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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