Greater Mesopotamia

Greater Mesopotamia

Belgian research @ Karon (Tajikistan)

ExcavationsPosted by Bruno Overlaet Tue, July 01, 2014 10:03:44

Belgian research at Karon on the Oxus, Badakhshan - Tajikistan

Royal Museums of Art and History & Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Following a first visit to the site in October 2013 by B. Overlaet (RMAH) and the identification of quern stones near the site as related to gold mining, an interdisciplinary team set out to investigate this industrial activity and its impact on population and landscape. This research wanted to complement the ongoing work at Karon by Tajik and Russian expeditions. The Belgian team consisted of Prof. Dr. Bruno Overlaet, Laurence Van Goethem (Royal Museums of Art & History, Brussels) and Rindert Janssens (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels). During this first campaign at Karon (21/5 – 12/6/2014), a survey was made, an Islamic graveyard was explored and geological and biological samples were collected for analysis.

Karon is situated on a mountain top along the Panj river (Oxus) between Khalai Khumb and Kevron in the Darwaz region of Tajikistan. Since 2012, the site is studied by Prof. Y. Yakubov (Academy of Sciences, Tajikistan) and Dr. A. Nikitin (Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg), who were now joined by the Belgian team.


Karon: view towards the mountaintop palace, sunken garden and pavilion.


Karon has a long history of human occupation, shown by the presence of various types of tombs and isolated finds such as Kushan and Sogdian coins. Yet, most of the constructions we see today date from the 15th-16th century, the time of the Timurid and Shaybanid rulers. There is a huge walled area with a palace, terrases, a large sunken garden and several pavilions and buildings, many of which remain to be excavated. It is clear, however, that the wealth of local rulers was based on the control of the ancient trade route and on gold mining. A huge landslide has landed rotary stone querns, used for the milling of gold containing quartz, at the riverbank of the Panj.

The palace, on the highest point of the site, overlooks a large valley with several constructions, among them a sunken garden, a pavilion, a graveyard, a wine press and a large open space, referred to as the polo field. The “Sunken Garden” is a deepened area of 50 by 90 meter with three descending terraces and a rectangular area, possibly a pond, accessible from a staircase along the eastern side. The retaining walls are strengthened with half-columns. Karon’s Sunken Garden is one of the many garden complexes that were created in this part of Central Asia under the Shaybanid dynasty (1428-1598 AD) and that are known to have been inspirational to Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur (1526-1530 AD), the first Mughal emperor. The use of terraces, ponds and retaining walls with half-columns resembles Bagh-e Babur near Kabul

The “Polo Field” is a large area with a terraced embankment on one side and a large dry stone wall along the other, and has the approximate size of a modern polo field, hence its name. In a large complex such as Karon, a Maidan, a large open area where various activities could take place, is a feature that is to be expected.

In between the “Sunken Garden” and the “Polo Field” lies a square pavilion, possibly a mausoleum, built in dry stone technique combined with bricks for the curvature of the arches. The monument is still under investigation but it is clear that it has known many building phases. Several overlapping platforms are present at its base and at some point, the building was encased in walls with half-columns, much like those of the Sunken Garden, that completely closed the access to the building. A 6th-7th century coin found in the upper part of the pavilion is the only find at present and suggests the core of the building may predate the Shaybanid era. Its central position in the valley emphasizes its importance.

Karon: the central pavilion.


Industrial gold mining activities

The Belgian team set out to investigate the gold mining activities and survey the area. A large number of rotary quern stones are present amidst landslide debris along the right bank of the Panj river, just below the mountaintop site of Karon. These were mostly lower quern stones but also some upper mill stones and two upper mill stones which had been in the process of being extracted. Their present location and their position (many are tilted or even upside down) is not their original place of use. They have been moved, most probably by a landslide but recent roadworks involving rock blasting may also have had an impact.

Rotary quern stones nr. 6 and 7 (top) and upper mill stones 25 and 26 during the extraction (bottom)


Contrary to the exploitation of alluvial gold from the river, which is a relatively simple technique (panning or washing out), the use of quern stones indicates the more complicated exploitation of gold containing quartz veins. This requires a large skilled labour force and a central power that organises and oversees the complex workflow of mining, ore reduction and smelting. The technology is documented in Egypt and consists of the following steps:

1. 1. The ore mining : the veins of gold containing quartz can be mined in open areas or by following the veins in underground tunnels (often open fire is used to break down the quartz veins to workable lumps).

2. 2. The quartz ore had to be crushed and milled to obtain a powdery material that could be further concentrated by washing. Large blocks were crushed with hand hammers or pestles on dimple stones; the smaller particles were then milled in rotary querns to a fine substance.

3. 3. Smelting of the ore (on-site or in a specialised refinery) followed by “gold from lead separation” techniques. These chemical processes involved heavy metals which may have impacted on the environment and involved individuals.

The geological and archaeological survey was directed at locating possible mining and industrial areas. Iron smelting activities are attested in rooms near the mountaintop palace, which is considered to be the local seat of power. The presence of Chinese export porcelain and painted muqarnas dates this palace to the 15th-16th century. Possibly the smelting and refining activities took place in this area, where excavations are ongoing. The geological survey was based on a petrological analysis whereby in-situ rocks were described and sampled for further chemical, mineralogical and petrological research. On the field 5 rock units were observed: (1) fylite (high diagenetic equivalent of mudstone), (2) fylite with quartz veins, (3) shists (medium diagenetic equivalent of mudstone), (4) granite-granodiorite and (5) granodiorite intruded with quartz veins. The shists may be reformed to saprolite by chemical and fysical weathering of this rock-type and in some zone’s well-formed pyrite crystals up to 1 cm3 occur.

There were no archaeological traces of the mined quartz veins, possibly they were located in the landslide area to the west of the mountaintop palace. Any open mining activities in the saddle areas between the mountaintops, may be hidden by recent erosive depositions.

The environment and impact of gold mining activities on humans

The sunken garden in front of the mountaintop palace was studied and sampled to establish its use and flora. This was done by digging a pedological window of 1 m3 in the square lowest area of the garden (though to be possibly a pool) and describing the sedimentological and pedological features. Samples now need to be processed.



location of the graveyard and view of tombs 1 to 5


A graveyard on the slope descending from the mountaintop palace towards the sunken garden was partly excavated. A row of 8 cist tombs was discovered. The tombs were constructed on the natural bedrock, the long sides with shist stones, the front and top with large slabs. The tombs were protected upslope by a low dry stone wall, in front of the tombs was a narrow paved path. The downslope short side of several tombs was destroyed by erosion. One of the tombs had been re-used and contained two skeletons. The individual had been killed by two cuts in the head, one of which had removed part of the skull. The second skeleton was only partially preserved. Since the graveyard belonged to the Islamic era, the skeletal remains were reburied. However, biological samples were collected from five tombs. They will be tested for the presence of heavy metals as possible side-effect from ore refining activities and analysed with regard to nutrition. Carbon 14 dating on the different individuals will provide a time range for activities at Karon.

general view and detail of tomb 5



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Posted by Barbara Tratsaert Tue, April 18, 2017 15:53:31

Hi, this is very interesting and a first for me that two querns are set in one block/boulder. Shows clearly the industrialization of (gold)mining).

Posted by M.Hauser Wed, August 06, 2014 13:02:07

The site is know as Kala-i Kukhna (Madukakay, Kala-i Khun, Kala-i Kun) since many years. First mentioned by Albert Regel in 1881 many other travelers mentioned the site, like Kosyakov 1882, Kuznetsov 1892, Nalivkin 1915 etc. as the site is close to the normal route from Kala-i Khumb to Vanch.

It was visited 1978 by V. Steblova and again 2007 by Yu. Yakubov. See Mira Bubnova's book ARKHEOLOGICHESKAYA KARTA TADZHIKISTANA - GORNO-BADAKHSHANSKAYA AVTONOMNAYA OBLAST' ZAPADNYY PAMIR, 2nd edition 2008, Site no. 28 with more details.

As with many sites in Tajikistan, many are known but were never excavated.

Kind regards
M.Hauser