Today the ancient cities of Merv lie in a sleepy Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. It is protected by the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture, and since 2001 we have been working closely with them and their local park staff to support their management and conservation of this outstanding site.
The standing earthen architecture at Merv represents a major conservation challenge. The rising water table in the delta, largely caused by the Soviet-era Karakum irrigation canal, has led to the undermining of structures. We have been working closely with the Park staff to develop approaches to the sustainable management of these hugely important earth buildings. Realistically, however, we cannot save everything. There are, for example, more than 13km of city wall around the Islamic city: the Archaeological Park simply will never have the resources to stop erosion on this scale. However, we have developed an ‘at risk’ strategy, which allows us to focus our limited resources on those areas most at need.
At the heart of our project is the desire to preserve as much of this unique archaeology as possible. So when we excavate, to help understand the amazing history of this place, we only excavate areas that make a minimal impact on the surviving archaeology: for example, we dug only 3m of the city’s 4km-long Madjan canal, and just 2m of a street system that covers more than 100km within the main city alone. And we do not excavate unique areas, such as the gates into the city.
Moreover, wherever possible, we have been focusing on non-invasive methods, such as our extensive use of 3D laser-scanning in 2008 – undertaken in partnership with CyArk, with the support of Duncan Lees,and thanks to the hard work of Justin Barton and Joseph Severn. This enabled us to create a detailed record of many of the buildings, available on the internet via CyArk for anyone to access. Justin plans to return to Merv next year so that we can measure change over the past decade.
We are also excited to be working with Heritage Without Borders, an international charity that partners UK professional conservators with international colleagues where resources are scarce. Together we have helped to support the Archaeological Park, and the regional museum in nearby Mary, while providing long-term training for Turkmen archaeologists. Above all, the future management and sustainability of this amazing World Heritage Site must rest with the next generation of Turkmen archaeologists.