Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Travel, Trade and inter-Cultural Exchange

Reviewing and continuing from my last post, and still based on David Anthony's work The Horse, the Wheel and Language, we can explore a bit deeper into the economic activity along the route taken by the Bactrians from the steppe region north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to a settlement that became a kingdom in Bactria at the foot of the Pamir mountains along the Amu Darya.

By 3,500 B.C., trade routes were being blazed by early traders that instigated the movement toward the global village in which we live today.  Material goods were carried by the merchants and were acquired by different settlements, even different cultures, along the length of the route.  This development makes it much more difficult to assign the artifacts discovered in excavated ancient sites to one culture rather than the other.  But if a group of sites yield great amounts of a certain type of goods and the technology for making those goods is also found on the site, it is assumed that the complex of settlements using that type of goods to a great extent were in close cultural association.  They constitute an ethnic group with similar if not identical beliefs, rituals, societal organization and burial customs.

This is my brief explanation of how the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex is identified.  After all, the people in those regions left no written records until much later in their history.  The buildings, housewares, ritual objects and personal accessories were buried in the ruins of a community or in the ancient burial grounds.  However, we remind ourselves that the trade route even at this time allowed the exchange of material goods and language, and from a shared language come the metaphysical assumptions rooted in the language.   These exchanges -- at least of the material goods -- were happening in places as distant from each other as Ur in Chaldea, Bogazkoy in Anatolia, Mohenjo Doro in the Indus Valley Bactria along the Amu Darya and Kashgar in Western China.

The Bactria-Margiana culture became influential in the Bronze Age, beginning around 2,000 - 2,500 B.C., through the tin trade.  Tin mines were active in Anatolia and in the foothills of the Pamir mountains, an offshoot from the West end of the Himalayas.  The mine lay between Bactria and Kashgar, just over the Pamir in what is now the northwest region of China.  Naturally, merchants followed the even more ancient path of the migrating people of the Neolithic through the mountain pass and then the tin was passed along to various cultures within the huge geographic area now known as China.

Tin was a desired commodity because it is a necessary ingredient of true bronze and it was bronze that made tools tough enough and sharp enough to work stone into ritual vessels, personal ornaments that both decorated the household or person and stored wealth and therefore could be exchanged for other necessities.  Bronze tools and weapons empowered the user in work and in hunting or fighting.  Bronze tools held a point and a sharp edge longer than the former copper tools had done.  Bronze as well as copper could be cast in stone molds to form small copper and bronze seals or ritual and household vessels.
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Jade workers in settlements along the eastern part of this trade route were no doubt eager to turn in their bamboo, stone and bone tools for bronze tools.  Here is a jade item at least several centuries old, if not a few thousand, on which you can see what I think are the irregular diagonal traces of a hand saw that was not totally abraded to a smooth surface.  Granted the saw could have been an iron or steel saw if the piece is only several hundred years old.

My next blog entry will continue this brief and casual review of the cultural background and the influence of the ancient Bactria-Margiana people. 

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Who Were the Earliest Bactrians?

When answering such a question as 'Who were the earliest Bactrians?,' I find myself choosing which linguist, which archeologist and which writer on these subjects to use as an authority.  Seemingly the best work in English to reconcile some of the divergences among a wide array of linguists and archeologists is David W. Anthony's prize-winning work, The Horse, the Wheel and Language, 2007.

In my own much stripped down version of his very detailed and documented account of the folk migrations that occurred from about 4,000 to 1,500  B.C., I will give an account here of the people that came into what is now the Iranian Desert and also into Bactria and Margiana.  He also includes a folk migration from the same origin into the Altai mountain region to the East and then down into parts of what is now China.  But that is for a different blog.

Going back to the Bactrians' origin, let us rely on Anthony and follow his choice of linguists and archeologists that identify the area north of the Black Sea and extending eastward to the Caspian as the probable origin of an extensive cultural expression among people whose skeletons and mummified remains show physical traits of the people now called Indo-Europeans, based on the language family that connects them.  From Welsh Gaelic to ancient Sanskrit, in Iceland and in India, the languages are related through a root language that we call Indo-European.  The cultural objects from pots and ornaments to the clothes on the 3,500 year old mummies in northwestern China, we find that they wore twill woven plaid garments, and sometimes had red hair and blue eyes.  Of course, there were many that looked more like the people of Tadjikistan or northern India as well.  

But over all, the people who left the steppes north of the Black Sea and moved South and East, covering over a thousand miles in just a matter of a few centuries, and settling the Anatolian-Iranian plateau, oases in the area around the Kopet Dagh and along the Amu Darya, and finally through the steppes of Kazakhstan and southern Siberia, this easternmost branch settled the area east of the Kunlun Shan and west to the Tarim Basin of northwestern China.  With them they all carried some elements of what became the Indo-European material culture of the second and first millennium B. C.  Their metaphysical culture seemed to include a theological system of belief in the dualistic nature of the universe; a belief in the Good Force and the Evil Force.  As they created amulets to carry or to wear on their person, they shaped in clay, carved in stone, engraved on bone, wood or gemstones the figures that represented these forces.  Often they showed the forces in physical struggle on their personal ornaments and on ritual objects.  

The Bactrians showed a heroic figure, sometimes a human with an animal's head,  battling with whatever symbol represented Evil in their artistic imagination.  More often than not, the eagle or a human with a bird-like head was chosen to represent the force of Good, usually in the position of vanquishing the force of Evil,  represented by coiled or writhing serpents.  

As one example, I offer a drawing from a cast bronze miniature seal from Bactria:

after Sarianidi, 1998
In this seal iconography, we can see the eagle-headed winged human representing the force of Good and the Evil Force is represented by six or seven scaled, writhing cobra-like serpents with their crests flared being held and controlled by the hero figure.   The angelic eagle-human is in a kneeling posture, adding to the probability that this cast bronze amulet is religious art.  

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sealing an Ethnic Identity

Stamping possessions or identifying a person's status or beliefs was important in a-literate societies.  The stamp seal or the cylinder seal could serve this purpose without a person needing to read or write.  The wearer of an amuletic seal apparently felt his role in society to be secured by such a talisman.  A seal that revealed his belief in a certain manner of worship and at the same time protected him because of that belief was an important ornament and often accompanied the wearer to his grave.

In fact, as in a modern Christian burial, the cross is worn or placed on the body of the deceased to stay with him in the casket, the ancient Bactrian seals that reveal symbols of their cultic beliefs and practices were preserved in the tombs until modern times.   It is fascinating to ponder on why so many of the Bactrian seals from four thousand years ago bear symbols that we see in Eastern and Western religions today.   For example, I offer this cross shape as the central symbol in this cast copper seal from Bactria, now in my collection: 

Ancient Bactrian seal shown here with the impression in modeling clay 

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Here is a fuller description of this particular seal. 
 My introduction to the ancient Central Asian pre-Alexander Bactrian culture happened on a sidewalk in Kabul, Afghanistan. My husband and I were strolling along the main shopping corridor of Shar-i-nau or The New City. We were using the day off from work to do some shopping for the household, as we were living in Kabul at the time. We turned the corner from the Chai Khana or Tea House and there on the sidewalk, a merchant from a village had opened his shop on a colorful scarf spread on the concrete walk. Fascinated by what we saw, we leaned over the ancient pieces spread before us. 

With gestures and the merchant's limited English and our limited Farsi, we understood that he had purchased the old previously buried pieces from people who had been plundering the ruins of old Bactria, the Afghan town called Balkh. We recognized the pieces as being from another age, but we knew nothing about their provenance nor what their age might be. We collected many such items such as vessels, seals and statuettes. Years later we came home and unpacked our treasures. Only much later we discovered that other people had come in contact with this merchant and others while they lived in Kabul and they had acquired more knowledge and more artifacts than we had done. 

Those collectors mentioned a Russian archeologist who had led excavations in Bactria and was still leading excavations in Turkmenistan into what he and other archeologists call the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, a material culture that extended from Eastern Anatolia to the Indus Valley and from Turkmenistan to Baluchistan. These were ruined settlements that had been occupied by people who made many of the same images on their vessels and on their personal adornments. 

This seal bears one of the common images. It was viewed at our home by Dr. Victor Sarianidi when he was in the United States researching Bactrian material for his book Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets. This seal was later published in this book as Number 334 on page 109 and labeled as Seal, Copper. 4.0 cm diameter. Cross with beams broadening at their ends inside indented border. The figures surrounding the cross form are birds or fish, both propitious symbols used on various artifacts found in the ruins of this culture. 

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Monday, June 11, 2012

A Tomb in Margiana and Grave Goods from BMAC Burials

My husband took this photo at the Gonur Necropolis excavation site around the year 2000.  From the side of the grave we can look into 3,500 years of history.  The Gonur Necropolis is a large site, with many burials of Margiana people from different social strata.  The social status of the deceased is determined by the manner of burial within a certain spiritual tradition.  Since burial customs are slow to change, it might be safe to assume that most of the people buried there had lived within the same spiritual tradition.  Therefore, I might not be too far off the mark to say that the deference shown to a particular corpse would signify the level of society in which he/she lived.  

The grave shown above reveals two groups of bones; the skeletons of either individual do not appear to be complete.  The age or sex cannot be determined from the photo.  This is a more capacious grave than the most common ones at Gonur.  This appears to be a small chamber tomb with a raised area for pots and plates and enough space  for a second corpse.  
There appear to be some ornaments on one of the skeleton, but they remain stuck in the earth surrounding the skeleton.  

Within the graves of the various settlements of the Bactria-Marigiana Archeological Complex, which was related in material culture and in religious practices and burial customs, we find similar ornamentation mainly in the form of beads, amulets, seals and statuettes in addition to the household items.  Unauthorized digging or surface collecting from graves in Bactria yielded the beads that are strung on this necklace: 

Ancient Bactrian Steatite Faience and Shell Bead Necklace with Symbols  Contact me through the private message form above right.

The 'grave robbers' of so many of the BMAC ruins put such beads as those above into the market place where collectors could purchase them.  

This necklace is made of ancient beads from the ruins of the ancient settlements in Bactria which is now included in the country of Afghanistan. These kinds of beads were made and worn by the people who were buried there in the ruins during the period from 2,500 B.C. to 1,600 B.C. The circle and dot design is a common symbol used to decorate ornamentation of that time in the Bactrian culture.

Ancient Bactrian Steatite Faience and Shell Bead Necklace with Symbols

 The central bead on the shorter strand appears to be made of an ivory like material, either bone, shell, or animal tooth. Notable is the hole on that bead. It was worn through so many generations that even the hole in such hard material was worn into a triangular shape by the string that held it. This is characteristic of beads worn for a very long time. There are smaller beads on the strands that appear to be of the same material. One small bead still has the shape of a molar. 

The clay bead shown in detail below has an appliqué of an eye shape that protrudes from the surface of the bead. 

Ancient Bactrian Steatite Faience and Shell Bead Necklace with Symbols

The central bead on the longer strand is early glass, called faience. It was glazed with a greenish color in ancient times and some of the color is still present.

Faience was made in very early times in this region, because Bactria was a hub of the ancient trade routes and many artisans either traveled through here or were settled in Bactria. The wandering traders brought new knowledge and techniques to the bead makers in Bactria.

Faience was usually either painted or the pigment was added before the silica was heated to melt it and form it into beads around a fireproof rod. It could also be considered a ceramic depending on the amount of refinement it went through.

There is one tiny carnelian bead that has been clouded with chemicals from the earth in which it was buried. It appears to have been painted with designs, but the patterns traced there by the chemical inclusions are permanent integral parts of the tiny carnelian.

The collector will enjoy a close examination of each bead, which probably has an interesting story to tell the person who likes to 'read beads.' This piece is not only collectible, but also wearable.

The beads have been re-strung on nylon coated steel bead wire and furnished with a bronze plated zinc clasp.

Measurements: 21 in (53.5 cm) long
Central Bead on longest strand: 14 mm x 15 mm  Contact me through the private message form above right.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Faience and Stone Beads from the Tombs

Ancient Persian Faience Beads Dating Third to Second Millennium B C  
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 This attractive string of faience beads came from the ruins of an ancient site belonging to the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex.  Because these sites were not only a conglomerate of settlements strung out along the long established trade routes of Western Asian, they were also way stations along the major trade route.  Faience is a blend of clay based technology and glass production.  Silica or fine sand was heated and allowed to congeal around a fireproof rod.

Then it was glazed or not as the bead maker chose.  It was most often pigmented early in the process, but it was also made in its native color and then the pigment could be added during the glazing process.  Many of the beads in this string were made as a long tube and then simply broken or sawed into shorter pieces.  As in almost all necklaces strung together from findings from the ruins of ancient sites, this string contains very special stone and large ceramic beads as well.  

These ancient faience beads from Old Persia of the third to second millennium B.C. were found in various ancient ruined sites where they either came to the surface through erosion or were excavated by unauthorized prospectors for ancient artifacts. They found their way to a city merchant who sold them to an antiques dealer in New York City. That is where I found them. We do not have to take the word of the antiques dealer in order to acknowledge the origin of the beads. Such faience beads are shown in published works on the history, origins, techniques of manufacture and style of various periods in the reference works that I use for this particular period of the Bactria-Margiana cultural complex in Iran and Outer Iran. Outer Iran is a term used as we would use Greater Los Angeles, meaning not only the city but its exurbs as well. Iran's cultural exchanges extended from the foot of the west side of the Himalayas into the midst of what is now Turkey, from Turkmenistan in the north to the Lut and Sindh deserts in the South. 

Back to the string of beads: not all of the beads on the string are made of faience, but most of them are. They also include among the small beads some made of clear quartz, bright and dark shades of carnelian, turquoise that is now green, and lapis of which some have paled to gray. There is even a few tiny beads of coral. The unglazed gray and white striped bead may be of clay, not mixed nor fired into hardness in the same way as the faience beads. The other light gray, dark gray striped bead is the typical, highly valued Himalayan banded agate. Modern bead makers style these as dzi beads and are the sacred amulets of that region to this day. The round carnelian bead in the focal section of the string of beads is carnelian and shows the unintentional faceting on a round bead that is typical of that period. Such faceting cannot be avoided when smoothing the surface of the bead by holding it in hand while smoothing it on a smear of wet grit on a flat stone. The carnelian rondelle above the focal bead is very interesting in shape and in its baroque texture. 

Finally the ceramic rondelle bead strung with the focal may have been at one time decorated with pigment and a pattern which seems very faintly evident. These beads may well have been separated in time as far as their manufacture goes. Some may date from four thousand five hundred years ago, while others may date from closer to the end of that culture about three thousand five hundred years ago. 

Measurements: 21 inches in length; focal bead: 15 mm diameter  Contact me through the private message form above right.

Lois Sherr Dubin, The History of Beads, New York, 1987
Robert K. Liu, Collectible Beads, Vista, 1995
Victor Sarianidi, Necropolis of Gonur, Athens, 2007
Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, Bactria, Venice, 198-

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bactrian Copper Compartmented Seal

Bactrian ornament designers made small things: miniature statues, small stamp seals and pounds and pounds of small tubular and tabular beads.  On many of the stone stamp seals, the engraver carved a mythical narrative of heroic battles, or icons that illustrated the Bactrian world view.

The copper compartmented seals were often on a slightly larger scale than the carved stone seals.  But the compartmented metal seals, too, cast with Bronze Age technology and usually equipped with a looped handle to be worn as an amulet, often accompanied the owner to the grave.  Here is the photo and the story of one that is presently in my collection.
Ancient Bactria Copper Seal Authenticated and Published by Knowledgeable Archeologist  Contact me through the private message form above right.

Long after we left our two year residence in Afghanistan, this ancient Bactrian copper seal came into our collection through another resident of Afghanistan finding that we too had found Bactrian artifacts in the hands of dealers in antiquities in Kabul, Afghanistan. At that time, no one knew what culture had produced them, and certainly we did not know who had found them in the ruins of whatever old culture had produced them. We did recognize them as old and probably important to preserve. After we returned to the United States, we bought Bactrian artifacts from other dealers here in America. By that time, published material on Bactria was becoming available. 

We were very pleased to know that our small collection of seals and amulets was from ancient Bactria in Afghanistan, a jewel of a city along the Silk Road. It was active in trade even in ancient times. Its culture flourished from around 2,500 BC to 1,600 BC. But Balkh, the still present city in Afghanistan, was occupied by Alexander the Great in building his Asian Empire around 360 BC. So there is quite a long history and many valuable things to learn about this city and its several cultures. This ancient copper seal is called a 'cross shape' by Dr. Victory Sarianidi in his book on Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana on ... Seals and Amulets. 

It was photographed by Ron Garner and seen personally by Dr. Sarianidi at our home before he published the book. This seal appears as Number 332 on pp. 108,9.Size 3.7 cm diam.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Cosmetic Containers in Bactrian Tombs

One of the more numerous items found in the tombs that were uncovered by official excavations and by casual finds or illicit digging are the vessels for a substance called kohl.  It is a black, waxy material that was widely used in the Middle East and Egypt as a beautifier and a protector for the eyes.  Even modern mothers will apply kohl to their children's eyes when going out with them.  Men also wear kohl to protect their eyes.  The old American movies that show the Sheik of Araby wearing heavy eye make-up was not just a mistake by the movie's make-up artist.

Evidently the Bactrian woman would not be caught without it; even in death, her cosmetic flask was stored in the tomb with her.  Many such flasks with this typical decorative motif have been collected from the tombs.

Three Thousand Year Old Steatite Cosmetic Flask -- Contact me through the private message form above right.

This ancient flask that once contained cosmetics was found in the ruins of ancient Bactria in Afghanistan. The vessel, once found, would have been taken to the nearest city to an antiques merchant and sold. The antiques merchant then sold it to an international dealer and we bought it for our collection from that dealer. For assurance that this is Bactrian, you can consult the work of Dr. Victor Sarianidi and the Ligabue Institute such as Victor Sarianidi, Necropolis of Gonur, Athens, 2007 and Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, Bactria, Venice, 198-

A simple striation forming cone shapes decorates this kohl flask. Kohl became an essential cosmetic and eye protector throughout the southern parts of the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Africa. It is still popular on the sub-continent. Some ingredient in the kohl was believed to repel insects and the shading around the eyes somehow guarded the wearer from evil influences. 

Kohl came to be regarded as an enhancement of beauty. Women all over the world now apply a similar cosmetic to accentuate the shape and luminosity of their eyes. 

Often these flasks were equipped with very fanciful applicator wands, some with animal figures worked in precious metal, others with geometric designs. Most of the time, archeologists do not find the applicator with the flask. It may be that the applicator was not a part of the flask but a separate possession to be carried with the person to whom it belonged and used in different flasks of cosmetic materials. 

At some point in the three thousand years or more of its existence, this flask was cracked at the edge of one corner, but not broken through the wall of the flask. Otherwise it is much as it was when created. It still has some of the Bactrian soil stuck on one side. 

This flask measures 4.8 cm (1.9 in) high x 2.7 cm (1 in) x 3 cm (1.2 in)

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Bactria Amulet with Symbolic Rosette Cross formed by Incised Circles

             Bactria Amulet with Symbolic Rosette Cross formed by Incised Circles -- SOLD

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This ancient Bactrian amulet carved as a rosette with mythical symbols of incised circles in a double cross design is from a civilization dating from 3000 B.C. to 1600 B.C. That civilization was replaced by later inhabitants that have also been replaced, or at least their culture developed in a new direction. But in the third millennium B.C., some 5,000 years ago, the myths that informed the culture were expressed in designs on stone amulets, seals, and vessels of various kinds. The myths were acted out in monumental temples.

From the ruins of the temples and the extensive finds from the tombs, the temporal objects produced by the ancient Bactrian culture were excavated and have been interpreted by Dr. Victor Sarianidi in his book, Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana....
This particular amulet has been in our collection for some years; we acquired it from a dealer in antiquities in Afghanistan, the modern location of ancient Bactria. When Dr. Sarianidi visited our home to view our collection, he identified this amulet as Bactrian. In fact, it is similar to the seal/amulet numbered 1263 on page 237 in the book named above. Such seal/amulets were made of a white stone sometimes identified as limestone, but very much more dense and smooth than limestone objects usually are.

The design on the amulet depicted above is complex. First, the edge of the amulet is not only shaped by 13 petals, but the edge is incised with fine lines all around. Each of the circles contain another circle in lower relief; this inside circle is not round but has cogs around it, apparently six cogs, judging from the outside circles that are not filled in with earth that obscures the cogs on the small circles.

The circles on the front appear at first glance to be placed randomly across the face of the amulet/seal. But when observed more closely, we see that the design resolves into 2 crosses: one in the shape of a + while the other forms the shape of an x.

The amulet is decorated on the back around the handle with 4 circles that are more conventional for the Bactrian stone engraver: concentric circles that look like eyelets. Between the circles the engraver made simple shallow holes.

The piece was worn smooth and shiny, showing that it was worn for a long time before passing on to the grave with the wearer.

Measurements: 4 cm diameter; 1.4 cm thick.

This item is sold.  For photos, descriptions, prices, shipping policies and Certificates of Authenticity 
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ancient Funerary Goods from Bactrian Tombs

Ancient Bactria Hemispheric Carved Stone Dish Incised Decoration

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From the accidental or unofficial discoveries of these ancient items eroded out or dug up from the tombs in Balkh, the ancient Bactria in Northern Afghanistan, these items were brought into the merchant stalls and sidewalk displays of the merchants in Kabul, Ghazni and Peshawar.  They finally were recognized as something very different and probably very old by the Westerners strolling through the bazaars of such mercantile cities.  They were bought in rather small quantities by many different visitors, but are now being gathered into larger private collections.  

The beads and vessels, the weapons and ritual objects of such a lost culture of the Central Asian Bronze Age, lasting from at least 2,500 B.C. to 1,600 B.C., are now becoming rather hard to acquire for the person who would simply like to have a few for his/her own interest and study.  We were introduced to these items in 1974 when we lived in Kabul for two years.  We have since acquired a small collection of beads, vessels and ritual objects.  The vessel in the photograph above reveals so much of the style of decoration used in Bactria.  

An ancient Bactrian beautiful steatite dish carved as a half circle with a slight concave curve on the 'straight' side. The olive green sets off the striations and conical engraving to good effect. The wavy line decoration lightens the geometric shapes into a more lyrical over all design. There is some wearing away where the sides join into a point. But the piece is in excellent condition for an object that has been weathered either in the earth or exposed to the elements for at least 3,500 years and very possibly as long as 5,000 years. 

The dish is decorated on every side and along the top edge. There are many faint marks on the inside and bottom of the dish, but I suspect that they are marks by the engraving tool.

The culture that produced this dish is located in what is now the country of Afghanistan in the North part, in the high desert of Central Asia, nestled into the lower part of the Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas. 

The civilization that began to develop in ancient Bactria some 5,000 years ago was replaced by later inhabitants that have also been replaced, or at least their culture has developed in a new direction. But in the third millennium B.C., some 5,000 years ago, the myths that informed the culture were expressed in designs on stone amulets, seals, and vessels of various kinds. The myths were acted out in monumental temples.

This dish was probably buried along with the owner as part of his grave goods, though it might have been simply left in a room of a temple that fell to ruin due to invasion or abandonment. 

The pyramidal design on this dish, naturally enough, came to represent the ancestral mountain to the people who settled that area more than a thousand years after ancient Bactria had fallen to ruin. Perhaps it expressed the same meaning in very ancient times, as well. Since Bactria did not record its history in writing, we have no way of knowing. One added commonality with the Mongols who came to that area beginning in the 900s is that they used similar wavy lines to represent water in the ornamentation of their possessions. However much the wavy lines are used in both cultures, we do know from Sarianidi's interpretation of the myths of Bactria, that the ancient Bactrians used wavy lines mainly to represent snakes. 

Inquiries are welcome.

1 inch = 2.5 cm

Measurements: width = 4.7 cm; length = 9.1 cm; thickness = 2.3 cm 

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Chimera in Ancient Bactria and Other Places

A chimera is an imagined species cross so that the offspring is born with anatomical parts from both parents.  For a hypothetical example, a horse and cow crossbred might produce an animal with a stallion’s  head and body and a cow’s rump and milk bag.  That is the kind of image that is created on the basis of the legends that have developed in many different cultures of the world.  
The Bible’s book of Genesis (Beginnings) mentions that angels mixed with the corrupt daughters of men and produced monsters.  The images of such monsters have decorated temples and tapestries, possibly from that early time forward.  Greek mythology is replete with monstrous images of supposed mixtures of gods and humans and humans with animals; often the story is of a Greek god in the body of an animal ravishing a human woman and in some cases the story even names the resulting monster and makes him into a hero or a villain. 
Excavations of palaces and tombs in Bactria have yielded many images on seals and small figurines that show chimera.  The Bactrian culture seems to have entertained the idea of such crossbreds and they took their artistic expression of such creatures to a high degree.  There may be a natural explanation of the Bactrian people’s interest in crossbreds, because their predecessors in that region domesticated the wild animals of their region.  And to their eyes, the resulting offspring indeed resembles both the ancient parents of the new grass-eating domestic animal.  The moufflon is an intermediate stage of the domestication process perhaps.  
In Victor Sarianidi’s book Myths of Ancient Bactria, page 62, No. 63, there is an illustration of a human male with a bird-like head and wings.  The seal is in our collection of seals and amulets, and was authenticated and interpreted thus by Dr. Sarianidi when he visited our collection: ‘Copper amulet, 3.5 x 3.0 cm.  Kneeling bird man with a crest on his head.’ 
If you have questions regarding this seal, leave a comment at the end of the blog entry.  I will respond. 

A more spectacular example of a chimera is this statuette in my collection.  The statuette is made of porphyry, which came to be known as the stone of nobility, since it is used in temples and palaces for the columns and for the tombs of rulers.  
It is a brownish red or maroon color and has a marbling pattern that makes it very noticeable when it is used for decoration or ornamentation.  To my eyes, this appears to represent a hybrid of a duck and a rooster. 
If you are interested in discussing this item, please feel free to comment.  I will be notified of your message and I will respond.  

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gonur Necropolis Grave Goods a Cultural Legacy

The Bactria-Margiana  Bronze Age Central Asian culture lasted from about 2,500 B. C. to 1,600 B.C.  The people there developed high skills in art, especially miniature art, are still a very powerful influence in jewelry designs, and domesticated the sheep, goat and horse.

One of their legacies is the large Gonur burial grounds that cover not only a wide space of ground but at least a millennium of time and embracing different cultures'  burial customs.  Some bodies were buried in the fetal position while some others were found buried in a hole with head down.  A few bodies were found with domestic animals buried near them.  A horse with head and hind quarters missing, and a portion of a lamb's body were found alongside human burials at the same level of excavation.

I am less interested in the method of reposing the body in its resting place than I am in the personal and household items buried with some of the bodies.  Combs, beads, amulets, seals, cosmetic containers, vases and pots are common items to find still in the graves or eroded out of the graves and revealed on the surface for scavengers to pick up and take to the market place.  Such unofficial picking over of ancient ruins brought the Bactria-Margiana culture to light.  But before the official excavations began, thousands of items had been found or illicitly dug up and put on the market in the cities of Central Asia.

My own collection of such items began while I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Kabul is not so far from the central settlement of the Bactrian culture, closely related to the Margiana culture.  Two items of grave goods will illustrate the similarities.  Here is a photo of a ceramic vessel in my own collection:

Ancient Bactrian Ceramic Vessel from Bronze Age Central Asia

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This small pot or cup resembles other vessels of that area and historical period in that it does not have handles. According to the writing of Dr. Victor Sarianidi, the excavator of several Bronze Age sites of Central Asia, in his book on Margush, Ancient Oriental Kingdom in the Old Delta of the Murghab River, the potters of that time and place were more interested in mastering the creation of various shapes of clay vessels. As a result, we see very interesting fluting and elaborate pedestals, spouts and footings on otherwise fairly plain clay vessels. Some are compartmented, others are kidney shaped, still others are tall with narrow necks. 

This particular small vessel has uniform thickness in its wall; the bottom curves seamlessly into the sides, and the rim is flared in a very pleasing way. Inside the vessel we can see traces of the impression of very fine cross hatching that may have been made by finely woven cloth.The firing of the clay was advanced in this area. The kiln was built by digging a rectangular or oval pit lined with mud bricks. This was the fire chamber. Firewood was loaded into it through a hole. Inside this chamber a wall was built that supported the upper baking chamber where the vessels were placed. Holes were drilled in the floor of the baking chamber to allow the heat to come through, but the vessels were protected from open flame and ash. 

This item is complete, undamaged, after about 3,000 years.  Measurements: Rim 2.75 inches diameter; bottom 2.5 inches diameter; 2 inches high.

It is very like the bronze vessel found in Margiana, a related settlement to the North in what is now Turkmenistan, shown in this photo from the work by Dr. Victor Sarianidi, Necropolis of Gonur, plate 87.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Grave Goods in the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex

Grave Goods in the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex

When we consider the utensils, ornaments and organic remains uncovered in excavating the ancient sites of human settlement, we classify those things that have been obviously put in the tomb or pit with the human remains as grave goods.   Ancient items discovered on the surface cannot be classified at all and museums usually are not interested in them for that reason.   Beads are the items commonly found in abundance in the rubble of a ruined settlement and in the graves.  Such beads as these were found in East Iran's ruined settlements of that era.  Those settlements are related culturally to the Margiana sites, according to the archeologist, Dr. Victor Sarianidi.

Casual explorers of ancient sites have gathered such objects through the centuries, and that is how antiquities show up in merchant shops in the countries where people have lived in settlements since the waning of the New Stone Age.   Such archeological material also comes onto the market through clandestine digs, of course.  Once the items are on the market with no context with which to identify the items, again, the museum loses interest and the items pass into the hands of dealers.  The dealers display them in market places of the Middle East where these cultures first sprang up.  And from there, the travelers and collectors buy them.  When I lived in Afghanistan, where Bactria is located, I found these unidentifiable pieces in dealer's shops and only many years later learned that they came from ancient Bactria, not just the Bactrian period of Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia.

The Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex, BMAC, includes sites in East Iran.  Some of the identical cultural products found in both areas are these spindle whorls or loom weights marked with circular designs.  They were found strung with beads.  The ones shown in the photo below are from Bactria, and may date from late antiquity, having been formed in the old way.   However, since grave goods are generally better preserved than items that have been left among the general ruins, these well-preserved spindle whorls or loom weights or beads may date from as long ago as four thousand five hundred years ago.  If they were simply made in later Bactria in the ancient pattern, they could date from as recent as one thousand five hundred years ago.
The texture, weight and appearance of these pieces closely resemble ivory or a very dense bone or shell.  They are not made of stone, glass or ceramic.  According to Dr. Victor Sarianidi, who excavated a large part of the BMAC sites in Turkmenia and some in Afghanistan, ivory materials were discovered in East Iran and in Margiana.   

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Victor Sarianidi, Necropolis of Gonur, Athens, 2007
Victor Sarianidi, Margiana and Protozoroastrism, Athens, 200-
Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, Bactria, Venice, 198-
Lois Sherr Dubin, The History of Beads, New York, 1987
Robert K. Liu, Collectible Beads, Vista, 1995

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Burial Customs in Ancient Margiana

For a display of my collection of archeological findings from Bactria, visit my Personal Website.

Thanks to my archeologist friend, Dr. Victor Sarianidi of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, the burial customs of one of the excavated sites in Margiana are well-documented in English in two of his published works: Margiana and Protozoroastrism, and Necropolis of Gonur.

In Gonur Necropolis, Sarianidi found two different burial rites, one in shallow pit graves with the body simply laid in the earth.  The other burial rite was elaborate, with a ritual cleansing of the grave by burning or cleansing with gypsum, a kind of white wash before the deceased was laid in the deeper pit.

The second rite described above also was found to contain partial burials.  That is, the body was brought there for burial after the bones had been stripped and often parts of the skeleton was left.  Victor was led to consider and then to decide that these rites developed over the next few hundred years into the spirituality of the Zoroastrians.   The purifying of the grave in order to protect the earth from the pollution of receiving a dead body and then the burial of the remaining parts from a body that had been exposed for time before being laid in the earth are still practiced where the Parsees (Persians) are free to practice them.  When I lived in Karachi, there was an area near the Arabian Sea where the Parsees still laid their recently deceased on raised platforms until their burial rites could be performed in the traditional way.

The ancient culture that is now called the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex  was once a lively cultural region  that included settlements from Anatolia in Turkey to the Indus Valley and from Turkmenistan to East Central Iran.  The people in this cultural complex were not uniform in their artistic expression or in burial practices.  But they shared enough to show a strong relationship among the excavated relics of their settlements.  The archeologists variously name the people proto-Iranians, Indo-Iranians, proto-Zoroastrians, Persians, Indo-Persians and perhaps other names.  The area now bearing the widely accepted name of BMAC or Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex is also called Outer Iran.

In any of the names, there is the association with the people now known as Persians or Iranians, which still includes a huge portion of that very same area that BMAC encompassed.    Certainly Iran itself, along with Afghanistan and parts of India, Pakistan and Turkmenistan are included.  Where we see the old Iranian religion persisting into the present in communities consisting of *cradle Zoroastrians,* that is to say, people who are of that belief system by birth, we recognize language and customs that can be traced back to the time before Alexander's conquest of Persia.

In a coming blog, we will examine some of the utensils, animals, jewelry, and other important cultural objects that are buried with the dead of Gonur in Margiana in particular.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Who Lived in Bactria-Margiana?

Indo-Iranians of Early Central Asia

The earliest archeological records show that the people of the period 2,500 B.C. to 1,600 B.C. came from the West and settled in the desert oases of Central Asia.  Due to the work of the Russians' studies in comparative linguistics, but most of all due to their archeological excavations, we know that the Bactrians shared the physiognomy of the Indo-Iranians.  For that reason, the archeologist who worked the longest and dug up many of the sites, Dr. Victor Sarianidi, calls them proto-Iranians, or *preceding Iranians.*  

This post is intended to be sketchy and not scholarly.  I do not want your eyes to glaze over.  I welcome your additions to the discussion.  There is much to be added.

It almost seems that these Indo-Iranians of Central Asia came Eastward and stopped  only when they encountered the lower reaches of the Himalayas.  Just to the north of Kabul Afghanistan is Bactria, one of the richest archeological sites.  But along their path Eastward, from Anatolia, the high plateau in Turkey, through Elam near the Persian Gulf, then across the desert of present day Iran, they established  settlements along the way.   In addition to Bactria, at almost the same time, they settled in a place along the major river in Margiana, which is now in Turkmenistan.  This is now a rich source for archeological artifacts that reveal much about their mindset, their burial customs and their rites of worship.  Apart from the citadel with a temple, a palace and defensive towers in thick walls surrounding the residences, Dr. Sarianidi found a huge burial ground which he named the Gonur Necropolis.   

Excavating, cataloging and interpreting the contents of the graves occupied Victor's work for at least the last decades of his working life.  Through his work we learn about who lived in the settlement of Gonur in Margiana by studying how they died and were buried.  Amulets, beads, seals, household items and even animals were buried with or near their owner.  We will explore this in upcoming blogs.  We can begin with the personal items that were carried to the grave with the body.   Perhaps most important to the deceased were the amulets they wore in death, pieces such as this:
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First we know that beads much like these in the photo below were buried with the owner.  Possibly a hundred thousand Bactrian style beads were clandestinely and officially excavated and collected by museums or sold to collectors, the authorized excavations placing their finds in the care of a museum; the other kind of excavator sold his finds to the local antiquities dealer.
Ancient carnelian beads from the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex
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But apart from making the most popular style of beads from the most treasured stones along the trade routes that began to flourish in that region by 2,500 B.C., these people also developed a high culture with a ruling class, a clergy, temple worship, elaborate rituals concerning burials and monumental architecture.  

As practical contributions to the all humankind, they domesticated the precursor of sheep and goats and then bred to differentiate the species.  Above all their greatest contribution to animal husbandry was domesticating the horse.  

We will explore the burial customs in our next blog, because so much of their archeological record is contained in the Gonur necropolis in Margiana.    

Victor Sarianidi, Necropolis of Gonur, Athens, 2007
Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, Bactria, Venice, 198-