2018 Excavations at the highland urban center ‘Tashbulak’

 Frachetti 0



The Archaeological Research of the Qarakhanids (ARQ) project began in 2015[1] under the updated collaborative agreement between the Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis (USA) and the Institute of Archaeology of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, signed in 2014. The primary aim of this collaborative research is to investigate the ecology, chronology, environmental history, and cultural landscape of mountain pastoralists living in the Malguzar Range of Pamir Mountain System located within the borders of Jizzakh Province of Uzbekistan, and more specifically to understand the development of high altitude urban sites in the medieval period (9th -12 th c. CE). The primary objectives of the 2018 field season were as follows:

  • to determine the chronology, nature of occupation, and architectural development and technology of the citadel mound at the urban site of Tashbulak, which is located at 2100 m elevation in the Malguzar Mountain Range.
  • to complete topographic mapping of Tashbulak and the newly discovered urban center of Tugunbulak using drone technology.

The ARQ project field season started on July 2, 2018. The project leadership in 2018 consisted of the following members:

  • Michael D. Frachetti, Ph.D., Co-director ARQ, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis (USA)
  • Farhod Maksudov, Ph.D., Co-director ARQ, Director, Institute of Archaeology Academy of Sciences, Uzbekistan

The 2018 field season was funded by a research grants from the Max van Berchem Foundation and Washington University in St. Louis (PI: Michael Frachetti). Logistical and institutional support was provided by the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Science, Samarkand Uzbekistan as stipulated in the agreement (dogovor).


Previous work (2011-2017):

The site of Tashbulak was discovered by Farhad Maksudov and Michael Frachetti using satellite imagery and field survey as part of the Zaamin Archaeological Pilot Project in 2011. Tashbulak is located in the highlands of the Malguzar Mountain Range at approximately 2100 meters above sea level, in a border territory protected by the Military of Uzbekistan (Figure 1). Border permits were obtained to conduct fieldwork at the site in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, and subsequently permissions were granted. Geophysics (magnetometry and Ground Penetrating Radar) carried out in 2013 and 2105 illustrated the large-scale construction of a town with a core area of roughly 7 ha, as well as a large cemetery associated with the settlement (Figure 2). Excavations in 2012, 2015, and 2017 provide considerable information about the chronology of architecture along with the site’s cemetery, which illustrate an early introduction of Islam amongst highland communities associated with Tashbulak (Bullion et al. forthcoming).


Overview of results of the 2018 season:

The archaeological results of our 2018 field campaign provide new data that help to understand the development of political, social, and economic, development of the site of Tashbulak, and the emergence of the Qarakhanid Khanate (10th -12th c. CE). The main aim of our study in 2018 was to obtain in situ material to date the the earliest foundation of the citadel mound at Tashbulak, and to relate the central archaeological and architectural development with other core sectors across the town. To achieve this goal, we conducted two adjacent area excavations at the center of the citadel mound – which was identified by geophysical survey in 2015, and archaeological test excavations in 2013 and 2015 (see previous reports, also Maksudov et al. 2019) (Figure 2a & b).

In overview, the 2018 excavations of the citadel mound demonstrate that the citadel structure, which we interpret as a palatial residence, had three architectural phases. The first (and earliest) architectural constructions were built directly on exposed bedrock, and subsequently the citadel residence was reconstructed, largely preserving the orientation and layout of the initial structure. Comparing the stratigraphic data from the citadel excavations with the earliest documented architecture from across the site and the first burials documented in the cemetery, we conclude that the citadel was built as part of the initial construction phase at Tashbulak. Given the co-occurence of all the sites sectors at this early phase, we propose that Tashbulak was established as a planned urban center that included the citadel, workshops, and necropolis. Coins and diagnostic ceramics were excavated in the citadel structure and date the palatial building as early as the start of the 9 th c. CE, and the citadel continues to be occupied at least until the first centuries of the 12 th c. CE. This multiphase architectural sequence suggests a long occupation of the town, ultimately spanning numerous political regimes in the lowland territories. The C14 chronological details of the 2018 season are still forthcoming, but the stratigraphically in-situ materials along with coins and construction technology also confirm that the city was built and occupied before the region came under the political control of the Qarakhanid Khanate, and actually persisted minimally from the late Samanid period into the Qarakhanid phase 9th-12th c.

Economically, the occupants of Tashbulak were engaged in herding of sheep and cattle as shown by the recovery of archaeozoological remains. Further details concerning the archaeozoological material awaits a forthcoming comprehensive analysis. Imported trade commodities were recovered in the citadel structures including foods such as fruits, nuts, and lowland grain staples, like wheat and barley (Spengler et. al 2018). Abundant handmade ceramics trace the local production of ceramics by highland communities, while a small percentage of glazed fine-wares, a silver and glass ring, beads, and iron weapons/ tools together illustrate the diverse production and trade that fostered the city of Tashbulak from its earliest phases of construction to its collapse in the 12 th c. CE. On the basis of the archaeological excavations carried out in 2018, we conclude the citadel mound fell into disuse sometime in the early 12 th c. CE, with only ephemeral and episodic occupation by later populations – likely in the 15-16 th c.


General coordinate system & recording methods:

The area of investigation around Tashbulak was divided into a bi-scalar, site-wide grid system. The large-scale grid units are 10m x 10m ‘quadrats’ which cover the entirety of the site area. They are labeled in the north-south direction using letters (A-Z…) and numerically in the east-west direction (1-33…) (Figure 3a). Thus, any given 100m2 area can be designated with the following nomenclature: Z16 (Quadrat row ‘Z” and Quadrat column ‘16’). Within each quadrat, the site is further divided into small-scale 1m x 1m grids, in this case with each column labeled using lowercase letters ‘a-j’ in the east-west direction and each row labeled with numbers 1-10 in the north south direction.

Using this site-wide quadrat/grid system, any archaeological find can be located in local space (within a 1x1m grid) and in the overarching 10m quadrat grid as follows: ‘Z16-d2’. This would place the find in quadrat Z16, grid square d-2. The 2018 excavations were carried out in conformity with visible (cultural) stratigraphic layers (rather than arbitrary depths); individual contexts were assigned sequentially to soil horizons and archaeological features. When cultural materials (ceramic sherds, animal bones etc.) were recovered they were bagged in separate bags, labeled by context number and the 1x1m excavation grid location where they were found.

In this system, each archaeological feature (soil layer, floor, hearth, wall, pit, post-hole, etc.) received its own context number. New contexts were assigned when new features or soil horizons were uncovered. Context numbers thus describe both the stratigraphic levels as well as anthropogenic features recovered throughout the excavation operation. Arbitrary stratigraphic levels were only used in cases when it was necessary to divide thick fill levels for vertical control. Excavators dug with trowels and had high recovery rates of cultural material, including animal bone, ceramics, metal slag, glass, etc.

To locate finds according to their vertical or stratigraphic position, each find is given a numerical “context” number, which refers to the cultural layer or archaeological context within which it was found. For example, a label ‘Z16-d2-10’ refers to material located in quadrat Z16, minor grid d2, and context 10 (contexts are unique within each designated archaeological quadrat). A “Total-station” laser theodolite was used to record context depths and surfaces throughout the operation and to record the three-dimensional position (X,Y,Z) of important finds (radiocarbon samples and special artifacts). So, while “context” numbers may be duplicated within each trench, when combined with their grid label, the lable nomenclature refers to a discrete XYZ location that can be related across the entire site.

Special finds (SF) and organic samples for carbon dating (CB) were labeled according to their grid location, as well as with a sequential, unique number (e.g. SF-002 or CB-003). Soil samples were taken for flotation and archaeobotanical study and labeled using (FS) (flotation sample), with a unique sequential identifier.

Stratigraphic contexts, archaeological phases, and artifacts were documented using 3D stereometric photographs, which were digitized and combined and georeferenced within Agisoft Photoscan software to produce plan views and 3D images of the excavations. Radiocarbon sampling was conducted throughout the stratified contexts of the excavation trenches, and 10 samples were submitted to the NOSAMS laboratory for analysis.

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Figure 1a: The location of Tashbulak


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Figure 1b: Site Area of Tashbulak


Frachetti Fig 2a

 Figure 2a: Architectural plan of Tashbulak from Ground Penetration Radar Survey. Subsurface walls are shown in black


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Figure 2b: Detailed view of the citadel


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Figure 3a: Location of 2018 excavation quadrats (Z16 & Y17) (North Arrow is "Grid North" in this Figure)


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Figure 3b: Placement of Trench areas Z16 and Y17.(North Arrow is “Grid North” in this Figure).



2.1 Archaeology of the citadel mound, Quadrats Z16 and Y17

Report by Michael Frachetti, Farhad Maksudov, and Ann Merkle

2.1.1 Overview

The 2015 geophysical survey revealed a large central structure on the mounded portion of the town, which we identified in 2015 excavations as a fortified residential structure or palace (Maksudov et. al, 2019). In 2018 we placed two trenches, each measuring 10 x 10m, at the center of the citadel mound, oriented north to south to intercept what appeared as a central room feature in the GPR map (Figure 4). The first trench fell into quadrat Z16, and the second fell into Y17 (Figure 3b). The main goal of these two trenches was to determine the developmental chronology and occupation history of the main citadel structure at Tashbulak, and to relate the construction of the citadel building to relevant archaeological materials.

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Figure 4. Overview of excavavations on citadel mound, 2018. Trenches measure 10mX10m each

2.1.2 Archaeological excavations of trench Z16:

Architecture of the central residence:

The structural remains uncovered in trench Z16 can be characterized as stone foundations of a residential structure. Foundations are build using parallel coursing of faced stone, filled and mortared with a mud fill and surmounted by sun dried mudbrick. Remains of wood lattice built into the foundation, faced with mud daub, suggesting that the interior walls were mud-plastered giving the walls a smooth appearance. The foundations exposed in Z16 correspond to a row of rectilinear residential rooms. The central wall line defines the western edge of a N-S corridor, with an adjacent z-shaped room to the east. This area appears to have two entrances to the north and south (Figure 5). We interpret the main function of the open area to the west of the central wall in Z16 (areas a1-e6) to be a common courtyard or summer kitchen area. This space was not excavated as deeply as the neighboring section of the trench, and only a few ephemeral post supports were documented in the upper layers.

Frachetti Fig 5

Figure 5: Trench Z16, with 1 x1 m grid layout. Contexts 13-20 (final levels).

Three storage areas built in the form of a rectangular shelf, or sufa, were documented on the western exterior of the central wall feature (e5-g2). Within these structures we recovered a dense cluster of in situ ceramic vessels including serving jugs, pitchers, cups and pots, indicating the likley function of these structures as storage boxes for food and drink (Figure 6a, b).

Frachetti Fig 6a

Figure 6a: In situ ceramic vessels within storage area, Z16- e5-g2, Ctx 5-6.

Frachetti Fig 6b

Figure 6b: Detail of ceramic cache:

Adjacent to these storage structures was a fire pit structure, made of highly burned clay remincent of a tandoor (assuming the upper domed portion had collapsed) (Figure 7). The area surrounding the circular oven contained abundant ash deposits. At the bottom of the clay oven was recovered an iron implement, interpreted as a sickle blade.

 Frachetti Fig 7

Figure 7: Circular clay oven (base), Z16-f2, CTX 19.

Artifacts and key finds from Z-16:

The cluster of whole ceramic vessels recovered from Z-16 provides an excellent view of assorted handmade kitchen vessels, service ware, and jugs used in the citadel residence (Figure 7, a, b, d). A coin recovered from j6, context 3 can be dated to the mid 10th c. CE (Figure 8). A number of beads recovered throughout the trench further suggest the occupation space was that of elite members of the city (Figure 9, e). Two small handmade, slip-painted pottery animal figurines, one of a saddled horse and the other a bird, were also recovered in Z16 -- perhaps representing toys or possibly decorative effigies (Figure 9 a, g).

Frachetti Fig 7abcd

Figure 7 : Full vessel forms, handmade fabric with slip painting from Tashbulak (2018)

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Figure 8 : Coin recovered from Z16, Tashbulak citadel excavations (2018)

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Figure 9: Assorted Small Finds from Tashbulak (2018).

2.1.3 Archaeological excavations of trench Y17:

Trench Y17 provided important resolution to our questions concerning the chronology and sequence of occupation phases of the citadel mound, and the site of Tashbulak more generally. The architectural remains exposed in Y17 illustrate a minimum of three significant rebuilding phases of citadel, dating from the late 9th-early 12th c. CE (Figure 10 & 11).

Frachetti Fig 10

Figure 10: Architectural remains, trench Y17

The earliest phase of construction correlates with a wide oval-sided structure, which appears to extend across the trench in a east-west direction. The room space extends north from the wall foundation, which itself roughly 1.6 m in depth. The phase-1 room is divided by a central wall segement, oriented N-S (Figure 11) . The phase-1 wall segment has a two-course stone foundation surmounted by discrete and identifiable mud-bricks, of which roughly two courses remained in situ atop the stone foundation. The phase-1 living floor and domestic hearth were uncovered a depth of roughly 2m from the surface, defining the earliest stratigraphic context at Tashbulak (Figure 12 a, Context 15/16).

The second building phase evident in Y-17 is defined by a quadalateral room oriented N-S, with the southern portion exposed in the trench (Figure 12 a, b). The deep foundation walls were between .6 and 1.2 meters in height, with clear channels where wooden framing was build into the stone - presumably to support the mudbrick walls and wooden beams for the roof.

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Figure 11 : Construction phases of the citadel, trench Y17

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Figure 12a : Y17 Lower floor details, view westward (Tashbulak 2018)

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Figure 12, b: Y17 Lower floor details, isometric view from above (Tashbulak 2018)

The Phase-3 architecture consists of a major reconstruction of the citadel residence, with wall foundations surmounting both earlier phases. While the general alignment of the walls was retained, the new walls defined larger, more palatial rooms, presumably with vaulted ceilings given the vast open room areas. Greater erosion and lack of in-situ remains makes this phase of the citadel’s architecture more difficult to reconstruct.


Artifacts and imported ceramics from Y17:

A number of important artifacts were recovered from the residential rooms excavated in Y17. First, a rare silver ring with glass inlay was found in the center of the phase-2 occupation space (Figure 9, f). The ring is decorated with vegetal designs, sized for a small hand (presumably for a child or female). A handle fragment of a green glazed oil lamp was also found, with clear analogies known from neighboring urban centers across the Qarakhanid realm (Figure 13, f). Glazed pottery with epigraphic designs was also recovered from Y17, illustrating trade items from pottery centers such as Afrosiab, Penjikent, or Aksiket (Figure 13, c, e)


Preliminary Conclusions:

The archaeology from trench areas Z16 and Y17 permitted a number of preliminary conclusions about the construction and collapse of the citadel structure (in the area excavated).

  1. The natural bedrock outcrop of the citadel mound was leveled using local gravel and sand and prepared for the construction of the stone foundations of the citadel.
  2. The foundations of citadel building were constructed of multiple courses of flagstones, mortared with mud.
  3. Though little in situ mud brick remained on the walls, it is clear that the superstructure of the citadel building was constructed of mudbrick.
  4. The building of the citadel were regularly remodeled, with a general orientation of the rooms and walls preserved through time.
  5. The center of the room contained a large, mudbrick lined hearth or fireplace.

The chronology of the citadel building appears to be continuous from the earliest construction phase to the collapse. On the basis of the glazed ceramic forms recovered in Z16 and Y17 (and in agreement with chronological data from both c14 and coinage at the site) the earliest occupation of the citadel can be dated to the 8th c until the early 12th c. CE (derived from Baysian modelling of reported C14 dates, Appendix 1).

Frachetti Fig 13

 Figure 13: Glazed pottery fragments from Tashbulak (2018)

Dr. Michael Frachetti and Dr. Farhad Maksudov

*with contributions by team specialists indicated


Appendix 1: C14 results from 2018 excavations (unmodelled, calibrated AMS dates):

Frachetti appendix 1 2


Submitter idendification


Accession #

Age BP

Age Err


CB -11, TBK-Z16-g5-16






CB-14, TBK-Z16-i3-15






CB-17, TBK-Y17-d10-10






CB-25, TBK-Z16-e6-18






CB-28, TBK-Z16-f8-23






CB-30, TBK-Y17-f8-11






CB-40, TBK-Y17-b7-14






CB-42, TBK-Y17-e6-16







Appendix 2: List of Contexts in Z16:






Under turf layers


N-S running wall bisecting the SE 2/3s of the 10x10


Under mudbrick overall


Inside NE quadrant room


Triangular wedge between CTX 2 and W wall ~1m x 4m – extends to



Mud layer under CTX 3


NW qdt, powdery grey dirt, very little material, a6:e6; a10:e10


Ash layer in row 1, h:? – soil sample from g1/h1 08.


Hearth/burn feature in CTX 4 – took carbon and soil s. h8 09


Wall feature beginning in CTX 5, soil and carbon s.s taken


Burn feature in CTX 5, soil and carbon samples taken


Compact _loor-like area under CTX 8 in g1


Compact ash/charcoal/ceramic dotted *possible* _loor level under

CTX 6, g/h 1 / 2 (g1 01, h1 01, g2 02, h2 02)


Circular burned mudbrick feature in _loor under CTX 8, radiates into f2


SE qdt room, i1:j2; i4:j5


Central east room, h4-5; g8:h8


NE qdt room, under CTX 4


Under CTX 5, under ash layer – sword blade? Carbon sample


Ring of burned mud in F02 under/in CTX 05


Ring of burned mud in f01 in CTX 05


Compacted ash/charcoal feature in CTX 07, e/f 10


Compacted ash/burn feature in f/g 1, under CTX 17 in CTX 12


Ashy charcoal layers in NE qdt, N of CTX 17 and 15, under 06. Likely

bioturbation, will keep the # but is still essentially still 06.


Appendix 3 Artifacts and key archaeological findings.

Table 1: Special Finds Recovered in 2018.

Frachetti appendix 3aFrachetti appendix 3b 

[1] This project is a continuation of previous collaborations: “Zaamin Archaeological Pilot Project” (ZAPP 2011) and the “Malguazar Uzbek-American Archaeological Research” project (MALGUZAAR 2012-2014).