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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