaped features within the large areas of open space surrounding the royal centers of these sites, density was very low and appears to have been associated with gardens, paradises, mortuary monuments (e.g., the tomb of Cyrus), cultic structures, and possibly a few elite residences. More common areas of habitation or economic activities were located at Persepolis North-East and Firuzi South. Focus areas of a royal or aristocratic nature were located at Persepolis terrace, Naqsh-e Rustam, Dasht-e Gohar, and Bagh-e Firuzi and perhaps Persepolis South (Boucharlat 1997; 2002; 2003; Boucharlat et al. 2012).

Achaemenid royal residences were also fortified sites. Mousavi (1992: 206) established that Persepolis was constructed as a military fortress, yet this did not imply that the primary purpose of the site was military. He suggested numerous reasons for the fortified nature of the royal terraces, including that initially the fortress aspect of the site may have been required by Darius to quell rebellions in the local area, but later it became a ceremonial center, a symbol of the Achaemenids located in the heart of Pars. Mousavi (1992: 206–207) hypothesized that after becoming a ceremonial center, Persepolis retained its military status in order to provide security for the ruler and his retinue, as a “mighty symbol for the powerful Achaemenid King.” Alternatively, Mousavi suggested that the site never served as an administrative center but was a sacred center only, thereby linking fortified sites with cultic functions.

In some respects, the Achaemenid centers in the Persian heartland appear to have had a remarkably similar settlement system to that of ancient Central Asian oases and the Xiongnu steppe, in terms of being dispersed, low in density with large areas of “empty space” and monumental royal ceremonial centers. The evidence of similar settlement systems in other areas of Central Asia and wider Eurasia that predate the Achaemenid period (e.g., that from the Surkhan-darya delta in Bactria, and the BMAC settlement systems) instead suggests that this type of agro-pastoral settlement system was fairly widespread and formed an adaptation to the environmental conditions of the steppe, open plains, and river delta oases of Eurasia and Iran. It was also adapted to the socioeconomic exigencies of agro-pastoral societies. The importance of the fortified Achaemenid royal capitals, however, may have been influential in Khorezm, Bactria, and other areas of Central Asia at least.

Mongolian Steppe Empires and States

There are many other examples of nomadic or itinerant royal courts from Eurasia. These include the K'ang-chü (Zadneprovskiy 1994: 464), the Xiongnu, the Kitans, and in the ninth to tenth centuries AD Uighurs. The account of Tamim Ibn Bahr in 821 AD described the Uighur king moving with his army circulation around the “urban” towns and villages of his territory, camping on the outskirts of each place (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007: 55). Genghis (Chinggis) Khan’s and Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) courts were also itinerant, moving around their empires in large tent “cities” (Andrews 1978; Boyle 1972; de Clavijo 1859; Rogers et al. 2005: 813). There was a different conception of political control where a strategic way to monitor a mobile population was for the ruling elite to be mobile themselves (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007: 55). Monumental walled sites in this model functioned as infrastructure for the court and administrators but also as materializations of the presence, power, and importance of the king and his state. In this sense they were political capitals, as defined by A. Rapoport (1993: 45–49).

Although these sites were also fortified with large areas of open space, with some intramural buildings of medium to low density and probably a small permanent population, they did represent the large nodes with diverse services, a centralized administration, and large itinerant populations. When the ruling court was in residence, these sites drew people from across the landscape. Honeychurch and Amartuvshin (2007: 55) called them “impressive points of tether.” Rogers, Ulambayar and Gallon (2005: 802) considered these sites “steppe urban centres,” based primarily on their provision of specialised functions to a broader region. Honeychurch and Amartuvshin (2007: 55) made the point that the political “center” and ruling elites circulated around the landscape and therefore should not be conceptualized as a point on the landscape but as a line or polygon extending over the landscape, “bringing to bear administrative oversight across a broad swath of landscape, both through its presence and the possibility of its presence.” This political structure allowed for control and integration of diverse communities over extensive territories and has been used by many other states, including the Achaemenids. As discussed earlier, the Achaemenid royal court moved from capital to capital and also smaller habitation areas, whereas the political and administrative power base moved with the king.

Central Asian and Inner Eurasian Mobile Capitals

The main difference between the Khorezmian, Xiongnu, K’ang-chu, and Chirik-rabat sites and permanent nucleated urban settlements is that the population moves to different locations for different services, activities, and events in a decentralized spatial distribution. This is due to the high level of mobility of the majority of the population engendered by the practicalities of pastoralism. In most Western, Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and Asian settlement contexts, populations come to cities as nodes or nucleation points for these kinds of events, activities, and institutions. This resulted in dense population centers supported by a surrounding hinterland of mainly agricultural settlements and classes of urban dwellers who did not need to engage in subsistence activities. These are characteristics of urban sites across many regions and time periods, and although there are regional variations, these essential characteristics are immutable and define nucleated settlements. In the Eurasian settlement patterns described earlier, large fortified sites are not nucleated settlements but are monumental complexes in a dispersed and low-density settlement system. Periodically, a large number of people congregated at the larger and more specialized fortified enclosure sites, like Afrasiab or Akchakhan-kala, for special events, religious or political ceremonies, military mobilizations, or even trade events.

The architecture of the Eurasian fortified enclosure capitals was formulaic and militaristic in style. It was not only driven by defensive imperatives but was also considered culturally and ideologically appropriate. As such, it communicated symbolic messages of strength, prestige, wealth, power, reassurance/intimidation, and tenure to a wide audience. These sites were monuments that functioned as embodiments of defensive might, extravagance, conspicuous consumption, and economic power. Given their prominence in the landscape, they were highly visible markers of territory and identity in a largely flat, undifferentiated landscape. They may have also been monuments of communal endeavor since they were constructed of bricks marked by different tribal groups (Negus Cleary 2015b: 124).

Importantly, the settlement process associated with the appearance of fortified enclosure sites in Eursia during the pre-Hellenistic periods was not a process of urbanization because it lacked a “center-oriented ethos,” as defined by Johnson and Hanks (2012: 358). In their analysis of the Middle Bronze Age Eurasian Sintashta steppe settlements, Johnson and Hanks (2012: 357) established that urbanization is the physical movement of people to a growing center that results in the nucleation of habitation, production, and sociopolitical activities and entities. The absence of permanent, nucleated habitation within these sites and the lack of centralized, specialized services and production precludes the Eurasian enclosure sites being considered cities or key nodes of a centralized, sedentary state.

Two types of premodern capital cities or political centers were identified by anthropologist and architect A. Rapoport (1993). The first was a compact or agglomerated where the central enclave formed part of a nucleated, sedentary settlement. This type of site was commonly found in sedentary, agrarian civilizations. The second type, a ceremonial center, was dispersed and composed of a monumental free-standing enclave any settlement was very low in density and spread out around it (A. Rapoport 1993: 39, fig. 2). Premodern capitals were highly symbolic and ceremonial. Dispersed, ceremonial centers were primarily political in function and were crucial in controlling and administering the territory of seminomadic states and empires (A. Rapoport 1993: 45–49). The ceremonial center type of capital fits the large enclosure sites of Eurasia well. Rapoport’s use of the term “capital” is helpful in describing these types of sites, rather than “city.” It could be applied to describe premodern Eurasian enclosure sites as “nomad capitals” or “mobile capitals.”

Mobile States and Political Capitals

The political organization of Central Asian and Inner Eurasian mobile states in the ancient and medieval periods was based on a decentralised, peripatetic model of control where ruling elites moved from place to place within their territory. The more clearly defined mobile states in the Eurasian steppe such as the Xiongnu have similarities with the itinerantly occupied capitals of Persian Achaemenids, and both provide direction toward understanding similar sites in Central Asia and the political organization behind them. Key infrastructure of this political model was the creation and periodic occupation of administrative and ceremonial capitals. Capitals were formalized as large fortified enclosure sites with palatial structures and other services that hosted itinerant ruling elites. A characteristic of these ceremonial capitals was that they had few intramural structures and were associated with nonnucleated, low-density settlements.

The political structure of the mobile agro-pastoral societies of ancient Central and Inner Eurasia may have been cephalic when dealing with external polities or confederations, but internally more egalitarian, organized around tribal groups and/or local leaders. The settlement evidence from within the Central Asia oases and the steppe zones fits with this idea, having localized defensive facilities and dispersed settlements, and also larger, formalized sites with monumental building complexes that have associations with elite ceremony. The occurrence of the grand ceremonial or ritual spaces within the heart of fortified enclosures, such as those found in Akchakhan-kala, may help to explain the nature of the ancient Khorezmian polity, for example. These specialized sites that exhibit a strong ceremonial focus to the intramural buildings and probably connections with royal lineages or kingship could be interpreted as ceremonial (regal-ritual) centers of a more weakly centralised polity. Such a weakly centralised polity is described by Fox (1977: 42) as a “segmentary” state where power is dispersed through various units and subunits: central ruler, subordinate rulers (princes/khans/governors), and provincial officials or chiefs). Geertz (1980) called this a “theatre state.” Khazanov (1984: 169) described this kind of political structure within nomadic groups as a “nomadic chiefdom” whose leadership was both extremely unstable and diffuse. Characteristically, this type of state is highly ceremonial and dependent on external embodiments of status. “The absence or lack of political centralism that makes these states segmentary also means that the ritual, prestige, and status aspects of the state loom large in its cohesion” (Fox 1977: 42). In such a political model, the primary function of ceremonial centers is highly ideological as ritual and prestige symbols (Fox 1977: 56; Geertz 1980; Wheatley 1971; Wilson 1988: 131–135).

The lack of evidence for highly urbanized administrative centers in Khorezm, Sogdia, Mongolia, and other areas of the steppe, and the presence of large fortified enclosures with monumentalized high-status complexes within, supports the idea of these sites being a form of ceremonial center of a weakly centralized state reliant on localized leaders. This less centralized system of authority may have had a head of state, a “king” who exercised some measure of control over a set of local leaders, khans, or hyparchs, who administered localized sections of the irrigation network controlling land and water, as proposed by Lamberg-Karlovsky (1994). Leriche (1977) and Vogelsang (1992: 273) suggested a similar leadership structure for the Central Asian oases where localized political units centered in fortified sites administered their surrounding population. Vogelsang (1992: 302–303) interpreted the Achaemenid political control in the eastern empire as via Scythian or Saka lords (hyparchs) as intermediary rulers, who were beholden to provide the Achaemenid king with troops and tithes at his request.

The Alexander biographies mentioned hyparchs as local leaders under the Achaemenids who provided them with their calvary units, and Vogelsang raised the possibility that the Achaemenid-period hyparchs were from groups associated with the northern steppe zone (Scythians/Saka). This suggests another possible model of administrative control by a nomadic elite, as happened in Bactria under the Kushans, who ruled a sedentary population with their own local leaders, khans (Christian 1998: 216–217; Frye 1996: 143–144). Other examples include the Iron Age agro-pastoralists of the Talgar region in Kazakhstan who were egalitarian at a local level but had a hierarchical ruling class who cultivated an image of steppic nomadism (Chang 2008: 229; 2012). There was a similar situation in ancient and medieval Sogdia where a “nomadic” elite ruled over local farmers and herders in the Zeravshan Valley (Rapin 2007; Stride, Rondelli, and Mantellini 2009). The Parthian Empire represents another conquest of southern regions by northern nomadic group who ruled a large territory from Mesopotamia to India in the third century BC–fourth century AD composed of very diverse peoples (Vogelsang 1992: 8, 10). The idea of a “nomadic” ruling class can be seen in the empires of the Xiongnu, Uighurs, and Mongols; and the Achaemenids (if Voglesang’s thesis is correct) may also be regarded as weakly centralized spatially, in that the political power was not located in a single central place, but rather was itinerant and covered large areas of the imperial territory, as discussed earlier. Monumental ceremonial capitals were also important in the settlement systems of these states. Similar regal centers could be seen at Persepolis, Susa, and Kharkorum, where display, ceremony, and status were all paramount.


This article has presented archaeological evidence of settlement and large enclosure sites as key indicators of social complexity in agro-pastoral societies in Central Asia and Inner Eurasia during the Late Iron Age–Late Antique periods. These sites indicate evidence of community endeavor, more complex and expansive sociopolitical organization, and more divided social hierarchies. Although not cities in the conventional sense, they are the equivalent of urban centers for mobile agro-pastoral states and polities.

The discussion herein has shown that there was a Eurasian settlement adaptation that was present in varied forms in both steppe and desert oases zones that was unique to agro-pastoral states and polities. This adaptation was characterized as dispersed and low-density settlements, large fortified enclosure sites as ceremonial capitals, and fortified dwellings and refuges (kalas) located in widespread zones close to river channels or water supply canals. Although there was local diversity, sites were generally not occupied for long periods of time, and with patterns of episodic occupation. Settlements and fortified enclosures were preplanned and not overridden by the demands of expansive and organic settlement development. This settlement adaptation was suited to mobile societies who employed multiple resource subsistence strategies to mitigate risk in the extreme climatic and environmental conditions that prevail in Central Asia and Inner Eurasia. The adaptability of the system allowed for both sedentary and more mobile groups within the population and the exploitation of a variety of ecotones for livestock grazing, agriculture, gathering, and hunting. Hydological management systems were an important feature of the settlement pattern in arid zones. Fortified enclosures could be corrals for herds and refuges or formalized campsites. Small fortified sites could be elite residences and/or ceremonial sites. Large fortified sites with monumental citadels or enclaves were the focus for ceremonial activities and displays of elite status, as mechanisms for political and economic control by ruling elites.

The “mobile/nomad capitals” were a specific type of fortified enclosure site identified in the comparative examples from Mongolia, Central Asia, and Achaemenid Iran. They represent formalized royal or elite residences and administrative centers for an itinerant ruling class. The sites were monumentalized with elaborate architecture, luxury goods, and artistic works. These attributes symbolized the wealth, might, and status of the ruling elite and were designed to ensure continued political control. The monumental complexes located within the enclosures were elaborate stage sets for elites to display themselves in ceremonies designed to impress subjects and visitors and reinforce social hierarchies. From these defendable sites, rulers could control and administer their territories. The fortified enclosure capitals functioned to legitimize and support the power of the ruling elite.

Fortified enclosure capitals were integral to a political system where political power was not centralized spatially in an urban center but roamed the territories of the state. The ruler and his court were peripatetic and moved from one capital to the next in order to control a mobile population. Political power was spread across the landscape by the movement of the ruler, by the capitals left as landmarks of his power, and by the possibility of his presence at any location. These capitals were nodes from which the symbolic power of the ruler could be expressed to local inhabitants and mobile groups, whether the ruler was present or not.

The study presented earlier offers a new perspective to alternative forms of urbanism, capital sites, and decentralized, mobile political systems. It has demonstrated that fortified enclosure sites were not nucleated permanent settlements, “cities,” in the conventional sense, but were the equivalent of urbanism being political and ceremonial capitals. The difference between nucleated cities and low-density ceremonial capitals is important because they provide material traces of the diverse sociopolitical complexity mobile agro-pastoral states and empires. These were the settlement signatures of developing states, confederacies, and empires of the steppe and oases whose defining characteristics were adaptability, mobility, diversity, and decentralization.


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(1) The term “Inner Eurasia” tends to be used to refer specifically to the areas covered by the present countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, and Xinjiang (or Sinkiang) province of western China—Afghanistan, northeastern Iran, Mongolia, Tibet, and Nepal are often also included, as well as steppe areas of southern Russia and Siberia (see Sinor 1990: 1–2; Soucek 2000: xi). However, Khazanov defined “Inner Asia” to eastern areas only, being Kashgaria, Dzhungaria, Mongolia, and Tibet (Khazanov 1984: 5).

(2) Cf. Childe 1950; Kohl 2007: 10–15; Trigger 2008. See also Adams (1966: 1ff.), who stated that “urbanism seems to have been much less important to the emergence of the state, and even to the development of civilization in the broadest sense, than social stratification and the institutionalization of political authority” (Adams 1966: 10).

(3) For analysis of ancient and medieval Central Asian and Mongolian urbanism, see Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007; Negus Cleary 2013; 2015a: 128ff.; Rogers, Ulambayar, and Gallon 2005.

(4) See Cribb (1991: 16), who also described sedentism and nomadism as a “continuum.”

(5) Under a collaborative archaeological project between the University of Sydney, Australia, and the Karakalpak Research Institute of the Humanities, Karakalpak branch of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

(6) Large square fortified sites with double enclosure walls that were investigated revealed that these were most likely military fortresses associated with the Sasanian period Gurgan Wall (Omrani Rekavand et al. 2008: 154). There has been little other investigation of the Parthian or earlier settlement pattern here, but see Kiani 1982 for an account of the various fortified sites. There was evidence at these sites of temporary or episodic occupation, and “empty” enclosures (Kiani 1982: 21), with geophysical surveys at the 42 ha site of Qaleh Karabeh revealing regularly laid out rectangular ditches or small enclosures that may be from tent sites within the fortified site (Omrani Rekavand et al. 2008: 162–163, fig. 10).