1996 Laureate, Cultural Heritage
United Kingdom, Born 1937
"I was determined never to direct a dig," says Georgina Herrmann, co-director of the team that is uncovering the history of the ancient cities of Merv in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. "The politics, the people, the problems, the flak, the fund-raising, the dependence on others," she recounts, was something she would do everything to avoid. Ironically — but most fortuitously for the world of archaeology — this sharp and unusually determined lady failed completely in her wish.
In 1991, Herrmann, a reader at University College London (UCL), was presented with the unparalleled opportunity to create the basic archaeological framework for Merv, a series of medieval cities in the Kara Kum desert. "Despite decades of work by Soviet scholars," she explains, "the cities of ancient Merv, once more famous than Samarkand and Bukhara, were now forgotten."
Quite unexpectedly, a whole series of events and factors came together to make archaeological investigation of the city possible. First, perestroika percolated through the Soviet Union, and Merv became accessible to the west. Secondly, a brilliant, hard-working Turkmen archaeologist named Kakamurad Kurbansakhatov helped Herrmann and colleague St John Simpson set up the International Merv Project, which assured a sound organisational footing for the work.
Thirdly, Herrman applied her considerable dynamism to fund-raising. She discovered that once charitable foundations were told about Merv’s potential, funds were often forthcoming. Funding came from many sources, including the National Geographic Society in the United States, the British Academy, the British Museum, the British Institute of Persian Studies and the Max van Berchem Foundation, based in Geneva.
Help from Afar
In 1996, Herrmann became a Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. "We have been lucky to obtain so much funding, and to win a Rolex Award," says Herrmann. "Prior to this, few had ever heard of Merv. Now — thanks largely to the publicity provided by Rolex — many have, and there has been a small flood of articles in the popular press."
Finally, Herrmann, who has a keen eye for talent, was able to assemble an international team whose quality and broad experience are uncommon. It includes her co-director St John Simpson of the British Museum, French military historian Pierre Brun, Russian archaeologist Volodya Zavyalov, and Austrian ceramic specialist Gabriele Puschnigg.
Merv, Key to Control
So what makes Merv so special? The city lies on the northern route of the famous Silk Road, the key trade route which once linked east and west. "Merv was an essential staging post for those travelling between north-east Iran and eastern Asia and China," says Herrmann. In its earliest period, after the mid-sixth century BC, a city known today as Erk Kala and Gyaur Kala, of 360 hectares, successively became the eastern capital and garrison city of three Iranian empires.
"Merv was a barometer of power," says Herrmann. "Whoever controlled Merv — east or west — controlled the region." Herrmann says migration to Merv’s second city, Sultan Kala, began when the affluent left the densely populated, industrial heart of the old city and set up in more pleasant suburbs. This marked the beginning of the high point of this centre, and between the 10th and early 13th centuries Merv flourished.
Silkworms from China created a prosperous fabric industry. The city was filled with palaces and gardens, fruit groves and streams. The impressive libraries of ancient Merv were fabulously endowed, attracting scholars from all over the world, including the famous astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam.
A substantial dam and irrigation system gave life to the city. The huge mausoleum complex of Sultan Sanjar was built, whose central dome still survives, and whose outlines have only recently been established. Merv, along with Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, rose to become one of the most important cities of Islam.
A City Destroyed
Then, in 1221 and 1222 AD — in three terrible sweeps — the Mongols arrived, unleashing one of the greatest catastrophes of the medieval world. Tens of thousands were slaughtered. The Mongols looted the city, destroyed the dam on the Murghab river and laid waste to anything they could not carry away. One scholar wrote that it was a "great disaster, the like of which neither day or night had brought forth before."
Two centuries after the Mongols left, a much smaller third centre was built, Abdullah Khan Kala, but the site spanned just 40 hectares and underlined Merv’s relative decline.
From an archaeological point of view, Merv is highly significant. Unlike other great cities of the past, Merv’s walled urban centres were not built on top of each other, but next to one other — with each new hub moving a short distance west or south. The three cities of Merv, therefore, provide evidence of three distinct periods of history.
"Compared with other Asian sites, Merv offers exceptional access to earlier periods," says Herrmann. "Unlike the "layer cakes" of Troy, Jerusalem or Damascus, it is unoccupied, and also relatively free of vegetation or sand."
The International Merv Project has concentrated on basics: the establishment of an archaeological framework. The latest global positioning systems and satellite technology has been harnessed to record precise dimensions of city and monument layouts. In 1994, NASA’s Space Shuttle flew over Merv to take high-resolution pictures. These and other satellite images have not only created beautifully colourful images of the city but are also incredibly accurate — to within 10 metres.
Having completed seven full seasons on site, the International Merv Project has come up with extraordinary and unexpected finds — including one which shook the world of archaeo-metallurgy. Team member Anne Feuerbach found tiny amounts of steel in the slag of what appeared to be highly fired crucibles. To Feuerbach’s delight, tests in the UK confirmed the team’s hopes: they had found the earliest-known Islamic crucible steel foundry. Later, four closed-top steel furnaces were excavated.
Medieval craftsmen had perfected processes of high temperature (1200°C) co-fusion steel making — mostly for weapons — in which wrought iron and cast iron were heated together. Historians had presumed this technology was discovered only in the late-19th century by Sheffield forge masters, although it is described in Islamic texts.
Research by Turkmen colleagues in recent years has caused another upset in established thinking. They have unearthed evidence that Merv continued to be inhabited after the Mongol massacre, a fact which has been confirmed by Herrmann’s teams but one which contradicts written historical records.
The wealth of new knowledge being uncovered extends to agriculture. Seed samples found on site have revealed that cotton was grown as early as the fifth century AD, centuries earlier than previously thought.
A Mass of Evidence
The team has also collected a mass of evidence, such as ceramic fragments and bones, which reveals with extraordinary precision the day-to-day lives of the people, including precise details of what they ate. The sites have yielded thousands of shards, or fragments of pots, sometimes inscribed, and hundreds of coins.
The finds are well-deserved, for work at Merv can be daunting. There is only a narrow timeframe — about eight weeks beginning in September — when the temperature is sufficiently bearable to work outdoors, and when the ground is dry enough for digging.
"The logistics are horrific," Herrmann explains. "We take all that we need." Every drop of drinking water, for example, needs to be sourced from towns that are a six-hour drive away.
If drinking water is scarce at Merv, groundwater — unfortunately — is not. In fact, water is present-day Merv’s fatal flaw. Irrigation canals built under Soviet development plans brought huge quantities of water to the district for cotton-growing. The consequent rise in the water-table has caused the fabric of the medieval structures to disintegrate at an alarming rate. Architecture that has lasted a millennium may not survive much longer.
Merv’s best-surviving architecture is crumbling away. One wall of the magnificent Little Kiz Kala monument has collapsed since 1990, and rising damp has etched a deep undercut groove into the base of remaining walls.
Worse still, the once barren landscapes are being invaded and concealed under a cover of scrub vegetation. Lastly, illegal tipping of urban waste and the spread of modern housing of the town of Bairam Ali is threatening the integrity of Merv’s third city of Abdullah Khan Kala.
"The 60-odd existing monuments at Merv are unique," Herrmann says. "Nothing like them has survived elsewhere."
To help save the monuments, Herrmann has been closely involved in Turkmenistan’s application to UNESCO for World Heritage Status for the Merv site — a long and relatively complex process. The application was submitted by the Ministry of Culture in September 1998, and a response is expected sometime this summer. If successful, it could open the way to much-needed large-scale funding.
Building from the Known
So what was it that first drew Georgina Herrmann to archaeology? Herrmann joined the Foreign Office as a secretary and was posted to Iran in the late 1950s. One evening a group from the embassy visited an ancient site at Hasanlu, in north-west Iran, set near a lovely lake. "There was intense moonlight," recalls Herrmann, "and the sight of the monuments was extraordinarily romantic. I decided there and then that archaeology was what I wanted to do."
In those days, gaining entry to university without qualifications was difficult, if not impossible. By chance, she met a professor from London University who was setting up the British Institute of Persian Studies. He arranged for Herrmann to take a post-graduate diploma at the university — even though she had no degree. She completed the three-year course in two years, with distinction.
In 1963 she embarked on doctoral work at Oxford University on the subject of the lapis lazuli trade in the ancient Near East. "Since 5000 BC, the blue stone had apparently been mined from a single source in north-east Afghanistan and traded as far west as Mesopotamia," says Herrmann. "I doubted this was possible, but my research showed that it was very probable."
Her brand of intellectual honesty would stand her in good stead in the years to come, but the 1980s were a bad time for any archaeologists interested in Iran and Central Asia.
The mullahs closed Iran for two decades, and the Soviet states to the east remained a "black hole". But under Gorbachev, tensions eased. On a whirlwind trip in 1991 to various sites in Central Asia— from Ashgabad to Almaty — organised by UNESCO, Herrmann and Simpson met up with local archaeologists who offered them carte blanche to work in the region.
Quite suddenly, an opportunity emerged that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. Herrmann and Simpson quickly chose Merv. But why? "One of the rules of archaeology is to build from the known to the unknown," she said. "We chose a site with links to Iran, so it would provide an extension to our specialist knowledge."
Much More to Do
In 1992, in collaboration with Turkmen colleagues directed by Kurbansakhatov, work at Merv began. The project is now in its eighth season, and Herrmann emphasises the fact that while on-site investigations have — quite literally — only scratched the surface, there is also much to be done to analyse the mass of evidence already collected, and to publish the results.
Herrmann fully intends to write her own book on Merv, whose working title is Forgotten City, when time permits. Currently, however, she is preoccupied with another publication, the first of three academic volumes on Merv’s monuments. This first volume will be ready to go to press in May, and will include a synopsis in Russian. Herrmann has also co-authored a visitor’s guide to the ancient monuments, in both English and Russian.
This September she will journey once again to Merv to uncover yet more of its vast, cosmopolitan history. It will be her fourteenth trip to the region. "There are 1,200 hectares of history here," she said. "Nothing has been searched properly yet, nor do we have any idea what may lie buried underground."
How ironic that a person who swore never to direct a dig would find herself in charge of one of the most exacting, remote and enduring quests in modern archaeology.
Published in 1999