He digs ad­ven­ture in the desert

Edmonton na­tive Tish Prouse is re­al­iz­ing a child­hood dream, un­earthing an­cient trea­sures along the an­cient Silk Road


Tish Prouse would be the first to ad­mit that his in­ter­est in ar­chae­ol­ogy stems from a boy­hood love of In­di­ana Jones.

But the Edmonton na­tive had no idea his in­ter­est would one day lead him to Turk­menistan, a Cen­tral Asian coun­try of bru­tally hot sum­mers, bit­terly cold win­ters and a pock­marked land­scape that in­vites com­par­isons with the moon.

So why is he here? The an­swer is Merv, an an­cient city along the Silk Road that was once a thriv­ing me­trop­o­lis, one of the largest and most im­por­tant in the re­gion for over 2,500 years.

Lit­tle re­mains of it to­day, mostly de­pres­sions, lumps and rub­ble. But be­neath this des­o­late land­scape, you can find “build­ings, in­dus­trial com­plexes, mau­soleums, minarets, streets, mar­kets, and houses,” says Prouse.

In other words, it’s an arche­ol­o­gist’s dream and part-time home to this grad­u­ate of Strath­cona Com­pos­ite High School.

Prouse can­didly ac­knowl­edges that his child­hood in­ter­est in arche­ol­ogy comes from In­di­ana Jones and the Last Cru­sade, the ad­ven­ture movie star­ring Har­ri­son Ford.

He earned a B.A. in arche­ol­ogy from the Univer­sity of Al­berta, then a mas­ter’s de­gree in arche­ol­ogy from the Univer­sity Col­lege of Lon­don in Eng­land, and that in turn led to an in­vi­ta­tion to join the re­search at Merv.

From his stud­ies he also picked up some “im­por­tant” tips. Prouse winks: “The first year in univer­sity when I started se­ri­ously study­ing ar­chae­ol­ogy, my pro­fes­sor said the three things one had to do to be­come a good ar­chae­ol­o­gist were: get a good hat, show an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for scotch, and smoke high qual­ity cigars while ex­ca­vat­ing.”

For Prouse and other arche­ol­o­gists, the in­ter­est in Merv lies in its fan-belt lo­ca­tion in the Kara Kum Desert. Fed by the Murghab River, which flows down from the Pamir moun­tain range in Afghanistan, a suc­ces­sion of cities were built on sep­a­rate sites ex­tremely close to one an­other.

First came the fortress ci­tadel of Erk Kala, later ex­panded to the city of Gyuar Kala, in turn aban­doned for the city of Sul­tan Kala. Col­lec­tively, th­ese cities are re­ferred to as An­cient Merv.

The fact that Merv en­com­passes three dis­tinct cities makes it huge, com­ing in at a com­bined to­tal of just over 600 hectares. The arche­ol­ogy re­main­ing at the site is vast.

As Prouse points out, “If the funds were avail­able, you could em­ploy 10,000 sep­a­rate teams, with a core of 20 work­ers all do­ing their own sec­tion, and they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.”

The trench where Prouse is work­ing has al­ready yielded much of in­ter­est — along with a few pre­req­ui­site snakes, there is ev­i­dence of a Mon­gol sack­ing and the skele­tal re­mains of an old wo­man with two youths trapped be­low a col­lapsed mud­brick wall.

But the most in­ter­est­ing as­pect of Prouse’s trench lies in a canal sys­tem and se­ries of pipes dis­cov­ered over the past two field sea­sons.

“What you’ve got is an amaz­ing sys­tem of pipes which twist and lock to­gether, fit­ted with resin to keep wa­ter from seep­ing out of the seams. Not only that, but the clay it­self is ridicu­lously solid, so even when it’s buried and un­der pres­sure, it still func­tions prop­erly.

“Th­ese lock­ing sys­tems are in­cred­i­bly sim­i­lar to what we use with mod­ern PVC tub­ing, sealed to main­tain air pres­sure. Even with a min­i­mal amount of wa­ter the same pres­sure is main­tained in th­ese 1,000-year-old clay pipes and they won’t cave in.”

This is the first time a func­tional wa­ter man­age­ment sys­tem has been un­cov­ered at Merv, and the dis­cov­ery raises many ques­tions about the tech­nol­ogy used to build it and what the pipes were for

— per­haps pro­vid­ing fresh wa­ter or re­mov­ing waste. “The thing I en­joy about my job,” says Prouse, “is that like In­di­ana Jones, there is a cer­tain amount of ad­ven­ture. I’m thrown into sit­u­a­tions where most nor­mal peo­ple don’t go, I in­ter­act with lo­cals on a dif­fer­ent level, I ex­plore places peo­ple haven’t seen in a thou­sand years.”

But the real trea­sure lies in un­der­stand­ing how a city was built and func­tioned, and that’s what Prouse’s ex­ca­va­tions at Merv seek to con­trib­ute.

“Un­like In­di­ana Jones, the se­ri­ous as­pect of aca­demic re­search is teach­ing, re­search­ing, talk­ing to col­leagues, and doc­u­ment­ing ev­i­dence. It’s not just walk­ing into a tem­ple and tak­ing out the long-lost relic.”

“One has to record as much in­for­ma­tion as pos- sible so that other schol­ars can come back to the same place and use your ev­i­dence to draw new re­search in­sights into how hu­man­i­ties evolved and func­tioned.”

Owen Murray is an Edmonton na­tive who has known Tish Prouse since child­hood. A free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher and il­lus­tra­tor, Murray was in­vited by Prouse to help doc­u­ment the An­cient Merv ex­ca­va­tions.


Edmonton na­tive Tish Prouse scrap­ing the bot­tom of a canal at the An­cient Merv arche­o­log­i­cal dig in Turk­menistan in Cen­tral Asia. Be­low, some of the clay pipes

dis­cov­ered at the site, ev­i­dence of a func­tional wa­ter man­age­ment sys­tem.

Left: A pot­tery shard is just one of the trea­sures un­cov­ered in the trench where Prouse is work­ing.

Tish Prouse at An­cient Merv, a city along the Silk Road that was once a thriv­ing me­trop­o­lis in Cen­tral Asia. The most in­trigu­ing as­pect of Prouse’s work has been a canal sys­tem and a net­work of pipes dis­cov­ered

over the past two field sea­sons at the arche­o­log­i­cal site in Turk­menistan.

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