Digitisation and Advanced Analysis of Archives of Khorezmian Archaeological-Ethnographic Expedition of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (EAP1075)

Aims and objectives

The project will digitise and research the archive of the famous Khorezmian Archaeological-Ethnographic Expedition of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which operated from 1937 in Central Asia under the leadership of Sergey Tolstov. The endangered materials are held in the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. With closely defined research aims, this project focuses on aerial and terrestrial photography, plans and maps for an understudied region of northern Turkmenistan, and parts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, yielding unparalleled insights on the region prior to the impact of Soviet collectivisation and irrigation.


In total, 2,653 items were digitised. The project targeted the most at-risk sections of the archive where items were not always arranged according to initial cataloguing. Aerial photography prints make up the majority of the digitised collection. They are predominantly arranged by monuments or cultural landscapes. In addition, the digital collection also includes 15 notes about aerial photographs, six valuable site plans, five hand drawn illustrations, and 50 panoramas built by stitching fragile photographic prints together, which are exceptionally valuable for researchers. There are also three terrestrial photographs with one of them showing the expedition team. Those items were systematised, identified, digitised, and linked to specific monuments of cultural landscapes where possible by way of providing digital metadata. Dr Irina Arzhantseva’s unparalleled knowledge of the material and expedition’s activities and Dr Gai Jorayev’s knowledge of the region and digital mapping tools made it possible to enrich the metadata with background and locational information.


As expected, the materials digitised as part of the project yielded unparalleled insights on the region prior to the impact of mass agricultural expansion and rapid climate change. The large collection of aerial photography prints often show archaeological sites before and after excavations that took place in the 20th century, and often show cultural landscapes in their well-preserved state before the rapid changes of the environment surrounding them. Digitised archives may lead to future analytical work and academic breakthroughs and contribute to developing strategies of conservation and management of heritage by understanding change over time.


Almost all of the aerial images could be georeferenced and could become an additional layer for modern-day geographic information system (GIS) collections of individual research projects. UCL’s Central Asian Archaeological Landscapes (CAAL) project has already started incorporating the images into its databases. Some monuments were documented by taking overlapping aerial photographs and that also allows, in unique cases, the creation of historic digital elevation models and orthomosaics.

The digital copies were handed over to the British Library and the host institutions also maintain their back-up digital copies. Physical originals of the digitised materials remain in their host institution, the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of Russian Academy of Sciences (IEA of RAS). However, they are in a much better state in terms of their cataloguing and preservation than before the start of the project. The conditions in the storage areas were also improved by the host institution since the start of the project.


The project developed digital competences of the staff at the host institution by supporting skills in digitisation of records and metadata standards. The approaches used as part of the project, that are built in accordance with international best practice as promoted by the Endangered Archives Programme, will have an influence on future works in digitisation in the host institutions. By showcasing the project achievements, the project team will further promote the approaches for other digitisation endeavours in post-Soviet countries in general and in Central Asia in particular.

The catalogue records created by this project can be viewed here: