The site of Uch Kulakh, where an Italian-Uzbek archaeological mission worked during more than ten years (1997-2009), is located approximately 40 km from Bukhara, near the city of Varakhsha, that was the residence of the pre islamic dynasty of the Bukhar Khudat (5th-8th centuries) and the last urban centre along the road, that, across the Kizil Kum desert, leads to Chorasmia. The proximity of Varakhsha and the study of the History of Bukhara written by Narshakhi, lead the archaeologists to consider this castle as one of the 700 that Narshakhi located in this area.
The archaeological excavation of the tepe that the local inhabitants called Uch Kulakh, that is “the three hats” started in the autumn 1997. The tepe is 85 m long, 75 m wide and rises 8 m above the plain. On the western side of the tepe there were three prominances 2 m high (the three hats). Uch Kulakh has revelead, until now, seven periods of occupation from 3rd-4th to the 11-12th centuries. The settlement, between the 4th-5th and the 8th centuries, consisted of a castle and two residential areas outside of the castle, one located on the western side and the other on the eastern side (Fig 7).
The castle was built on a podium in the central part of the tepe. In the south-west and the south-east angles there were two angular bastions (M6, M70 and M4) (Fig 8) (Fig 9) (Fig 10) (Fig 11) with loopholes that were vertical in facade and oblique at the corners. On the western side, extending in the north-south direction there was another wall (M36) with loopholes arranged in vertical and in oblique position facing on the western residential area. On the northern side the castle is defined by a double system wall (M76, M78 and M99) preserved only in part because the tepe was eroded by winds (Fig 12); on the eastern side the castle’s walls were composed of a system of two linked walls (M7 and M4a). Inside the castle were identified 18 rooms. Outside, on the southern side, there was a fortified complex. It presents walls with loopholes (M100, M94, M82,M42) (Fig 13 A), two massive scarp walls (M97 and M98) running east-west and several rooms. In Period V it extended towards east with two walls with loopholes (M66 and M67). Between the 5th and the 8th cent. the plan of the castle did not change; except for repairs and the construction of the new wall (M8), with loopholes. As regards the finds, pottery is scarcely represented. A wall with loopholes (M13) (Fig 14) was subsequently leaned against the angular bastion M4. The wall presents noteworthy traces of burning, probably as a result of the fire that marked the end of Period IV. In the south east area Period VII is witnessed by two walls (M219-M220), made with pakhsha blocks and arranged on the right angle, that continue beyond the present limits of the excavation. Nearby there is a brick structure (ST91) (Fig 15). The restart of scientific work in the field will be the only way to obtain more information about it, mainly for establishing if these two large walls were part of a more ancient defensive system.
The castle was built in Period VI on top of the previous structures of Period VII.
In the Area inside the castle were found two rooms (A91 and A92) (Fig 16), datable to Period VII. The floors (-540 cm, -550 cm) of these rooms presented burnt residues and a remarkable quantity of pottery datable to the 4th century. The date of the pottery found in these rooms coincides with the results of C14 dates carried out from coal samples found on the burnt floor of A91, and corresponds to a lapse of time between 80 and 345 AD. In this area the rooms were closed by a 3m thick filling of clay, without materials. A coal found on the floor of the castle room A42 (-260 cm) has been dated by C14 to the period around 205-410 AD.
A similar situation has been found in the western sector (Fig 17 , Fig 18), outside the castle. In the Period VII the building was composed of 15 rooms; on the edge of the area was a corridor (A87) limited by a wall (M231) and broken off with openings. Mortars and jars lied on the floor of these rooms: the presence of four sufa in one of the rooms (A79 -400 cm ) shows that it was a dwelling area. A coal found in a tandoor, a structure for baking bread (H43), provived a C14 dating of 20BC-230 AD. The Period VII and Period VI were separeted by a caesura witnessed by the fact that the rooms were filled up with a stratum of pressed earth thick 2 metres, making up a platform where afterwards were built ten new rooms; one of them (room A26 -230 cm) (Fig 19) presented a hearth and a pot containing coal dated by C14 around 210-420 AD. During the 3rd-4th centuries, several rooms were located in the western area between the podium of the castle and the external wall. The situation changed in the subsequent period (5th-7th centuries) when the walls of the rooms received niches or were decoreted. At the end of the 7th century the room A14 was decorated with a painting whose unfortunately was preserved only a fragment representing a leopard (Fig 20) (now exhibited at the Museum of the Ark of Bukhara). Above was another large room (A9) (Fig 21), that was covered by a big collapse, and still above by another small room (A6).
The eastern and the south-eastern area of the castle comprised another living area.
In the south-eastern sector (Fig 22), a room (A90) presented two phases of occupation. A first one with in the centre, a structure 279 cm long and 22 cm high with a slit of 1 cm; it comprised two circular holes on the extremities; the floor of the room presented two other analogous holes; their disposition according to a quadrilateral arrangement lets suppose that there were insert beams that supported a canopy (Fig 23).
The second phase of occupation is represented by a hearth installed on the floor. During the 4th-6th centuries the residential area was located in the eastern area of the tepe. In the north-eastern side there were two rooms with sufa (A83, A84) (Fig 24) decoreded with wall paintings (only partially preserved). A hearth provided the heating of room A83 (Fig 25). One of the fragments of the wall painting, for example, was decorated with a fighting scene between two camels (?) (Fig 26), the iconography is typical of Eurasian steppes. The fragments of paintings found in room A84 were decorated with an harnessed horses, an iconography that could have found its source of inspiration in the Sassanian art (Fig 27) (Fig 28). Therefore, the Uch Kulakh paintings would represent a formative stage of what will be known later, in the Early Middle Age, as the Sogdian school of painting (whose activity is dated from the 6th to the 8th centuries).
Therefore, the Uch Kulakh paintings being dateted to the 4th or 5th century are presently the oldest paintings of the Oasis of Bukhara. The big fire that broke out in the northern area marked the end of the castle and of the defensive structures that, from this time, were used only as temporary dwellings. The decline of the site is witnessed by the collapse that marked the end of the Period III (8th century). Subsequently the site was turned to rural or artisan activities; the occupants built then silos (Fig 29), wells and, in the eastern zone, a water drainage system (Fig 30) similar to those that existed in Varakhsha or in Paykend during 10th-11th centuries. Afterwards we found only pits used as deposits for food or as a rubbish pits.