The Yaz culture (named after the type site Yaz-depe, Yaz Depe, or Yaz Tepe, near Baýramaly, Turkmenistan) was an early Iron Age culture of Margiana, Bactria and Sogdia (ca. 1500–500 BC). It emerges at the top of late Bronze Age sites (BMAC), sometimes as stone towers and sizeable houses associated with irrigation systems. Ceramics were mostly hand-made, but there was increasing use of wheel-thrown ware. There have been found bronze or iron arrowheads, also iron sickles or carpet knives among other artifacts.
With the farming citadels, steppe-derived metallurgy and ceramics, and absence of burials it has been regarded as a likely archaeological reflection of early East Iranian culture as described in the Avesta. So far, no burials related to the culture have been found, and this is taken as possible evidence of the Zoroastrian practice of exposure or sky burial.
In the region of Central Asia, the Bronze Age Oxus civilization (or BMAC) was characteristic for irrigation and proto-state society based on long distance trade of raw materials and goods. However, it suddenly disappeared in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1700–1500 BCE), and in its place emerged the Early Iron Age (c. 1500–1300 BCE) Yaz I culture with rural settlements based around fortified structures, control of irrigation systems, with specific hand-made ceramic type, as well as the almost complete disappearance of graves, compared to thousands of kurgans in the north. The ceramics, and spherical stone maces, show continuity and contemporaneity between Yaz Depe and Ulug Depe of the Early Iron Age and Tekkem Depe among others of the Namazga-Tepe VI period.
Yaz I culture is argued to be related to the sedentarisation of the nomadic Indo-Iranians in the Eurasian Steppe, a synthesis with autochthonous traits. It extended from the central part of the Kopet Dag mountains to the fertile delta of the Murghab River. It is characterised for total lack of necropolises and tombs, as well as painted ceramic with triangle and ladder patterns. Recent research shows four groups of patterns, the triangular (triangles and chevrons), lozenges, bands, and of additional elements. It seems to be connected to the Chust culture of Fergana Valley, Mundigak V-VI in Sistan, and Pirak I-III on the Kacchi Plain. Compared to the Chust culture, no tombs from the Yaz culture have been found. Asko Parpola and Fred Hiebert argued that these cultures seemingly derived from the Haladun culture (1750–1200 BCE) of Xinjiang, and some Andronovo culture contacts, indicating an Europid upper strata who spoke East Aryan. The introduction of the culture is seemingly related to the sound change *s > h when Iranian language came in the Indo-Iranian borderlands of Rgvedic tribes around 1500 BCE, seen in the change of the Vedic river Sindhu into Avestan Hindu (Indus River), Sarasvati into Haraxhvaiti.
It is dated circa 1000–700 or 1000–550 BCE in Middle Iron Age, however some recent research consider no accurate boundary between the Yaz I and Yaz II. It moved to the north and northeast. It is characterized by wheel-made pottery type (reappearance of the wheel like in Namazga-Tepe V), iron metallurgy, large fortified sites, as well as the occupation of previous sites and the continuation of the funerary practices.
The Yaz II complex seemingly correlates with the Airyanem Vaejah, homeland of those tribes who spoke Avestan language, different from both Western and Eastern Iranian languages, to be replaced in Bactria by the former at the end of the 1st millennium BCE. Asko Parpola associated the change from Yaz I to Yaz II around 1000 BCE with the migration of the Western Iranians (Medians, Persians). He considered that the Yaz I people spoke Proto-Eastern Iranian or Proto-Saka.
The ruins of the ancient city of Nad-i Ali (9th-8th century BCE) which has been identified with the capital of the Kayanian dynasty kingdom which coincides with the Yaz II/A (10th-8th century BCE), while date of the late Kayanian capital Balkh to Yaz II/B period (7th-6th century BCE).
At the end of Yaz II/B (8th-7th/6th century BCE) the Murghab oasis (Yaz Depe, Aravali Depe, Takhirbay Depe) became deserted. It is probably explained by the bloody revolt of Frada (521 BCE) mentioned in Behistun Inscription in which reportedly 55,243 Margians were killed and 6,972 taken as prisoners, and the conquest of Bactria.
It is dated circa 700–400 BCE or second half of the 6th and end of the 4th century BCE (c. 540–329 BCE) in the Late Iron Age, part of the Achaemenid Empire period, but is still characterized by the same cultural and funerary continuity. The beak-shaped rim is replaced in form of a flattened roller, vessels are cylindrical-conical, and were discovered bronze three-bladed arrow, iron axes and adzes.
The Yaz Tepe large settlement was the central district in the then metropolitcan part of Margiana. It covered 16 ha, and stood on brick platform mound 8 m high, while the stratigraphic excavations in the area revealed Yaz I (900–650 BCE) complex (with bronze arrowheads and iron artefacts), Yaz II (650–450 BCE) and Yaz III (450–350 BCE) house remains. The Yaz I complex was similar to those in northern Bactria, thus the culture was noted for the development of large settlements (sometime small) centred around fortified keeps built on massive platforms, but the excavations failed to locate the transition from the Late Bronze Age unlike other cultures. Other Margian well known sites with Yaz I ceramics are Gonur Tepe, Togoluk, Uch Tepe, Adam Basan, Taip, Garaoj Tepe, Takhirbaj Tepe.
Kuchuk Tepe settlement in Bactria (today Uzbekistan) is also related to the Yaz I culture. It looked like a flattened circular hill with an area of 0.5 hectares and height 8 m. The structures were built on a clay platform surrounded by a defensive wall. At the end of the first period (10th to mid-8th centuries BCE) the building had twenty-five chambers; apparently it was a large fortified house, while towns start appearing in the region towards the end of that period. Other Bactrian well known sites with Yaz I ceramics are Tillya Tepe in northeastern Afghanistan, and Kyzyl Tepe, Dzharkutan, Kangurt-Tut, and Teguzak in Tajikistan. The single purely Yaz I site in Tajikistan is Karim-berdy which measures 500 x 300 m. Along the Kunduz River are located oasis Naibabad and Farukabad. The settlements at Bandykhan, between Shirabad and Denov in Uzbekistan, show Yaz I (14th-11th century BCE), Yaz II/A (10th-9th/8th century BCE), Yaz II/B (8th-7th/6th century BCE), and Yaz III (6th-4th century BCE).
Some Yaz I hand-made decorated pottery sites were investigated in southern Turkmenistan (previously northern Parthia). Some Yaz I strata was found in Parthia at Elken Depe, Ulug Depe and the northern mound at Anau, and all complexes overlie Namazga-Tepe VI type of Late Bronze Age strata. Unlike the Bronze Age centres, the Early Iron Age Yaz I settlements were much larger, in Elken Depe c. 12 ha, ringed with ramparts, while the citadel stood on a 6 m platform. At the site in Anau was found iron sickle from Yaz I period dated to the beginning of the 1st millennium BC. Askarov argued that it cannot be excluded that the Elken Depe was then the capital of northern Parthia.
There 20 Iron Age sites of Yaz I-III culture (1400–300 BCE) in Serakhs oasis, the sub delta of Tedjen River in southern Turkmenistan. The sites follow the irrigation system, with average distance of 123 m between sites and rivers, however there is some scientific uncertainty about the irrigations in the Iron Age. The average distance between Yaz sites is 879 m. Most of them are dated to Yaz II-III periods, but once was found Yaz I decorated pottery. In the northern cluster of the sites mostly there is no trace of later occupation, indicating they were abandoned in the Iron Age.
At the village Anaw east of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan are two mounds (kurgans), of which the south kurgan's Iron Age materials (Anaw IV) from ca. 900 to 650 BCE, like ceramics and metals, are related to those of Yaz I.
Regarding Turkmenistan, many notable archaeologist investigated Yaz ceramic assemblage; A. F. Ganialin and A. A. Maruschenko considered northern pastoralist influence, V. M. Masson it is connected to the Namazga-Tepe VI, but with a break of 100–150 years in-between, while V. Sarianidi that the Yaz I assemblage arrived from eastern Khorasan. There three groups of hand-made ware in shape, color of sherd, and the admixture of crushed ceramics into the body of vessels. Recent research confirmed of the three the Masson's thesis that the Yaz I type ceramics in the foothill of Kopet Dag mountain are a natural development of the Late Bronze Age assemblage from Namazga VI period, but without any time lapse and external influence.
Several recent 2008–2012 discoveries of Early Iron Age burials on the sites of Dzharkutan in Surxondaryo Region of Uzbekistan, and Ulug Depe in Turkmenistan shown diverse funerary practices of the Iron Age in Central Asia. It shows burials still existed, but were not numerous. They were primary, secondary, multiple burials, and silo tombs, divided on seasonal and permanent dwellings. In the silos were buried mostly adult females, while in the others the head was mostly removed, indicating symbolic, cult or social reason.
A lack of graves and excarnations emerged in the Early Iron Age, especially in Yaz I and II cultures, the same period in which Zoroastrianism developed (works such as the Gathas often being dated to the second half or end of the 2nd millennium BC); the contemporary occurrence falls in line with certain traditions (see Tower of Silence) and cultural schools of thought, but there is ongoing scholarly debate surrounding such a connection There is evidence for excarnation in non-Zoroastrian cultures like those in Siberia and Mongolia, as well excarnation and dakhmas in some Bronze Age sites like Gonur Tepe and Altyndepe, thus in could have persisted into Early Iron Age as a notion for the long process of formation of the Proto-Zoroastrianism and Avesta.
Some sites which had Yaz culture layers like the Yaz Depe, Takhirbaj Depe, Taip, Gonur, Togoluk are on the UNESCO's World Heritage List of the State Historical and Cultural Park "Ancient Merv" (1999).
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