The Skeletons of Sion

A view of the city of Sion in the Valais region of Switzerland
Coming across the unexpected is one of the best things about travel to new places.

Back in the fall I visited the Valais region of Switzerland near the border of Italy to work on a magazine assignment about Swiss Wine. After one of many tortuous wine tasting sessions in the city of Sion, accompanied by a light lunch of raclette, my local guide and I – a bit tipsy – hiked down the mountainside towards our next destination in the centre of town. Along one of the main thoroughfares we came across a huge workers’ tent pitched atop a parking lot between a restaurant and school. When I asked about the tent, my guide said it was the site of an archaeological dig and suggested we go inside and take a look.

The archeological site of Don Bosco, Sion, SwitzerlandWhen we entered we discovered a team of archaeologists digging up an Iron Age necropolis containing many graves. Flamur Dalloshi, the lead archaeologist from Albania, told us the burial ground dates back to prehistoric times. But most skeletons of interest, he added, were from circa 1,000 B.C.

A three thousand year-old skeleton excavated at the archeological site of Don Bosco, Sion, SwitzerlandSeveral months earlier Dalloshi became a minor celebrity after unearthing the remains of a male warrior that was laid to rest with his weapons, a razor, pottery vessels and bronze jewellery. However, most of the skeletons, he told us, belonged to women and children of the elite ruling class, leading him and his team to believe that the society may have been matriarchal.

He invited us to take a closer look a the remains still being excavated. If you look closely at this skeleton on the left, you can see bits of clothing and jewellery just behind the back of the skull – and to the left of the mid-section (a belt).

When I asked him what the most surprising thing was he’d discovered, he replied that in some graves his team had found pottery with hoses running into them and extending upwards to the surface – so that the living could provide the dead with water in their eternal repose.

The Waterworks of Merv

The ancient city of Merv in modern day Turkmenistan.One of the largest, most advanced, and today least known cities in antiquity was the oasis centre of Merv, located in Central Asia, on the Silk Road, near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, Merv was the largest urban area in the world in 1200 A.D., with a population of more than half a million people.

Merv’s magnificence, unfortunately, must be left to the imagination as it was pulverized by the armies of Genghis Khan; its entire population put to the sword. Only a few dusty, sun-baked remains still stand.

Of its many reported qualities – including its colossal wealth and architecture – it is the city’s hydraulic system and waterworks that perhaps give the best indication of its astounding degree of advancement.

Because Merv was located on a desert plain, water was extraordinarily scarce. The inhabitants managed to divert and channel any and all water sources, near and far, into the city and surrounding countryside via a series of dams, catch-basins, canals, pipes and underground tunnels with access shafts – all built with complex changes of gradients. Even the morning dew was collected and used.

The entire system was an engineering marvel. Not just in terms of its construction, but also its maintenance.

To appreciate how complex and expansive the operation was, consider that Merv’s waterworks staff numbered 12,000 to maintain and repair the hydraulic system. Among them were 300 divers!

It may very well be that the need to cooperate on water issues helped to unite and gel Central Asian society, creating a kind of harmony of purpose that allowed them to succeed at so many other endeavours.

Like its neighbouring cities of Balkh, Bokhara and Samarkand, Merv was a node of high learning whose residents included savants and geniuses. It was also part of the wider Islamic renaissance that reached from China to Spain, and whose contributions, we now know, made possible much of the knowledge and advancements we enjoy in the West today.