A Formerly Buried Trove of 4,000-Year-Old Artifacts Is Leaving Turkmenistan for the First Time

The show at the Neues Museum—a diplomatic and curatorial coup—was many years in the making.

Woman in everyday Turkmen clothes in New Nisa, 2018© Herlinde Koelbl

In 1972, a more than 4,000-year-old city was discovered buried in a valley in Turkmenistan—which, at the time, was the poorest of the Soviet Union’s republics. Now, more than 200 of these unearthed Bronze age artifacts have left the country for the first time to go on view at the Neues Museum in Berlin. “Margiana: A Bronze Age Kingdom in Turkmenistan” (through October 7) is the first show of its kind ever held outside of the Central Asian country.

The display of antiquities from the ancient city of Gonur Tepe, which date from the third to the second millennium BC, is not only an unprecedented achievement and curatorial coup. It is also a testament to warming political relations between Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government and the West. It took more than five years of careful discussions to even begin putting the show together.

Several museums had tried and failed to borrow these objects in the past, the exhibition’s co-curator Manfred Nawroth told artnet News. “I can’t say why it was successful in this particular case,” he said. “I think the main thing was building up trust between partners.”

Considering the high demand for the objects, what took so long? In addition to the political obstacles, Nawroth notes that Turkmenistan, like other former Soviet countries, has until recently been focused on defining its own identity and nationality internally rather than globally. The country, which is now rich in recently discovered oil and gas reserves, finds itself at a critical juncture, “caught between tradition and modernity,” according to the exhibition’s press release.

The nation also doesn’t have the easiest neighbors, with Iran to the south and Afghanistan to the east. Nawroth suggests the nation’s physical location may have contributed to its somewhat isolationist stance and caution in allowing its cultural heritage to travel abroad.

The Neues Museum began its exchange with the Turkmenistan government back in early 2013. The working relationship developed very slowly, he says, with every step in the process subject to careful negotiations. “In the first years, I always had to send my letters of request to the German embassy and they would then send it to the department of foreign affairs, then it would go on to their ministry of culture,” he recalled.

Gonur Tepe © Herlinde Koelbl.

Most of the objects in the exhibition come from Gonur Tepe, a massive site that sprawls across nearly 70 acres. At its peak, it was a stop along the Silk Road and a massive trade center for handcrafts. The hub was home to a palace complex, several districts for different trades, and even complex water systems with ceramic piping. The artisan objects made there have an incredible sophistication and intricate detail. “They were really were connected with the rest of the world, and this discovery brought it up to the map,” Narwoth said.

Perhaps most exquisite of all the finds came from what are believed to be royal burial sites. These grave artifacts are also on view in the exhibition, including intricately decorated jewelry, small ritual objects, and items some scholars believe to be toys. There is also a life-size ceremonial carriage.

Soviet archaeologist Victor Sarianidi originally discovered Gonur Tepe in 1972. The find is so vast that excavations are still ongoing today.

“We have a city on a site that was like a black hole in our minds—we thought there was nothing,” Narwoth said. “If you look on the map, it’s not far to Iran or Mesopotamia and you have valleys to India, but no one was even thinking about these places or how they played a role.”

After Berlin, the exhibition will travel to the German cities of Hamburg and Mannheim. “I think there is a good chance that if we have a successful exhibition here and at a few venues around Germany, the Turkmen side will open to further countries,” he said.

“Margiana: A Bronze Age Kingdom in Turkmenistan” will be on view until October 7, 2018, at the Neues Museum in Berlin. See more objects from the exhibition below.

Installation view of the exhibition Margiana. A Bronze Age Kingdom in Turkmenistan. With photographs by Herlinde Koebl. Neues Museum © Photo by David von Becker

Steinerner Pokal, Gonur Depe. On loan from Turkmenistan State Museum, Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Necklace with lapis lazuli pearls, Gonur Depe. On loan from the Turkmenistan State Museum, Aschgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Gonur Depe reconstructed area of the palace © Herlinde Koelbl.

Ornamental needle depicting a “Bactrian camel” Gonur Depe. On loan from the State Museum of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Clay figurine from Gonur Depe. On loan from the Turkmenistan State Museum, Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Gonur Depe constructed area of the palace. © Herlinde Koelbl.

Gonur Depe, Royal Necropolis. Reconstruction of a tomb. © Herlinde Koelbl

Grand Ax in the shape of a rooster head Gonur Depe. On loan from the Turkmenistan State Museum, Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Figurine of a bird of prey from Gonur Depe. On loan from the State Museum of Turkmenistan,
Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Gonur Depe Central fortified area © Herlinde Koelbl

Ceramic seated figures from Gonur Depe Detail. On loan from the State Museum of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl.

Figurine from Gonur Depe. On loan from the Museum of Fine Arts Turkmenistan, Ashgabat © Herlinde Koelbl

 


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