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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