Monday, December 23, 2013

Memory Eternal, Viktor Sarianidi

We received the sad news from one of Viktor's colleagues at the Russian Academy of Science that Viktor passed away today. It is a great loss to the academic world and to us, his friends. It was a great pleasure to know him and it was of great benefit to learn from him. I feel very blessed to have been named by Viktor as the 'Mistress of Animals,' a Bactrian mythological figure. Since I had a lot of sheep and dogs when Viktor visited us twice here in America, he jokingly always referred to me as the woman of that myth. For those of you who may not be familiar with the name or his works, I will explain. Viktor (Victor) Sariganidi (Sarianidi) led the Russian excavations at the Bactria and Margiana sites in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. I thought many of my readers would want to know of his passing. Memory Eternal, dear friend.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Symbolism in a Pre-Literate Society

The Bactrian alphabet either never developed while the ancient Bactrians along the Amu Darya were making the miniature art and the monumental architecture that are their legacy. The art and the buildings have been lying in ruins since 1600 B.C.  In that time a great deal of casual excavation has uncovered tens or hundreds of thousands of tiny amulets, small household utensils from the tombs and large marble maceheads from the great halls and palaces that they had built.  It is rare to find even an attempt at representational art on engraved household or personal decoration.  Most of the decoration is symbolic even when human, animal and plant life are engraved on personal or household items.  Usually they are shown in narrative scenes that symbolize the beliefs and rituals of the Bactrians of 2500 B.C. to 1600 B.C.

This small basalt bowl may be the exception, though I am tempted to interpret the palm tree like incised images all around the sides of the bowl not as oasis palm trees but as the symbolic art that I am accustomed to seeing in my Bactrian collection.  It would have been a natural response of the artist to engrave palm trees, because the ancient Bactrians inhabited the desert oases along the river channels that were already in the process of drying up.  However since so many thousands of the amulets, seals and household items that they produced had symbolic figures incised into stone or cast in copper/bronze, I had to admit that there existed another possible explanation of the inscribed patterns on this bowl.  First, here are photos of the Bactrian bowl:

Ancient Bactrian Carved Basalt Bowl with Incised Images All Around Contact me with questions or for invoice through the private message form at the top right of this page.

This is an ancient basalt vessel, obviously used for a very long time.  It may be a ritual drinking vessel, judging from its wear, due to long use. Around the outside it has 4 specific incised designs drawn from the desert oasis environment: it appears to be a palm tree of some kind. There may be other figures there, but I cannot discern what they represent. 

If my friend, Dr. Victor Sarianidi, were here, he could no doubt interpret the carvings for me. He is the foremost expert on the meaning of Bactrian symbolic language. He has published several books and articles on the subject, among them Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on ...Seals and Amulets. This vessel is acknowledged by the collector from whom I acquired it to be from Bactrian tombs in Afghanistan. The Bronze Age Bactrian civilization that produced it existed from 2500 B.C. to 1600 B.C.

The design was carved in low relief, and has been worn even smoother. The relief is so worn away that it is difficult to say whether it is a palm tree or the simple design that is still used to ornament household goods in Central Asia. We see this design on many Turkoman carpets of the last century. It is the symbol of two staffs with a semblance of a set of ram's horns at the top. 

The staffs engraved into this vessel have coils running up the staff, much like the symbol used for medical facilities in Western Europe and North America. However if the image carved into the sides of the vessel represent the desert palm trees, the coils around the trunk would represent the scaly bark of the palm tree. 

Vessel measurements: 6.6 cm (2.6 in) diameter; 3.5 cm (1.37 in) high; 2.5 cm (1 in) deep. The vessel is chipped on the rim as shown in photos.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Connecting Dots to Make Mythical Symbols in Bactria


Bactrian Stone Two Sided Amulet Published by Archeologist

This stone amulet has an image on each side. It has been examined by Dr. Victor Sarianidi who directed the Russian excavations in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex. In fact, Victor chose many Bactrian artifacts in our collection to publish in his work Myths of Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets. His description and photo of this amulet are located on pages 228-29, figures 1207.1 and 1207.2. 

The amulet is notated on page 228, number 1207 as 
Amulet. Pink stone. 1.3 x 1.0 cm; h (meaning thickness) - 0.4 cm. A plant//Swastika

To my eye the stone is more like the color of old ivory, rather than pink. 

Your inquiry is invited.

Another example of a single sided seal rather than an amulet made of dots on stones that are cruciform when the eye discerns the pattern: 

Dr. Victor Sarianidi, a Russian field archeologist that excavated some of the ruins of settlements in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, sat at our dining table and laboriously examined our collected Bactrian items. He verified those that he chose to publish as the products of the ancient settlement of Bactria. That culture existed as a Central Asian oasis agricultural and trading settlement from about 2500 BC to about 1600 BC. 

This stone button seal is among those he chose to publish in his very hard to get book on the subject. Since my husband took the photos for him and I helped him with the English publication, Victor gave us a copy of the book. You may find a copy in some of the university libraries.

The seal is described and pictured in his book Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets, pages 242-43, figure 1314. 

The notation by Dr. Sarianidi on page 242, No. 1314 reads thus: 
Button Seal. White Stone. D[iameter] - 1.1 cm; h [thickness] - 0.65 cm
Cross with dots in the field.

I invite your inquiry.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mythical Figures on Bactrian Amulet from Ancient Times

Bactrian Amulet, Ancient, Images Two Sides, Authenticated and Published
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From our collection that began while we lived in Afghanistan comes this ancient Bactrian limestone amulet is incised with figures of humans and animals that carry a mythical meaning, one that we cannot fully translate. The excavator of parts of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, Dr. Victor Sarianidi, describes this particular seal in his work Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets, pages 248, 249, figures 1367.1 and 1367.2. 

Victor Sarianidi notates the amulet thus: 1367. Amulet. Pink limestone, D[iameter] - 2.35 cm, h[eight] meaning thickness - 1.5 cm. [Since he published the image from the photo of an impression of the seal, it does not show up as pink limestone in the book.] Standing human figure, one hand on his waist, another raised. Smaller figure stands in front of the first one with outstretched arms. A plant on the right side of the figure. // Horned deer running to the right. A tree in front of the animal, a bird(?) under its belly. Above the deer there is some other animal. 

Dr. Sarianidi became a friend of ours through our interest in his work. When he learned that we had a collection of Bactrian artifacts, he came to our home for a visit and asked for photographs of our Bactrian seals and amulets for his intended publication mentioned above. He examined each of the seals in our collection, chose those that he recognized as genuine antiquities, and wrote copious notes on each one. 

Victor taught us a great deal about our seals and what they revealed about the beliefs and behavior of the ancient Bactrian people. His interpretation of that culture is included in the book cited above. 

The amulet was collected in Afghanistan where Bactria is located. 

I invite your inquiries.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Bactrian Amulet Depicts Scorpions, Snakes, Bare Foot

Ancient Bactrian Clay Amulet Authenticated, Published by Archeologist 
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This thirty-five hundred year old Bactrian amulet was scribed into an oval shaped clump of clay. The clay appears that it was never glazed. The amulet is double sided, bearing an image of a scorpion on one side. On the opposite side of the scorpion image there is a drawing of a human foot stepping on a serpent. The sole of the foot appears to have a puncture wound. The amulet was perhaps made to protect the wearer from stepping on snakes and scorpions and being stung or bitten. The Karakum desert is still well populated with poisonous snakes and scorpions; it is therefore no wonder that the people of Bactria and Margiana needed protection from the creatures. 

So many of the seals and amulets of the Bactria-Margiana culture tell a story and reveal a facet of the everyday lives or the religious beliefs of that civilization. As Dr. Victor Sarianidi writes in his work on Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets:

'As scorpions, like snakes, are typical representatives of the fauna of the arid regions of Central Asia, there is no wonder that they were so popular in glyptics and apparently in myths of the ancient Bactrian tribes. Scorpions were frequently depicted in the centre of Bactrian seals and amulets....' (Sarianidi, op. cit., p. 45)

Opposite side of amulet:

Dr. Sarianidi took photographs of our Bactrian collection when he came to visit the United States several years ago. In writing the work cited above, he included this particular seal/amulet on pages 256-57, figures 1417.1 and 1417.2. He notated the clay amulet as 'Amulet, pierced near the edge. Ceramics, 5.1 x 3.9 cm, [thickness] 0.9 cm.... Scorpion // human footprint over a snake'

This artifact was collected in Afghanistan, which is the present name of the region in which ancient Bactria's ruins are located. 

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Ancient Bactrian Seal with Elaborate Floral Pattern in White Stone

I am including the story of how I was introduced into the fascinating early history of Bactrian ornamental arts.  Contact me with questions or for invoice through the private message form at the top right of this page.

This ancient Bactrian seal has been in our collection for some years now, but it dates from long ago. It was made by a stone carver living in the Bactria of four thousand years before the present. 

The seal has been authenticated and published by Dr. Victor Sarianidi, the archeologist who has led excavations in different locations within the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex which encompasses a good part of Western Asia. 

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 particular seal is notated and illustrated in Dr. Sarianidi's book Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets, pages 238-9, figures 1270.1 and 1270.2.

It is identified as 'Seal, corrugated edges. White stone. D(iameter) 4.1 cm; 
H (thickness) - 1.9 cm. Nine-petal rosette. On the back side of the seal there are nine drilled cavities; the handle has three cut lines of decoration. One beam of the seal is broken.' 
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Friday, February 8, 2013

Bactrian Ornamental Art is Small with Mythic Images

The people in the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex, of which Bactria was a part, built massive Bronze Age style walls around their centers of population to protect the region's ruler, the temple and a great number of the lower ranks of the people.  Shepherds, miners, farmers and such would spend most of their time outside the city walls, of course.

But for the craftsmen who served the court and the temple, their lives were contained inside the protection of the walls.  With so many people in a relatively small space, at some point there arose a practice of identifying oneself by having a mark or a symbol that could be placed on one's own goods or on sealed contents of clay vessels that were being sent to or kept for someone else.  

The Bactrians made their seals not so often as cylinders with scenic glyphs serving as the seal, but as carved flat soft stone seals or cast bronze or copper.  Fewer silver seals have been discovered.  Many of the seals were furnished with a looped handle on the back for hanging on the person of the user.   Not quite so numerous as the seals that have been discovered are the amulets, also carved in soft stone or cast in bronze or copper.  

Here is an example of a Bactrian carved stone amulet: 

Bactrian Stamp Seal Off-white Stone Bird Image, Authentic, Published

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As an example of a Bactrian cast copper or bronze seal with a mythic image of the bull or bull ox in full body and as the subject of a mythic scene told in the image, I show this one from my collection:

Because the negative impression is more difficult to discern, I will also show the modern bronze pendant for which this ancient stamp seal was the model.   

The original cast bronze mold from which this impression was made served as a religious icon, perhaps to be carried or worn by a priest of the earliest expression of Zoroastrianism. There is a myth being told in this icon. It is the myth of the serpent nursing the seeds of life from the large mythic figure of the bull. The long slithery line of bronze attached to the bull's undercarriage depicts this myth that is later mentioned in the Avestas, according to the archeologist who excavated Bactria. 

My friend, Dr. Sarianidi, the Russian archeologist and excavation director, explains the Bactrian myths as their symbols are told in the images on some of the more elaborate cast bronze seals. This is one of the seals that he saw at our house when he visited and made photos of them for his book on Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets. 

Believe me, I would not have understood this mythic portrayal had I not sat at Victor Sarianidi's feet in my living room while he told the stories. Then in reading sections of his book many times over, I have begun to understand and dare to interpret some of my own seals. 

This one is a special one, being the graphic expression of one of the early Zoroastrian beliefs concerning the seed of life. 

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Bactria and the Later Tocharians

This blog sketches the wanderings of the Indo-Europeans who came down from the steppes above the Caspian and through the North Central part of Iran into the Margiana high desert oases, and farther East to settle along the Amu Darya.

At the same time, a group of European clans that had wandered from the steppes above the Danube crossed much of Eurasia to the Volga region and came down to settle among the Late Neolithic planters along the Yellow River in what is now called Inner Mongolia.  This is a simplification of the route that is proposed by David Anthony in his work The Horse, the Wheel and Language.  As they followed the Yellow River upstream, they built settlements and left cultural remains, finally settling so far west in Taklamakan Desert that they left their very bodies entombed as mummies as a witness to their one-time habitation there as early as about 1500 BC.   You can judge their appearance from this forensically re-structured corpse from the Tarim Basin of the Taklamakan Desert, dating about 1200 BC.

When Greeks, following the route of Alexander the Great, came into this region about the first century A.D., they began to record their observations about the people, the geography and the flora and fauna.  They found first in Bactria a Greco-Persian people speaking a language that had many of the words and sounds of their own Koine Greek language, which is the language of the Christian Bible, but is now passed out of popular usage.  From these people there descended a type that still exists.  They have the Greco Persian complexion and body structure.   And their Dari language is an Indo-European language related in sentence structure to the French language.  For the two years I lived in Afghanistan, the location of Bactria, I was able to manage a bit of everyday life in Dari.  It is quite beautiful when spoken or when written in the Arabic alphabet.

But back now to the European face and body that we see in the grave uncovered in very recent decades  among a group of bodies of this type and types mixed with the Mongol Chinese.  These are the ones that were supposed by David W. Anthony, author of The Wheel, the Horse and Language,  to have come through the Tian Shan range from the Northern Steppes into Mongolia and up the Yellow River to the Tarim Basin.  They too were found by the first century A.D. Greek travelers and were called the Tocharians.  Their language could be recognized to have much in common with the Greek language of the time, but not as understandable as the Bactrian language spoken by the Indo-European type across the Pamir range from the Tarim Basin.

Several archeologists and linguists place the Tarim Basin European types within the same group of wanderers as the Bactrians, except that they did not go to Bactria.  They ended up in the area of Swat which is located now within the country of Pakistan.   There they developed a more Hindu (Indian) culture than a Zoroastrian culture (Persian).  And then after a time, the Tocharians went North over the Himalayas and into what is now the Xinjiang autonomous region of China.  The Tocharians there became Buddhist, moving away from the Hindi culture as missionary monks came over the Himalayas from India where Buddhism was born.

All these Greco-Indo-Persians shared many similarities in the practices and symbols of their habitations as Anatolian Greeks, as Kerman Desert Persians, as the Margiana Persians, as the Bactrian Greco-Persians, and the Tocharians.  We have to remind ourselves here that the Greeks in that area of that time would have resembled the archaic and classic Greek types, not most of the modern Greeks.  They would have appeared more like somewhat paler modern Persians. But it is their culture that is the important and interesting part of their heritage, not their genetics.  Nevertheless, their remains have been tested and found naturally to be mixed with the people they emigrated into from their steppe origins.  But the tests also showed that the European genes showed up very often in their samples.

As an almost final note, we acknowledge that by the time Greek travelers came through, the Tocharians from the Tarim Basin on the East side of the Pamir range had become rulers over Bactria and the Xinjiang region.  They had established what is known to history as the Kushan Dynasty.

Ending here, I will only add that I collected several artifacts from Kabul merchants who sold the findings from unofficial excavations of the ruins of Bactria.  Contact me privately by using the private message form above.