Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Burial Customs in Ancient Margiana

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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-