Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex

From Academic Kids

The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is a modern archaeologists' designation for a Bronze Age culture of the early second millennium BCE, located in present day northern Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Its sites were discovered and named by Victor Sarianidi (1976). The name is purely conventional, for we don't know what these people called themselves. Bactria was the Greek name for northern Afghanistan, and Margiana was the Greek name for the Persian province of Margush whose capital was the important centre of Merv, in today's Turkmenistan.



Sarianidi's excavations from the late 1970s onward revealed numerous monumental structures in many different sites, including Delbarjin, the Dashly Oasis, Toholok 21, Gonur, Kelleli, Sapelli, and Djarkutan. The sites were fortified by impressive walls and gates. Reports on the BMAC were mostly confined to Soviet journals until the last years of the Soviet Union, so the findings were largely unknown to the West until Sarianidi's work began to be translated in the 1990s.

Radiocarbon dating suggests dating the complex to the last century of the 3rd millennium and the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC.

Scholars do not agree on either the origins of the Bactrian Margiana complex, or its decline. Its distinctive material culture disappears from the archaeological record a few centuries after it appears.

Geographically, the Bactrian Margiana complex spans a wide area from southeastern Iran to Baluchistan and Afghanistan. Possibly the archaeologically unexplored terrain of Baluchistan and Afghanistan holds the heartland of the complex (see Lamberg-Karlovsky 2002).

BMAC materials such as seals have been found in the Indus civilisation, on the Iranian plateau, and in the gulf. BMAC finds are coming onto the international trade in illicit antiquities and are finding their way into Western collectuions and museums.

A previously unknown civilization?

The inhabitants of the BMAC were sedentary people who practised irrigation farming of wheat and barley. There seems to have been interaction with the nomadic people of the contemporary Andronovo culture of the steppe to the north. With their impressive material culture including monumental architecture, bronze tools, ceramics, and jewellery of semiprecious stones, the complex exhibits many of the hallmarks of civilization.

The discovery of a tiny stone seal with geometric markings from a BMAC site in Turkmenistan in 2001 led some to claim that the Bactrian Margiana complex had also developed writing, and thus may indeed be considered a civilisation. It is not clear however if the markings represent a true writing system as opposed to isolated pictographs. Nevertheless, the BMAC seals contain motifs and even material that are distinctive from seals of Syro-Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Gulf, and the Indus, showing they form a type not derived from any other region.

The Indo-Iranian hypothesis

The BMAC in the context of 2nd millennium
The BMAC in the context of 2nd millennium Indo-European languages

The Bactrian Margiana complex has also attracted attention as a candidate for those looking for the material counterparts to the Indo-Iranians, a major branch that split off from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Sarianidi himself advocates identifying the complex as Indo-Iranian, going as far as to identify evidence of proto-Zoroastrian objects and rituals. Others maintain there is insufficient evidence for any ethnic or linguistic identification of the BMAC solely based on material remains, in the absence of written records. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the complex even represented an ethnic/linguistic unity. See also Soma, Chariot.


Sarianidi, V. I. 1976. "Issledovanija pamjatnikov Dashlyiskogo Oazisa," in Drevnii Baktria, vol. 1. Moscow: Akademia Nauk. Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. 2002. "Archaeology and Language: The Indo-Iranians," in Current Anthropology, vol. 43, no. 1, Feb. year University of Chicago

Further reading

  • Sarianidi, V. I., Preface, in F.T. Hiebert, Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization of Central Asia, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 1994 ISBN 0-87365-545-1
  • Sarianidi, V. I., "Soviet Excavations in Bactria: The Bronze Age," in G. Ligabue and S. Salvatori, editors, Bactria: An ancient oasis civilization from the sands of Afghanistan, Venice, 1990

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