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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