Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fossil Sea Shells High in the Hindu Kush Mountains

The capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, sits at about 6,000 feet altitude in the Hindu Kush Mountains, the foothills of the Himalayas which climb another 20,000 feet.  By the pushing of the Indian, formerly African, continental plate against the Eurasian continental plate, the floor of the ancient Tethys Sea is folded against itself and rises about 2 centimeters a year.  I will leave it to the reader to calculate how many years it took to get so high.  I doubt that it has always risen at the same rate, probably climbing quite a bit faster when what is now the Indian sub-continent first slammed into the Eurasian continental plate.

The floor of the Tethys Sea had beds of ancient ammonites, a sea creature with a circular shell with spiral sections inside.  To me, it is more beautiful when not broken into halves to expose the interior.  The fossilized shell is like ivory, when ground and polished by hand.  The ancient Bactrian people valued such shells and patiently ground them flat and smooth, by hand of course.  Then they pierced them to wear as amulets, probably attributing mysterious powers to the beads, because they appeared to be stones that had once been alive.

Here is a photo of one shell that had been ground, smoothed and pierced:
This ancient ammonite fossil shell was hand smoothed by Bactrian people in the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan.  The spiral sections still show on the outside of this fossil, but they have been smoothed so that appear almost to be an incised design on old ivory.   The photo below shows the same bead where it is pierced for stringing as an amulet.
If you were to pick up the bead and peek into the bead hole, you would see that it is not the same diameter all the way through the amulet.  That is caused by the primitive hand drill made of stone or bone, wet with grit and forced partway through the bead by placing the bone or stone point in a loop on a small bowstring attached to a bow and moved quickly back and forth, causing the point to turn rapidly.  In other words, a primitive portable hand drill.  When the bead is pierced about half way through, the artisan begins the same process from the other side of the bead.  Because of the shape of the sharpened length of bone or stone, the joining of the two holes will be narrower than the outside edges.  

You can also see that the hole is countersunk, from the stone drill that was much wider around when the fine point reached the center of the bead, making the outside of the hole wider in diameter and sunken from the friction of the turning point picking up particles of the shell around the hole.  

Here is the other side of the amulet, now ready to string.  As you can see, the spiral structures are much more visible on this side, leaving the amulet much thicker and stronger than so many of the seal shells that were pierced through that thin place in the middle of the spirals.  The beads pierced through the center of the concentric circles tend to fall apart during the centuries.  This one held together very well.  I have many Bactrian pieces created from these fossil shells.  

One of the most beautiful uses of these ammonite fossils is illustrated in this photo:

These particular ammonite fossil beads were made in a later age, when there were grinders that could almost eradicate the spiral indentations, could shape the bead and make a smaller diameter bead hole.  But still it was a hundred years ago or more when  these shells were gathered from the Hindu Kush and hand worked into beads for the so named Afghan wedding necklaces, as in this one. 

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

How I Began the Collection of Ethnic Ornaments

It began when my family moved to Turkey because my husband had been recruited by the U. S. Foreign Service (our Embassies and Aid Programs) as an auditor of the U. S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East. We lived four years in Ankara, and when we left we had a house full of everything from carpets to Anatolian Shepherd Dogs. But the dogs, the copper pots and pans and the wheat grinding sleds I will leave out of my discussion. I will stick to jewelry, textiles and home furnishing accessories such as artifacts for display.

Within a few months, our Ankara flat's hardwood parquet was covered with magnificent carpets. The dollar seemed to go farther in those days, 1969-73. I was still a fairly young householder and I wanted copper vases, ceramic plates, and more and more carpets. I had not had such beautiful handmade things available to me before that time in my life. My husband traveled to Iran, to Egypt and to Greece, bringing back everything from cut crystal imported to Cyprus from Czechoslovakia to marble statues surplused from the museum in Cairo. It took me a while to become interested in ethnic jewels. Those wool carpets were my collecting passion for those four years.

But then we took the overland route to Afghanistan, our next post. In our Land Rover with our youngest son lying on all the necessary supplies in the back, we drove for about a week through Eastern Turkey and Iran, and all along the desert road through Herat and Kandahar to Kabul. We settled into a lovely home made of mud brick with smoothed painted mud floors. They were easy to repair because after several earthquakes the mud mason shows up with a bucket of mud and fills in the crack and paints in over. Earthquakes are fairly common in Kabul, because it sits in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, in the Hindu Kush Mountains. Since that mountain range is still rising, the earth stretches and yawns fairly often.

Bactrian Amulets, Carved Alabaster Miniatures 4500 Years Old

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It was in Kabul that bodily ornamentation became interesting to me. Since pre-historic times, the people have mined gemstones and finished them into ornaments and utensils. I have in my collection many various household, cosmetic and jewelry pieces made of stone around 4500 years ago. By that time, the trade route through Afghanistan was a heavily traveled road. From that period to about the time of Alexander the Great's marriage to Roxanne in the Bactria Kingdom (not far from Kabul) was really the high period for civilization in that region. The glories of the past in Afghanistan provided our most interesting collectibles.

We could have stayed in Afghanistan for a long while, because it fed our interest in the development of art and technology through the ages.

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Afghanistan: a Producer of Jewelry from Pre-historic Times

When we received word that we were moving from the heavily traveled roads of Turkey to what to us sounded like the wilds of Afghanistan, I was up for the adventure, but imagined a culture begun by Alexander the Great and modified by the Arabic influence of the Moslem expansion from Mecca and Medina. Fortunately, we were able to travel overland through the major influence on Afghanistan, which is Iran. In our trip from Meshed in Eastern Iran across the border to Herat in Afghanistan, we could hardly tell we had crossed a border. In fact, Herat was more important and more cultured (in the modern sense of the word) than Meshed. We could not spend any time in Herat because we were trying to make it from Meshed to Kandahar where we could stay in the US AID guest house and see some familiar surroundings for a change, after a week of managing to communicate with Turkish and German! We did not have time to study Farsi before we left Ankara.

So we started across the desert in our trusty Land Rover. Practically no other traffic on the American built asphalt highway, only those dancing mirages to tease us in the lengthening distance. The only break in our boredom came from drinking warm beer -- actually hot beer -- because we had no air conditioner in our Rover. That is, until we were shocked to see a figure come out from under a culvert in a begging posture, which we had not anticipated. My husband was the driver for this trip, so he was trying desperately to steer around the figure that to our sun-dazzled eyes appeared menacing, not mendicant. It took us probably a quarter mile on down the road to decide exactly who or what we had met and avoided. Who knows what else was lurking under the culvert? We did not hang around to find out.

But now I will get back on topic -- maybe. Once we began to study the language, to prowl the bazaars and to study the prehistory of Afghanistan, we began to appreciate our posting to that country. Actually, we would have been happy to have spent the remainder of our term of service abroad in Kabul. No wonder we continued to learn and to form friendships with people such as Victor Sarianidi, a Russian archeologist who excavated so much of the Bactria Margiana civilization (ca. 2500 to 1600 B.C.) that extended from Turkmenistan through Iran and Afghanistan, on to the Western reaches of Mesopotamia.

Victor became our friend and I was able to assist in editing the English version of three of his books on the excavations: Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana on its Seals and Amulets, Moscow, 1998; and Necropolis of Gonur, Athens, 2007; Margiana and Protozoroastrism, Athens, 2---.

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Bactria, Afghanistan: the Old Persia on the Silk Road

The forerunners of pre-Islamic Persians were the migrant farmers of desert oases in the Kara Kum Desert and in the arid areas of Central Asia southerly toward the Indus Valley. Archeological remains trace the flowering of this culture from the third millennium B. C. to 300 B. C. when Alexander the Great married the Bactrian princess in Bactria, Afghanistan as he conquered Persia. These first Iranians were not nomads, but they were in movement, because the earth was in a warming period as their culture spread into the areas mentioned. The drying up of the oases in this large area of the earth caused the migration of the farmer settlers to pick up and move when necessary, thus the spread of the culture and the amalgamation with the indigent groups into which they moved.

As they moved they traded and this activity created a new economy that began to flourish along the route that we eventually called the Silk Road. As you see from this map, the Silk Road finally spread out to go many places, but by 2500 B. C., the road through Bactria was already heavily traveled from Europe to China. And it was Bactria in Afghanistan where the finest stone beads of that period were made. Lapis, turquoise, carnelian, banded agates, serpentine all were produced from mining the Himalayas. Artisans were no doubt attracted by the traffic of buyers through Balkh, which became a hub along the Silk Road.

The bead makers had materials ready to hand and a culture that produced craftsmen who had developed their bead making to a high art. For this post, I will add just this one photo of such beads:

These are amulets made from fossilized shells or alabaster, but they do not have the characteristic grain of alabaster, and they are too hard and dense to be gypsum, the other white material used for beads and seals. So I am assuming that they are fossilized shell, as I saw a lot of that in Afghanistan when I lived there.

More information on Bactria in the book Bactria, an ancient oasis civilization from the sands of Afghanistan, Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, eds.

Cultural Finds in Ghazni and Kabul

In 1973, we did not have Wikipedia so I had to read about the Ghaznavid Empire from other sources, but we are now gifted with the internet. Here is what Wikipedia, that compendium of human knowledge writes about the empire whose seat was at now humble small-town Ghazni:

*The Ghaznavids ...were a ... dynasty of Turkic slave origin... which existed from 975 to 1187 and ruled much of Persia, Transoxeania and the northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent... The Ghaznavid state was centered in Ghazni, a city in modern-day Afghanistan. ....

The dynasty was founded by Sebutkin upon his succession to rule of territories centered around the city of Ghazni from his father-in-law, Alp Tigin, a break-away ex-general of the Samanid sultans. Sebuktigin's son...expanded the empire in the region that stretched from the Oxus River to the Indus Valley and the Indian Ocean; and in the west it reached Rey and Hamadan.

Under the reign of Mas'ud, the dynasty experienced major territorial losses, losing the western territories to the Seljuqs ... resulting in a restriction of its holdings to Balochistan, Punjab and modern-day Afghanistan. In 1151, Sultan Bahram Shah lost Ghazni to Ala'uddin Hussain of Ghor and the capital was moved to Lahore, India until its subsequent capture by the Ghurids in 1186. *

Our first finds in Ghazni were copper alloy utensils that were rather obviously old and made in a different manner and of a different metal than the modern output of the tinkers and copper mongers of modern Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the people were familiar with the many older items made in the past from what they called Aw-i-josh, or *7 metals.* They pronounce it more like ow-ee-joosh. The metal is cast like a cast iron skillet, thick and all in one piece. We still have one big pot with a piece of its handle missing. The handles are cast as part of the rim. It has a maker's mark? or religious symbol? or some other kind of marks in a series on one side of the rim.

In addition to the old pot, I found this item in the same antique shop:

It is a snake with its tail in its mouth. I had read a lot of mythology, so I recognized the symbol. On the off-chance that it really did have something to do with the Afghan past, I bought it. When my husband saw how taken I was by the find, he mentioned that he had seen a similar figure in Kabul in an antique shop.

Back in Kabul, on our next browsing of the antique shops, now that we knew real antiquities might be available, we found the carving that he had remembered.

This carving shows two entwined snakes eating a goat. These are amulets produced by or derived from the Bactria Margiana civilization which existed in what is now Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan.

Many years later, my interest in these alabaster amulets was vindicated. As I assisted in the editing of Dr. Victor Sarianidi's Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana, I learned much more of the history and cultural value of the items for which I thought I might have over-paid.

See more of my collection of ancient Bactrian archeological finds.
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A Shared Culture of Ornamentation

The ancient culture of Bactria along the Amu Darya river (now in Afghanistan), the Margiana culture along the Murghab river (now in Turkmenistan), the proto-Iranian culture in the deserts south of the Caspian all reveal enough strong parallels in ornamentation that some archeologists have grouped them into one of the following appellations: Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC), Outer Iranian culture, or proto-Iranian culture. Whether the shared cultural items and ornamental motifs arrived through exchange or whether they were brought into new areas by immigrants is still being debated by the scholars. I learned only today that very recently the Iranian archeologists have named the finds from the Kerman region (located within the boundaries of modern Iran) the *Jiroft* culture. It is dated as contemporary with the Bactria-Margiana culture.

From the published photos of some of the finds (the publication is recent; I do not know when the artifacts were excavated), I see a continuity in the mythical motifs of winged serpents fighting lions such as in this piece from the article from The image is somewhat related to the image of the serpents eating a goat in my last blog at this site.

One of the glaring differences between the cultural output of the Bactria-Margiana and that of the Jiroft culture is the table with symbols that appear to be script from the ruins in Jiroft, in the Kerman region, whereas there has never been a scrap of anything that might be construed as writing in the Bactria-Margiana finds.

Above: the tablet from the Jiroft site is more like script than anything found in the tons of artifacts removed from the Bactria-Margiana sites. Below: this item from Jiroft is very like the images of the myths and symbols expressed on the BMAC material.

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The Signet Seals of Pre-Literate Early Bactria-Margiana

No actual alphabetic messages have yet been found on any artifact excavated from or found on the surface of one of the sites of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex. Geographically, the more or less agreed upon boundaries of BMAC  area would be Southern Turkmenistan, Eastern Iran and most of Afghanistan reaching over to the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. The time frame of the most meaningful cultural items produced by these mobile but not migrant farmers and animal domesticators that inhabited the oases and river plains was about 4,500 years ago to 3,600 years ago. They did not disappear after this time, but other cultures blended with theirs so thoroughly that the area congealed into a trade system that spread many of their products far and wide throughout the Middle East, often including parts of Europe, and almost always including North Africa and the Arabian Gulf.

But in the pre-literate period for the Bactria-Margiana culture -- 4,500 - 3,600 years ago -- the people used seals with cultic or at least mythical symbols. In the case of stone seals, the images were engraved; in the case of bronze, copper or occasionally silver seals, the images were cast. The seals were usually furnished with a device that would allow the owner to wear or carry the seal. In fact, so many of the seals were decorated with mythical images that Dr. Sarianidi, the excavator of much of the archeological material, calls them amulets, and after long field experience with the amulets, he has interpreted the meanings of the amulets. His work is published in Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on its Seals and Amulets.

One of the more artistic of the published seals is the copper image of a wolf killing a goat. The device for hanging the seal on a cord is the loop in the center of the image that shows as a protrusion in that area.

The seal in the photo is a naturalistic one, and may not carry any mythical meaning. The more abstract seals that I hope to explore in later blogs will carry the proto-Zoroastian message that was later expressed in the old Indo-European language in their sagas.

This side is the side that would have been held by the loop while the opposite side was pressed into the clay or wax in order to seal a message or a possession, leaving an embossed expression in the sealing medium.

These seals were made beautiful because they were an adornment of the person, expressing the person's identity, status and in some cases, their religion, in a special amulet.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Along the Amu Darya -- the Oxus River

First, to westerners the Amu Darya is a mystery.  It is a great river that has supported more than one civilization in its history.   To give an authoritative source on its location and the lands it waters:

*Amu Darya or Amudarya , river, c.1,600 mi (2,580 km) long, formed by the junction of the Vakhsh and Pandj rivers, which rise in the Pamir Mts. of central Asia. It flows generally northwest, marking much of the northern border of Afghanistan with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan before flowing through the Kara Kum desert of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and entering the S Aral Sea through a delta. The river drains c.180,000 sq mi (466,200 sq km). It flows swiftly until it reaches the Kara Kum where its course braids into several channels. The Amu Darya provides water for irrigation.... The Kara Kum Canal (c.500 mi/800 km long) carries water from the Amu Darya near Kelif across S Turkmenistan to Ashgabat and supplements the flow of the Tejen and Murgab rivers.*
"Amu Darya" The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 
The first named culture that settled and flourished in that area East of the Caspian is the Djeitun, a group that had separate small communities of houses made of mud cylinders and earth floors.  The houses varied in size from about 45 square feet to 100 square feet per dwelling.  The land around the few dwellings in each community was used to domesticate wild wheat and barley, goats and cattle.  The people used animal bones to make tools such as sickles to harvest the grain.  They inserted rows of stone blades into the sickle shaped bones. (Ref: Victor Sarianidi, Margiana and Protozoroastrism)
This was happening around 6,000 B. C.  These small settlements endured for a long time, leaving cultural deposits of stone and bone tools and later clay vessels as much as 20 feet deep in some locations.  At some point about twenty-five hundred years after the Djeitun culture was settled in the area between the Amu Darya and the area now covered by the Caspian Sea, a group of nomad farmers, so-called because settlements with related cultural artifacts were scattered over such a wide area from Anatolia (Turkish Plateau) to the Indus Valley, including several settlements in the land watered by the Amu Darya.  
By 2,500 B. C. they were producing amuletic ornaments made of stone, bone, shell and copper, and even some of silver.  The ornaments called seals or stamp seals by Dr. Sarianidi, the excavator of numerous such ornaments, were used to make impressions in clay, because the excavators of this culture have found the stamp seals along with the old impression together in the same level of the excavation.  The seals or amulets are formed with a handle and usually a loop in the handle for hanging on a cord.  

The bronze compartmented seals became much more complex and are the identifying mark of this Bronze Age culture in Central Asia.  Here is a photo of one of the more intriguing examples: 

According to Victor Sarianidi, the excavator of Gonur Depe, Margiana, an ancient walled city on a large channel of the Amu Darya, this is a copper (the primary metal of the Bronze Age) compartmented seal showing 3 serpents entangled.  It is in my collection and was published in Sarianidi's work Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana...   

I have two alabaster seals from Bactria in modern day Afghanistan that illustrate the same myth that had prominent currency in the spirituality of ancient Bactria and Margiana, along the Amu Darya.  Here are those two fascinating ornaments to consider:
This serpent is eating its own tail.Here we see two serpents eating a goat.  This symbol of the serpent or serpent dragons (snakes with feet) figures very prominently in the Bactria-Margiana myths.  Oddly enough, each of the seven times my husband went to the excavation site at Gonur Depe, he was reminded to watch out for the huge dragon-lizard that lived along the channel of the Amu Darya and would smell up your tent if you let him get in it.  

I have no idea and have found no speculation by the archeologists or anthropologists that the figures on the amulets could have been related to a real serpent with feet -- a huge lumbering smelly lizard that still lives in Gonur Depe.  

 The items in my personal collection had been clandestinely excavated and sold in the Kabul, Afghanistan bazaar before Dr. Sarianidi did any excavations in Afghanistan or Turkmenistan.  That is how he came to explore the possibility of trying to find the civilization that had produced the ancient artifacts he found in so many hands in Kabul.  When we went searching for information on the items we had bought, we found Dr. Sarianidi and that is how we became interested in his continuing work.

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