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