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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