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date: 20 November 2018

Bronze Age Central Asia

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on the principal characteristics and features of the Bronze Age of the steppes, deserts, mountain foothills, and oases of Central Asia. It outlines the history of research on the region’s mobile pastoral and settled agricultural societies during the third and second millennium BC. The article examines how approaches to the social history and economy have changed from one of macro-studies of regional assemblages toward more targeted investigations of the dynamic and variable nature of this period. Finally, an overview of pottery, metal, and textile assemblages and analyses is used to form a discussion on craft production practices, consumption, and regional exchange across Central Asia.

Keywords: pastoralism, agriculture, exchange, metallurgy, ceramics, textiles

The Bronze Age of Central Asia is celebrated for major cultural and technological changes that laid the foundations for a social and material web that linked ancient societies across Eurasia. Encompassing a large portion of the Eurasian landmass, Central Asia stretches from the vast Russian and Kazakh steppes and mountain foothills, southward to the intersecting mountain, foothill, and desert regions of northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Across this ecological mosaic, various herding, farming, and foraging societies took shape during Bronze Age (third–second millennium BC).

This article concentrates on the evidence for multiregional interaction, economy, and material culture assemblages of Bronze Age Central Asia, as these topic areas best reflect the principal trends of its regional scholarship. An historical review of research prior to and after the end of the Soviet Period through today is also given. Because the archaeological records of northern and southern Central Asia are quite different, their chronological phases are outlined individually in the text. Northern Central Asia figures prominently in studies on the spread and development of regional pastoralism. Conventionally understood as a “pastoral realm,” small villages and seasonal campsites, stone-lined burials, and rock art have been principal areas of research investigations there for over a century. By contrast, southern Central Asia is home to large fortified centers, smaller sedentary villages, and pastoral campsites, making it a key zone for charting mobile and sedentary interactions through time. These two contrasting, yet intersecting, prehistories were integral to multiregional exchange, culture contact, and technology transfer, which irreversibly altered the social trajectories of societies from Europe to China in prehistory.

Archaeologically documented Bronze Age settlements in Central Asia are sparsely distributed over a massive landscape. Structures show considerable regional diversity in terms of their architectural characteristics and internal layout, which range from small villages with wooden, stone, or mudbrick structures to architecturally ephemeral campsites (Kuz’mina 2007: Figs. 8, 9; Mar’yashev and Gumirova 2011). The Middle Bronze Age fortified centers of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex of southern Central Asia (Sarianidi 2007) and the nucleated, fortified settlements of the Sintashta complex located in the southern Urals in Russia (Gening et al. 1992) comprise the two exceptions to the major architectural characteristics of the region’s built environment.

Despite its geographically dispersed archaeological landscape, multiregional interaction is a defining feature of the Central Asian Bronze Age. Dynamic transregional connections and exchange in the region is shown most clearly through its second millennium BC metallurgical inventory, horse riding and chariot technology, and geographic transport of crops between China and Southwest Asia (Sherratt 2006). Archeological discoveries made over the past ten years, however, demonstrate that a regional web of interaction and technology transfer was in place earlier on, during the third millennium BC (Jones et al. 2011; Frachetti 2012; Spengler et al. 2014). These discoveries are the result of a growing number of archaeometric dates, settlement excavations with multiperiod stratified cultural deposits, site survey and mapping, and scientific studies of diet and exchange. This paper will outline recent findings on the emergence and nature of Eurasian pastoralism, the pastoral/agricultural and mobile/sedentary dichotomy, and local material traditions and exchange as viewed through the lens of multimaterials analyses.

Periodization of the Bronze Age

The periodization of the Central Asian Bronze Age rests on a combination of calibrated calendar dates and chronological reconstructions obtained from stylistic seriations of pottery and metal objects. Newly acquired radiometric sequences obtained from settlement and cemetery contexts in recent decades are earlier by at least a couple of hundred years, and so recast the social history of the period (e.g., Jungner 2004; Frachetti and Mar’yashev 2007: Table 1; Hanks et al. 2007: Fig. 3; Cattani 2008a: Table 10.1; Rouse and Cerasetti 2014: Fig. 3; Doumani et al. 2015: Table 1). Despite efforts to align the chronologies from older and newer research (e.g., Hanks et al. 2007), a substantial growth in the use of scientific methods, and detailed site excavations, vast geographic areas of the region are still without radiometric sequences.

Northern Central Asia—The Pastoral Mosaic and Migration

For decades the predominant view of northern Central Asia has maintained an image of a “pastoral realm,” with terrestrial animals comprising the major diet of herding populations. Conventional models on the origins and spread of herding societies into northern Central Asia propose that climate change and population pressure were catalysts for eastward migrations across the steppe in the Bronze Age—resulting in broad social and economic cohesion across the continent by the mid-second millennium BC, during the Late Bronze Age (Vinogradova 1993; Anthony 2007; Kuz’mina 2007). Stylistic assessments of pottery and their ordering into culture-histories have remained the primary methodology and reference point for shaping such narratives to the present day (e.g., Kuz’mina 1986). Within the historical-materialist epistemology of Soviet archaeology, migration and diffusion were the predominant explanations for producing distinctly common material complexes over broad geographic areas. Culture-historical archaeology was central to this normative approach to culture (Macalister 1921), whereby shared artifact assemblages—such as Andronovo style ceramics—indicated the presence of a single ethnic group (i.e., kul’tury), and changes in material culture were approximated with ethnic transformation (Bromlei 1974).

Early Bronze Age

The Early Bronze Age in northern Central Asia dates from approximately 3200 to 2400 BC, with some cultural groupings bridging the Eneolothic (ca. 3500 BC) to Bronze Age transition (Rassamakin 1999). This period is associated with an economic shift to animal pastoralism and mixed economies in various locations of the Eurasian steppe. The emergence of specialized pastoral economies in northern Central Asia is traditionally linked to a single center of domestication in western Eurasia (Gimbutas 1965; Shnirelman 1992), although more recent radiocarbon dates obtained for the eastern steppe suggest a more localized trajectory in regional pastoral systems (Frachetti 2012). Pastoral populations focused on the rearing of sheep, goat, and cattle include Yamnaya groups (ca. 3000–2600 BC) around the Caspian Sea region, Catacomb culture (ca. 2600 BC) sites in the trans-Caucasus (Shishlina et al. 2000), and the Afanas’evo (ca. 3200–2500 BC) and Okunev groups (ca. 2500–1700 BC) around the Minusinsk and Yenesei Basins of the eastern Eurasian steppe zone (Okladnikov 1959). Pastoral campsites (dating no earlier than 2800 BC) are also found further south in southeastern Kazakhstan (Frachetti and Mar’yashev 2007; Doumani et al. 2015). Northern Eurasia is home to pastoral groups of the Botai and Tersek cultures (ca. 3600–2500 BC), with their sites spanning the Tobol and Irtysh river basins or northern Kazakhstan and Siberia (Kislenko and Tatarintseva 1999). Their subsistence economy was focused on horse rearing, milking, and meat consumption (Outram et al. 2009). Domestic economies of the Early Bronze Age, although showing that pastoral economies were present in the region by the early third millennium BC, more so highlight the varied aspects of regional herd compositions and subsistence forms, and possibly limited regional contact, for this early period.

Middle Bronze Age

The Middle Bronze Age (2500–1900 BC) in northern Central Asia signifies a shift to more intensive cattle and sheep/goat herding (Kuz’mina 2007). The horse-based economies of the earlier Botai/Tersek sites are replaced by pastoral groups focused on herding sheep, goat, cattle, and horses. Key areas of research for this period include the Sintashta settlements, or “country of towns,” comprising multiple large fortified centers and elaborate burials in the southern Ural Mountain area of Russia, and the slightly later Petrovka culture sites nearby (Gening et al. 1992). On the eastern end of the Eurasian steppe, Okunev and Kanay culture sites also continue into the Middle Bronze Age (Maksimenkov 1978). These Middle Bronze Age groups were supported by a herding economy, with no direct evidence for agriculture. Importantly, bronze metallurgy (Chernykh 1992), wheeled chariots, and elaborate horse burials (Gening et al. 1992) that appear in this period are likely key factors that contribute to widespread regional interaction and technological innovations of the ensuing second millennium BC.

The Late/Final Bronze Age

By the Late/Final Bronze Age (1900/1400–1400/1000 BC), specialized pastoral economies extend across northern Central Asia from the Ural to the Tian Shan Mountains (Kuz’mina 2007). This period is associated with a widespread economic shift to animal pastoralism, along with the emergence of agriculture in mountain settings of northern Central Asia (Doumani et al. 2015; Motuzaite Matuzeviciute et al. 2015a). The “Andronovo cultural community”—the canonical epistemological apparatus for organizing the material assemblages of the second millennium BC of Central Asia (Kuz’mina 1986)—is archaeologically represented by regionally similar styles of domestic and ritual architecture, burial traditions, and styles of bronze and ceramic objects (see Kuz’mina 2007). Andronovo material assemblages are the principal evidence for identifying the multiregional emergence of groups generally reliant on domesticated cattle, sheep, goat, and horse.

The history of archaeological research on the Andronovo cultural community extends back over a century to the late 1800s when archaeologists were finding handmade ceramic jars with linear, incised, or stamped ornamentation at excavations of cemeteries located in the southern Ural Mountains, the Kazakh steppes, and southern Siberia (Zyryanov 1881–1884; Radlov 1895). The formal similarities among these objects were not emphasized or significantly noted during those early exploratory years. It was not until the first decades of Soviet archaeological growth that Teploukhov (1927) then created the term “Andronovo culture” to define what he saw as a distinct archaeological assemblage originating in the Minusinsk Basin of Russia, with Gryaznov (1927 c.f. Kuz’mina 2007) then outlining the territorial extent of sites across central Eurasia/Central Asia. After decades of debate about the regional relationships evident within a growing assemblage of pots, burials, and bronze artifacts (see Frachetti 2008 or Kohl 2007 for overview), the prominent Soviet archaeologist Elena Kuz’mina (1986) organized the vast array of material collections into the overarching culture history, with a number of regional variants (e.g., Alakul’ and Fedorovo cultures) or subgroups (e.g., Atasu or Nurinsky cultures) defined within discrete geographic areas of Central Asia. The categories achieve a distinction between various and so-called pure (e.g., Fedorovo culture) and mixed (e.g., Semirech’ye culture) ethnic/subgroups belonging to the larger “Andronovo cultural community” (Chernikov 1960; Avanessova 1991; Koryakova and Epimakhov 2007).

Although many scholars interpret the broad geographic spread of Andronovo archaeological complexes as the product of regional migrations, there is little agreement about the timing and direction of population movements (Frachetti 2011 for overview). Some scholars (e.g., Kosarev 1974:157; Anthony 2007:448; Koryakova and Epimakhov 2007:139) connect the Andronovo culture expansion to an outward spread starting in the southern Urals in the Bronze Age, whereas others (e.g., Kuz’mina 1986, 2007:73; Stefanov and Korochkova 2006) alternatively place its origins in the Eneolithic of central Kazakhstan. A different perspective locates the starting point of migrations in the Altai Mountains over the course of the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Maksimenkov 1978; Tkacheva and Tkachev 2008), with others proposing a polyphyletic tradition (Zdanovich 1984a; Avanessova 1991). More recent contributions to this topic come from a gene sequencing project that has used prehistoric human samples to the north of Central Asia proper (Allentoft et al. 2015).

The Settled–Mobile Dichotomy in Southern Central Asia

The natural setting of southern Central Asia contains a vast array of microenvironments, including snowcapped mountains, oases, arid deserts, and steppe grasslands. The region’s intercontinental climate causes extreme contrasts in winter and summer temperatures and precipitation that made settling along the river courses and oases preferable in antiquity. The archaeological remnants of southern Central Asia’s Bronze Age host three distinct material culture assemblages, which distinguish it from the archaeological landscape of pastoralists in northern Central Asia. This includes Early Bronze Age villages, such as Sarazm; Middle Bronze Age fortified agrarian settlements of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), or Oxus Civilization and surrounding agrarian settlements; and Late/Final Bronze Age foothill settlements and pastoral campsites with ephemeral architecture dispersed along the desert edge of zones with sedentary habitation (Sarianidi 1981; Vinogradova 1994; Kohl 2007).

Since the late 1800s, archaeological investigations in the region have achieved extensive mapping of Bronze Age fortified towns, villages, and campsites (e.g., Pumpelly 1905). Following this initial exploratory chapter, in the twentieth century during the phase of Soviet rule, scholars drew from the Marxist paradigm to reconstruct the economic practices, technology, social organization, and ideological behaviors of its ancient populations (Trigger 2006 [1989]). Historically, investigations of settlements belonging to its nomadic pastoral populations have received less attention, although their stone-lined burials have been excavated quite extensively (Kohl 2007). Habitation sites of the mobile groups lack equal documentation, partly because they are less archaeologically visible (but see Cattani 2008a; Rouse and Cerasetti 2014) but also because nomadism (i.e., pastoralism) did not fit within the schema of progressive social evolution for Marxist-Soviet interpretations of history (Bondarenko et al. 2003).

Early Bronze Age

The Early Bronze Age (ca. 3500–2300 BC) in southern Central Asia comprises a small number of sedentary village sites, such as Sarazm in Tajikistan, which is known for early metallurgy, painted pottery, and a mixed agropastoral economy (Isakov 1980; Avanessova 1996). Located in the foothill zone (900 masl) of the Zerafshan valley, the fourth/third millennium BC village forms the easternmost end of a chain of agricultural villages (Namazga), such as Djeitun, that stretched from the Kopet Dag foothills to the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan (Isakov 1980; Harris 2010). The domestic economy of Sarazm included sheep- and goat-based pastoralism along with the production of multiple domestic crop species. The economy is considered a later extension of the “Southwest Asian agricultural complex” (Spengler and Willcox 2013) that is argued to have entered southern Central Asia from the Iranian Plateau during the Neolithic (Harris 2010).

Middle Bronze Age

The initial and peak phases of the BMAC occurred during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2300–1800 BC), which is seen as a period of far-reaching regional contacts and trade between Central Asia, the Arabian Gulf, the Indus Valley, and Iran (e.g., Potts 1993; Crawford and Al Sindi 1995; Meadow 2002; Possehl 2003). Since the 1970s, Sarianidi (1981) and Masimov (1981) among others have conducted large-scale excavations of key BMAC sedentary towns and villages such as Gonur, Togolok, and Kelleli-tepe located in modern-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. The urban centers mark the earliest known such occupation in southern Central Asia, with no known evidence for major populations residing in the region prior (Kohl 2007). As a result, the BMAC emergence is also linked to a process of in-migration from the Kopet Dagh piedmont zone of eastern Iran (Hiebert 1994; P’yankova 1994; Kohl 2002; Lamberg-Karlovsky 2003). The internal organization and sociopolitical structure of the Middle Bronze Age has been characterized under numerous forms of hierarchical systems of rulership (Lamberg-Karlovsky 1994, 2003; Sarianidi 2005; Salvatori 2008), but beyond this classification, its exact political structure remains unclear. The noted trade networks and social contacts between southern Central Asia and neighboring regions saw their greatest reach during the late-third millennium BC, as shown by the presence of prestigious and exotic goods in settlements that define a long interaction with early centers of civilization in the Near East, China, and India (Crawford and Al Sindi 1995; Kaniuth 2010; Luneau 2015) and through participation in a geographically broad funerary tradition that also demonstrates ideological links with societies of Sintashta sites to the north in the Trans-Urals (Kohl 2007). Whether the wide geographic distribution of material artifacts in the Middle Bronze Age is a product of direct contacts, technology transfer, or localized exchanges remains an open question.

The Late Bronze Age

The Late Bronze Age (ca. 1800–1500 BC) marks the period of BMAC decline, sociopolitical restructuring, and localization of many material traditions (Luneau 2012:8). This period is noted for syncretic institutions that draw on archaeological assemblages from towns (Namazga VI period), villages, and mobile campsites. Fortified sites are replaced by smaller disaggregated rural settlements in the steppe and piedmont zones of southwest Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan (e.g., Vakhsh, Bishkent cultures) and along the edges of the earlier fortified centers (e.g., Vinogradova 1994; P’yankova 2002). Substantial archaeological evidence for the presence of nomadic groups along the desert margins and deltas surrounding the BMAC sites dates to the mid-second millennium BC (Avanesova 1996; Cattani 2008b). Whereas the BMAC sites are linked to other well-known civilizations of antiquity, such as the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf, the nomadic campsites on account of their ceramic assemblage are grouped within the broader steppe tradition of northern Central Asia (Hiebert 2002: 241–245; Kuz’mina 2007). Direct evidence for contact between mobile pastoralists and settled farming groups includes handmade steppe coarsewares and pottery (Namazga VI) of the final BMAC phase coexisting in the mobile campsites, in larger BMAC towns, and in villages of the surrounding mountain foothill zones (Vinogradova and Lombardo 2002; Cattani 2008b; Salvatori 2008; Rouse and Cerasetti 2014). The spatial overlap of these distinct assemblages suggests some degree of interaction between BMAC/post-BMAC communities and mobile pastoralists, but the exact nature of these interactions is still being determined.

Newer Discoveries: Central Asian Economies and Blurring the Farmer–Pastoral Divide

Conventional notions on the origins and spread of Eurasian pastoralism propose a monolithic image of herding strategies and subsistence for Bronze Age populations of Central Asia. Mounting faunal data collected from regional settlement and cemetery complexes and stable isotope studies conducted on human and faunal assemblages, however, highlight greater variation in Bronze Age pastoral systems across differentiated mountain, steppe, and desert ecosystems (e.g., Anthony et al. 2005; Murphy et al. 2013; Ventresca Miller et al. 2014). They also emphasize the role and importance of familiar ecological environments as a vector for the transfer of economic systems and technological knowledge between Central Asian communities (Frachetti 2012).

Regional assessments of zooarchaeological assemblages from northern Central Asia, for example, show the relative percentage of herd species align to the contrasting environmental zones of its western and eastern regions (Bendrey 2011)—as opposed to revealing common herd structures across the area that would support the conventional argument for a single point of origin for Eurasian steppe pastoralism. Further evidence supporting the internal regional variation in herd structures at the intersite level (e.g., Frachetti and Benecke 2009; Outram et al. 2012) is also coming from geographic areas traditionally tied to a common ancestral community (Kuz’mina 2007). Mounting archaeometric and long-term occupation sequences across Central Asia further suggest independent regional developments in pastoralism starting in the Early Bronze Age (Görsdorf et al. 2001, 2004), as opposed to supporting the argument that it developed through large-scale migratory processes that spread west to east.

Recent archaeological discoveries give a more robust account of human dietary consumption beyond the understanding that Eurasian pastoralists managed herds consisting of sheep, goat, cattle, and horse. Lipids analyses (e.g., Outram et al. 2009, 2012) of internal contents of Late Bronze Age pottery vessels from central Kazakhstan, for example, suggest that some domestic animal species were consumed more for their primary products, others for their secondary products, whereas others played a role in ritual (i.e., horses). Alongside this more targeted study of pastoral consumption, an entirely new area of research has emerged in Central Asian archaeology over the past few years due to multiple discoveries of agricultural products in sites of mobile pastoralists (Spengler et al. 2014). This is largely due to that fact that floatation and paleobotanical technologies have become standard methods in excavation in Central Asia. The results transform how the agricultural–pastoral divide of northern and southern Central Asia has been perceived for decades.

Prior to a few years ago, scholars thought that Bronze Age agriculture was restricted to the sedentary centers of southern Central Asia (e.g., Sarazm and BMAC settlements). These sites show direct evidence for dry-farming production of wheat, barley, millet, and flax in the form of grains, storage areas, and farming tools (Spengler and Willcox 2013; Spengler 2015). Away from these sedentary centers, academic discussions about northern Central Asia had focused on the spread and nature of specialized herding economies across the steppe. Scholars proposed the likelihood that agriculture formed a supplementary part of the steppe economy during the Late Bronze Age (Krivtsova-Grakova 1948; Kuz’mina 2007; Baipakov 2008). But their claim was highly speculative because only piecemeal evidence was ever found, such as occasional finds of wheat and millet that were never dated, photographically documented, or described; or else supported through indirect evidence such as stone implements that only imply cultivation and grain processing behaviors. In contrast, direct evidence for farming was recorded for Iron Age sites of the mid-first millennium BC (Spengler et al. 2013).

However, less than ten years ago scholarly understandings of the Bronze Age shifted considerably when ritually deposited domesticated grains of free-threshing wheat (Triticum aestivum/turgidum) and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) were discovered in pastoral campsites of the mid-third millennium BC, in the foothill zones of southeastern Kazakhstan (Frachetti et al. 2010; Doumani et al. 2015). Offering the earliest evidence for the use of domestic crops between southern Central Asia and China, these Early Bronze Age ritual contexts imply exchange ties were in place along the mountain chains linking east and west Eurasia. This same area of southeastern Kazakhstan, at the highland campsite of Tasbas, shows that by the second millennium BC (in the Late Bronze Age), pastoralists had incorporated crop agriculture into their preexisting herding economy, with direct evidence for local cultivation of naked barley, and either cultivation or consumption of millets, free-threshing wheat, and green peas as well (Doumani et al. 2015). In addition, at the mountain site of Aigyrzhal-2 in Kyrgyzstan evidence for wheat cultivation was also documented in layers dating to the second millennium BC (Motuzaite Matuzeviciute et al. 2015a), thus hinting at the possibility that crop-based agriculture may have been fairly widepsread throughout the Tian Shan range of Central Asia by the Late Bronze Age. Stable isotope analyses of bone collagen obtained from burials in southeastern Kazakhstan also show human consumption of millet in particular (Motuzaite Matuzeviciute et al. 2015b). In southern Central Asia, mobile pastoral campsites of Turkmenistan also contain agricultural products, but whether they were locally grown or obtained through trade with nearby sedentary groups is not yet resolved (Spengler et al. 2014).

Sitting in the intermediate geographic zone between areas of known sedentary and mobile groups, Sarazm (in Tajikistan) is a possible candidate for the northeastern spread of early domesticates into northern Central Asia, once they had already spread into the region from Southwest Asia. The hundreds of years that it took to grow crops locally in northern Central Asia suggests a slow process of integration; however, testing of this hypothesis will rely on more excavations of comparative settlements along foothill zones of Central Asia and fuller reconstructions of the economy and dietary practices of these groups overall.

By contrast, direct evidence for Bronze Age crop agriculture in the steppes of northern Central Asia has not been found despite large-scale floatation efforts and stable isotope studies of bone collagen of human and faunal specimens (Hanks and Doonan 2013; Ng 2013). Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of human and animal skeletal remains instead suggest human diets consisted of domestic herd animals and freshwater fish (Lightfoot et al. 2014). The detection of C4 plants in this study could indicate some millet consumption, or else some wild plant species, but the absence of macrobotanical correlates presents a noteworthy challenge to this hypothesis. Isotopic studies conducted for the steppe zones of northern Central Asia in general indicate that groups were consuming fish alongside protein from terrestrial herd animals (Svyatko et al. 2013; Ventresca Miller et al. 2014).

Material Assemblages of Bronze Age Central Asia

Today, more so than using the culture-historical approach to materials analyses, material researchers are examining the operational aspects of craftmaking, technology systems in their social context, and evidence for material exchange (e.g., Kupriyanova 2003; Kaniuth 2010; Hanks and Doonan 2009; Luneau et al. 2011; Doumani 2014). From among the many raw materials used to craft Bronze Age objects (e.g., semiprecious minerals, worked bone, and stone artifacts) ceramics and metal objects have received the most scholarly attention, with textile studies having gained ground most recently.


The inventory of ceramic vessels attributed to Bronze Age societies of Central Asia are probably as varied as the socioeconomic, political, and ritual institutions of the groups who made them. In broadest terms, wheel-made and wheel-finished vessels are typical of the large towns of southern Central Asia, also known as Namazga Wares (Luneau 2012, 2015), whereas handmade pottery is predominantly documented in hunter-gatherer and pastoral sites of the Early Bronze Age onward. The following description focuses on handmade containers of the Middle Bronze Age to Final Bronze Age. Most often consisting of jars hosting incised, stamped, or applied decorations, these pots are published variously as “Andronovo ceramics” (Kuz’mina 2007; Koryakova and Epimakhov 2007), “handmade steppe ceramics” (Doumani 2014), and “incised coarse wares” (Cattani 2008b) and span the late third to late second millennium BC.

Jars from the Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age show open forms (“banki”), sometimes with sharply angled shoulders and pedestalled bases (Chernikov 1960). Decorations often follow a tripartite scheme with designs clustered along the rim, shoulder, and base. Vessels are stamped with pronged instruments or incised to create a range of elaborate geometric patterns. Some pots are slab-built with clay cakes or with clay ribbons formed from single or double clay layers, whereas others are coiled or formed over molds lined with textiles (Doumani 2014). Clay fabrics show a mixture of minerals, sand, grog, dung, shell, and talc (Loman 2004). Vessels of the Late/Final Bronze Age show fewer decorations; jar forms have restricted openings, and high and rounded shoulders that narrow and straighten toward the base (Zdanovich 1984b). Ornamentation is typically restricted to the rim or shoulders only. Coil appliqué ornamentation (Varfolomeev 2003) is a diagnostic decorative feature, but many of the ornament styles of the preceding period continue to be used as well. By the end of the second millennium BC (in the Final Bronze Age), containers with inflated bodies and narrow necks (“gorshki”) replace the open forms documented for earlier periods. These pots are typically burnished and either given minimal decoration with clay appendages, elaborate stamped designs, or small amounts of paint (Margulan 1979). Today, pottery classifications still rely on these basic descriptions to identify regional links between populations inhabiting different areas of Central Asia/Eurasia in the Bronze Age (e.g., Gor’yachev 2006; Karabaspakova 2011).

Technology studies of the chaîne opératoire of ceramics from pastoral campsites in southeastern Kazakhstan add new information to those earlier descriptions of regional ceramic assemblages from Central Asia (Doumani 2014; Doumani et al. 2015). Pottery spanning the late third through second millennium BC does exhibit stylistic (i.e., decorative and morphological) characteristics of the pottery-based culture-histories. Yet, outside sharing some key steps in the chaîne opératoire that develop through long periods of instruction and repetition—such as techniques of building and paste preparation—the micro-behaviors used in vessel manufacture and in the creation of surface designs show a pluralistic tradition comprising nonuniform elements of technical execution and style. The operational complexity in this regional pottery assemblage, at least, demonstrates the need for detailed analyses of production in Central Asia—in place of the macro-scale assessment of regional potteries for culture-historical groupings.

The local production of pottery in Central Asia is attested through the finds of ceramic kilns at both large sedentary and village sites (Vinogradova and Lombardo 2002), at mobile campsites (Rouse and Cerasetti 2014), and through compositional analyses of handmade coarsewares (e.g., Luneau et al. 2011; Doumani 2014). Compared to the number of primary production sites discovered for bronze metallurgy (see later discussion), production sites for steppe coarsewares are extremely hard to come by in Central Asian archaeology because the vessels were fired in open pits, and not in kiln structures (Kuzmina 1986). Middle Bronze Age ceramics of Sintashta and early Andronovo sites (late third to second millennium BC) harbor characteristics that have been linked to the work of specialized communities of potters (Kupriyanova 2003). By contrast, smaller and disaggregated settlements and campsites of the Final Bronze Age in central Kazakhstan (Loman 1997), southeastern Kazakhstan (Doumani 2014), and Turkmenistan (Rouse and Cerasetti 2014) contain potteries that on account of their nonuniform style and technological execution, imply the work of nonspecialists. As a way to investigate the broadly similar ornamentation and morphological features of these assemblages, ceramics studies going forward would benefit from greater attention to the social and environmental drivers behind potting behaviors. Coupled with technological analyses, such research investments will hopefully be able to identify the myriad social processes that may have contributed to the plurality of this craft institution across the Bronze Age.


A somewhat rare textile archive exists in Central Asia in the form of cloth imprints embedded in the surfaces of molded clay vessels from scattered archaeological contexts spanning the forest steppes of Siberia to the mountainous regions of Central Asia (e.g., Korobkova 1962; Chernai 1985). This class of material is found in sites of regional pastoralist, hunter-gatherer, and agricultural communities alike. Outside of fragmentary finds of textiles in burial contexts from northern central Eurasia (e.g., Shishlina 1999), the prints represent some of the only surviving trace of prehistoric textiles in the region. Textile-impressed pottery of Central Asia documents the utilization of cloth as a mold liner in pottery manufacture in sites of mobile pastoralists (Doumani and Frachetti 2012) and mixed farming-herding societies (Korobkova 1962; Doumani et al. 2015).

Use of spun and woven fibers in ceramic production is present in the Early Bronze Age of Kazakhstan, southern Siberia, and Tajikistan (Chernai 1985; Olsen and Harding 2008), but then becomes more widespread by the Final Bronze (see summary, Doumani and Frachetti 2012). The documented impressions describe a rich array of woven cloth hosting many varieties of interlaced structures, styles, and possibly raw materials or processing techniques. Coarsely and finely manufactured interlaced (tabby, rep, weft/warp-faced weaves) and hand-twined textiles are documented from the late third millennium BC onward, with twills appearing in southern Central Asia and southeastern Kazakhstan by the late second millennium BC.

The corpus of textile-impressed pottery occupies just a small percentage of ceramic assemblages, possibly because the associated potting technique was reserved for containers with particular functions or when quick production was needed—as molding does offer a rapid means for vessel building. Textile impressions coat the inside surface of pots around their base, the exterior surface of which is often undecorated after the Middle Bronze Age (see Vinogradov and Mukhina 1985). The plainness of those pots omits them from conventional pottery studies that focus on decorative style, and this leaves a great many textile-impressed ceramics analyzed.

Outside of the frequent recovery of spindle whorls and tablets, direct evidence for textile manufacture is rare for the Bronze Age in Central Asia (Shishlina 1999). Yet, the weaves themselves do let us infer some information about the steps used to produce them. Tabby, twined, and twill rely on different mechanical technologies and equipment. Tabbies (plain-weave interlaced textiles) can be achieved with a relativity simple loom, and twined textiles can be woven by hand. Without knowing the fibers used, we can only assume that the original textiles were produced locally in sites of mobile pastoralists, and compositional studies on some of these potsherds support this hypothesis (Doumani 2014). By contrast, twill manufacture requires a much bulkier device and complex machine, making its discovery in mobile campsites of northern Central Asia a potential indication for exchange (e.g., Doumani Dupuy et al. in review) and, if so, opens the possibility for regionally encompassing studies of textiles in the future.

Bronze Objects

In terms of its historical trajectory, in northern Central Asia, copper objects are present by the late fourth/early third millennium BC (Chernykh 1992). In southern Central Asia, tin-bronze appears during the early third millennium BC (Thornton 2007). Copper, arsenical copper, and tin-bronze then reach central China, via the northwest, by the early or mid-second millennium BC (Mei 2003). The timing and geographic route for the diffusion of bronze technology into China from the Eurasian steppes are well documented through technological and stylistic studies of bronze objects and objects related to their manufacture (Linduff and Mei 2009). A “steppe” metallurgical tradition is documented from Siberia to China (Mei 2003). The tradition includes objects of the Seima-Turbino metallurgical phenomenon (ca. 1900–1700 BC) of northern Central Asia fashioned from arsenical and tin bronze, and it includes items such as socketed axes, celts, arrowheads, and spearheads (Mei 2003). Additional bronze objects typical of Bronze Age Eurasian pastoralists also include curved knives, trumpet-shaped earrings, and mirrors (Chernykh 1992:216). Metallurgical studies comprise some of the most active and long-term areas of research for Bronze Age Central Asia, with thousands of objects from the steppes analyzed and pinned to calibrated radiocarbon dates (e.g., Chernykh 2009:115). The steppe bronzes are known for their large share of tin bronzes compared to bronzes from BMAC sites that contain much lower percentages of tin (Kaniuth 2007). In the Late Bronze Age Sapalli Culture sites of northern Bactria, bronze objects show distinct metallurgical traditions that demonstrate cultural contact between local farming and steppe groups (Vinogradova and Lombardo 2002). The nature and intensity of this contact change over the course of the Bronze Age, and this has been used to argue for shifting exchange networks and/or access to raw material sources across the period (Kaniuth 2007).

The growing picture of metal production and consumption offers some of the strongest direct evidence for an extensive regional exchange network in Bronze Age Central Asia. A number of regional centers with significant investment in bronze production have been identified across Central Asia through the discovery of mines and workshops containing remains of large chambered furnaces, metal slag, molds, unprocessed ores, and finished bronze objects. Specifically, bronze production is documented in towns and campsites of central and eastern Kazakhstan (Kadirbaev and Kurmankulov 1992), southern Central Asia (Kaniuth 2007), and southern Ural Mountains (Hanks and Doonan 2009). Production of high-quality bronze objects at sites of the Sintashta complex in the southern Urals is assigned to household workshops with predominant use of local ores suspected (Hanks and Doonan 2009; Pitman et al. 2013). In addition, the foothill zones of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in the Zerafshan Valley contain rich ore deposits (i.e., tin and copper) with multiple ancient mines (e.g., Karnab and Mushiston) that have it dubbed the “tin belt” of Central Asia (Kaniuth 2007). The earliest tin bronzes associated with these mines date to the early second millennium BC and are linked with the activities of “steppe pastoralists” on account of diagnostic steppe ceramics and tools occurring in the immediate vicinity of the mines (Boroffka et al. 2002). Metallurgical and compositional analyses also give comprehensive evidence for early contacts between the steppes of Central Asia and northwestern China (Mei 2003), as well as between different areas of Central Asia in general (Chernykh 2009). Ongoing research of Central Asian metallurgy aims to pinpoint finished objects to raw material sources, locate additional mining and production sites, identify the social mechanisms behind material distribution and exchange, and investigate the sociopolitical backdrop to the regional and dynamic bronze industry in the Bronze Age.

Materials Discussion

The mounting number of studies on the technical, social, and stylistic aspects of metal objects, ceramic vessels, and textiles of Bronze Age Central Asia highlight the operational and social complexity that underpinned the region’s material institutions. Some objects suggest regionally discrete traditions and local consumption (e.g., for pottery assemblages), whereas other objects (e.g., bronze socketed axes) give direct evidence for multiregional exchange and widescale culture contact in the Bronze Age. Chemical analyses and sourcing of metal objects discovered in different areas of Central Asia reveal a dynamic web of exchange that included finished bronze objects as well as ores. This picture is quite unlike the local production and consumption patterns implied of the ceramics data, and textiles are still in their early phase of research. Compared to the amount of primary production sites known for bronze metallurgy and BMAC ceramic kilns, production sites for steppe coarsewares and textiles are uncommon due to the technical nature of their production. Finally, materials analyses of ceramic, metal, and textiles (as gleaned from pottery impressions) discovered at sites across Central Asia suggest Bronze Age institutions of craftmaking took various forms of specialization. The social processes that shaped long-distance exchange relations, technology transfer, and institutions of craft production at the local scale are topics awaiting further investigation.


Over the past decade, archaeological research in Central Asia has recast the social history of its Bronze Age inhabitants, providing direct evidence for long-term habitation, durable economies, and material traditions. Scientific investigations of the role of ecology in shaping long-term pastoral adaptations, the nature of local and regional social interactions, and the social processes behind technology transfer and community formation are replacing the monolithic approaches to material history and social identity of past archaeological research. This article offered descriptions and interpretations on the economy and material industries of Bronze Age societies of Central Asia. It focused on the history of scholarship of the large BMAC towns and later villages of southern Central Asia, archaeological evidence for interaction between settled and mobile groups of the region, and on the origins and nature of pastoral economies of northern Central Asia (often appearing in the literature as the “Eurasian steppe zone”). Topics awaiting more attention include the role of sites like Sarazm for shaping later regional economies; reasons for the BMAC decline; origins of multiregional pastoral systems from the Early Bronze Age onward; extent of sedentary-mobile interactions; dietary practices of groups inhabiting its varied ecological zones; and the nature of social relationships that facilitated similar technologies of production and multiregional exchange in material objects across the region in prehistory.


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