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.