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