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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