North from Ashgabat, the long road to Dashoguz cuts through the heart of the Kara Kum Desert. The scattered villages along the way are favoured by Ashgabat travel companies as destinations for tours aiming to give the visitor a taste of desert life. The astonishing fiery crater near Darvaza is another good reason to come this way, even if you are not heading further north into Dashoguz Region.
Thу archaeological site of Jeitun north of Ashgabat, first excavated by the Russian archaeologist V M Masson in the 1950s, occupies an important place in the understanding of early prehistoric agriculture in the region. Masson's excavations revealed a series of small, single-roomed dwellings, each with an oven and adjacent yard. Artefacts and botanical evidence demonstrated that the economy of this settlement was based around a mixture of hunting, domestic sheep and goats, and the cultivation of cereals, including wheat and barley. The site has been dated to the 6th millennium bc. Other, less well preserved, roughly contemporary sites have also been identified along the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains, leading an haeologists to use the term Jeitun Culture to refer to this group of Neolithic sites, which represent the earliest known agricultural settlements in Central Asia.
To reach Jeitun, take the Dashoguz road from Ashgabat. Fifteen kilometres beyond the marble-faced northern city gate, take the turning to the left, over an unmanned level crossing, and then along a pot-holed asphalt road. The once good state of the rural roads in this area is apparently down to the fact that a former head of the local peasants' association, then called the Socialism Collective Farm, was a political figure of some influence. Three kilometres on, turn right at the T-junction, then immediately left, such that you are continuing in a westwards direction. Park a kilometre on, immediately beyond the irrigation channel. The site lies about 500m to the north. The most recent excavations here were carried out by a joint British, Russian and Turkmen team in the early 1990s, and the site is not immediately straightforward to spot. It is a mound, slightly less than a hectare in size, in an area of undulating sandy ground on the edge of the desert. It is in turn covered by many small mounds; the spoil heaps from Masson's excavations. There is not, frankly, anything much to see, though the site does impress for its solitude.