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Altyn Tepe [Altyn-Depe]locked

  • V. M. Masson

Site of Neolithic and Bronze Age activity near Mian, 150 km south-east of Ashkhabad, in southern Turkmenistan. The site of 25 ha, surrounded by a further tract (w. 30 m) of cultivated land, was extensively excavated in 1965–6 by the Academy of Sciences, southern Turkmenistan, and the Institute of Archaeology, Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg. Altyn Tepe exemplifies the gradual development from a farming culture to an urban centre. The earliest layers, dating from the 5th millennium bc, contained bronze objects and ceramics with large geometric designs, similar to those from Namazga I (a comparable settlement also in southern Turkmenistan). From the end of the 4th millennium bc, the greatly expanded settlement was fortified with a mud-brick wall and rectangular towers. Typical finds of this period include polychrome ceramics of the Geoksyur type, limestone vessels, flat seals, and statuettes of women with ornate hairstyles. During the 3rd millennium bc, specialized trades developed: pottery was made on the wheel, while copper and bronze mirrors, pins, daggers and other items were widely produced. Sanctuaries had oval altars, and mass burials were placed in mud-brick tombs. By the end of this millennium, monumental gates with two turreted pylons, and an artisans’ quarter had been built. In the separate quarter for the nobility, lavish burials were found containing ornaments and seals of bronze, silver and gold. In the centre of the city was a religious complex that had a monumental stepped tower similar to the ziggurats of Sumer. A tomb in this complex appears to have been dedicated to a lunar god resembling the Mesopotamian Nanna and contained numerous gold, silver, azurite and turquoise ornaments and gold heads of wolves and bulls, the latter with inset azurite crescents on their foreheads. Finds of inscribed Harappan seals and ivory objects provide evidence of close links with the Indian site of Harappa in this period. Altyn Tepe belonged to a group of highly developed cultures of the 3rd millennium bc and early 2nd, which stretched from Mesopotamia to India. By the middle of the 2nd millennium bc Altyn Tepe had been completely abandoned, but its cultural traditions can be traced at sites in the delta of the Murgh River and the central Amu River valley (later Bactria), where part of the population seems to have resettled.


  • V. M. Masson and V. I. Sarianidi: Sredneaziatskaya terrakota epokhi bronzy [Central Asian terracottas of the Bronze Age] (Moscow, 1973)
  • V. M. Masson: ‘Altyn-Depe and the Bull Cult’, Antiquity, 50/1 (1976), pp. 14–19
  • V. M. Masson: Altyn-Depe (Leningrad, 1981); Eng. trans. by H. N. Michael (Philadelphia, 1988)
  • V. M. Masson: ‘The Proto-Bactrian Group of Civilisations in the Ancient East’, Antiquity, 62/238 (1988), pp. 536–41