Monday, April 7, 2014

Bactrian Carved Stone Bird Amulets

Bactrian Carved Stone Bird Figures as Amulets

Ducks were apparently at least partially domesticated animals in Bronze Age Bactria.  Perhaps they had simply landed there on the waters of the Amu Darya River and the Bactrians could catch them or perhaps artisans simply admired them from a distance and carved their charms for jewelry in the image of a duck.  This is one of those charms found by an unauthorized excavator of the ruins of the Bactrian civilization.  The finder sold it to a passing merchant who carried it to the Kabul Bazaar and sold it to a collector friend of ours. It came into our collection several years ago.

Ancient Bactria Miniature Bone Bead Charm Carved in the Form of a Duck  

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This bead or amulet has great charm. The carver was talented in capturing the character of this domestic duck. The eyes, the bill, the big webbed feet. The down feathers on the chest are layered while the wing feathers are indicated as strong pinions. The tail is just as detailed as the other feathery parts. 

The bead hole is very tiny so it does not interfere with the figurine's form. The amulet bead hangs from the feet just as a duck might be carried to market. The figurine is not a statuette. It is one of the typical carvings of miniature animals, plants, and human anatomical abstractions as beads such as feet, hands and more intimate anatomical parts. 

This miniature Bactrian carving was collected in Afghanistan, the modern nation in which the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Bactria are located. 

Amulet beads such as these are discussed in published works by the archeologists working in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex as listed below. 

20 mm x 11 mm x 9 mm

Bactrian Stone Sculpture in Miniature of Eagle Amulet Symbol of Power
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The symbolism of the carved eagle amulet is explained in the book Myths of Ancient Bactria-Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets by Dr. Victor Sarianidi, the Russian archeologist who excavated the Bactria-Margiana culture:

"It has been noted that eagles symbolized male principles and som celestial force which could defend humans from all sorts of adversity." (p. 45)

This white stone eagle statuette is intricately carved with eyes, beak, feet and feathers in a perched eagle position. It is pierced at the feet level to be hung on a string. It shows the wear patina that would result from a long service as an amulet hanging from a string. 

The amulet is at least 3,500 years old and may be much older. It was created by a stone carver in Bactria in its proto-Iranian cultural age, lasting from 2,500 B.C. to 1,600 B.C. 

The eagle was a widely used symbol in the glyptics of the Bactrian culture. In our collection we have miniature carved stone eagles and abstract representations of eagles in stone and copper/bronze seals and amulets. 

This eagle is portrayed on a perch with clawed feet pointing forward and head turned in profile. The strong pinion feathers are strongly emphasized on the back of the statuette. On one side of the head the outlined eye of the eagle is still visible, but on the side which brushed against the human clothing or skin while being worn has become almost invisible. The line of the beak separation is visible on both sides of the eagle's head. 

I would guess the stone statuette to be carved in a pale pinkish quartz. It is very hard and dense, which kept the carving in such good condition over the great period of time since it was carved. 
9 mm wide x 20 mm high x 8.5 mm thick

Victor Sarianidi, Necropolis of Gonur, Athens, 2007
Victor Sarianidi, Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana on its Seals and Amulets, 1998
Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, Bactria, Venice, 198-

Monday, February 10, 2014

Funerary Beads with Earth Sweat Patina

Almost everything from Bactria that comes into any museum, private collection or into an antiquity dealer's shop is from the tomb of a person or from the buried ruins of the ancient culture.  In other words, the seals, amulets, beads and other artifacts in my Bactrian collection have lain underground for at least fifteen hundred years and some as many as four thousand five hundred years.  I will offer some examples of funerary beads from settlements in the region of Bactria.

First, let me describe some of the differences in the ancient beads that have been buried and the more recent handmade beads that have never been buried.  Needless to say, the differences are even more numerous when we compare the modern industrially produced beads with the long-buried ancient handmade beads.

The first noticeable thing might be the pebbly skin on the bead, resulting from the method of shaping and smoothing the gemstone with rough grit made from pulverized agates.  For example, the agate beads in the photos immediately below are from a settlement of the same peoples who settled in Bactria from about 2500 B C to 1600 B C. in the Kerman Desert of Iran.  Weathering of the polished beads is caused by long periods of exposure to earth minerals and earth movements due to floods or the cave-ins of the tombs.  This kind of wear and tear shows in scrapes and breaks and in circular cracks on the surface of the bead.  Another very important characteristic of ancient beads that have been buried is the dulling of the glow that the original polishing produced.

One ancient bead expert calls all these aging processes 'earth sweat patina,' and he uses such criteria to judge whether a bead is ancient or a modern reproduction.  The beads in the two photos below show characteristics of age.  The glow is dulled; the skin is pock-marked as if the skin had never been ground down past all the tiny crevices in the original piece of cut stone.  Also, the grit that was used to polish the beads left their own minute pimply tool marks on the beads.  These beads also show other characteristics of beads produced in ancient times, such as wear at the ends of the bead hole caused by the cord on which they were once worn for generations or centuries.

Ancient Agate Beads Bactrian Type Four Thousand - Two Thousand Years

Close-up view of same beads

In comparison are beads in the photos below that are ancient but still a thousand years younger than the beads above.  Their appearance reveals very little of the wear and tear and hardly any of the earth sweat patina and the rough grinding of the earlier polishing methods.  Their age is determined by their provenance from Bactria and the fact that they are almost identical to the sardonyx beads shown in The History of Beads by Lois Dubin.  According to that source, they were produced in the Roman period, that is, in the time when almost all of Europe and West Asia was a part of or a neighbor of the Roman emperor's domain.  This kind of bead was made in Central Asia -- Northeastern Afghanistan -- from about 200 BC to 400 AD.


Spiral Band Ancient Bead Balkh Province, Afghanistan                Close up view of same bead  200 BC - 400 AD

Moving backward to more ancient times again, we see this other string of Bactrian carnelian beads strung with old steatite beads and some newer onyx beads in the photos shown below.  This strand is published in Victor Sarianidi's -- the excavator of Bactria and Margiana -- book Necropolis of Gonur, which deals with funeral rites, funerary ornaments and utensils that were buried with the deceased.  


Ancient Bactrian Beads Authenticated by Archeologist and Published      Close-up of same beads

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tocharians - Latecomers to Bactria

The Tocharians were a group of the most mysterious residents of the Tarim Basin in the Taklamakan Desert, a region that is now a part of Northwestern China, eventually expanding over the Pamir mountain chain into what was then Bactria but is now a province of Afghanistan.  The Tocharians were apparently latecomers to the region and had come either almost directly from Northern Europe across Anatolia and Persia into India and through the Himalayas on the already long established trade routes to Kashgar and then into the more remote desert.

Their presence in the Tarim Basin is known only since the 1980s when their mummified remains were found by archeologists.  The remains are dated to around 1000 B.C.  up to about 100 A.D.  Because of the extremely arid climate of the Tarim Basin, their physical remains are very well preserved, including the clothing in which they were buried.  Obviously their funeral practices resembled those of recent times: burial in clothing rather than simply being wrapped in a shroud or covered with a cloth.

For example, here is a photo of one of the most famous 3,000 year old mummies along with the reconstruction of the head by a forensic anthropologist:

As you can see, her hair, head covering and shawl are still in good condition.  By the way, the DNA of the mummies has been analyzed, and many of them show only European DNA, but the later mummies of course, show a mixture of "Chinese" and European DNA.  I put Chinese in quote marks because the region was not China at that time.  But the Chinese scientists label the mummies' East Asian DNA thus.  

Because their clothing was so 'modern,' including the lace-up woodsman type leather boots on one of the male mummies, it was evident that they had come from far to the West in fairly recent times.  Their garments included woven garments of the type still made by Northern Europe and the New World descendants of the Northern European people. 

The cloak appears to be a double-woven garment, in a technique that shows one color in one of the blocks and then on the opposite side of the garment, the opposite color shows in the same block of weaving.  I have woven different pieces like this and it makes a very cozy checkered fabric.  

By now you are wondering about their connection to Bactria.  In the early third century B.C., Alexander the Great came out of Greece to conquer a great part of Asia, as far East as the Indus.  He made Bactria his seat of power, and married a Sogdian princess named Roxanne.  At Alexander's death soon thereafter, his Asian empire was divided and lost power.  In the first century A.D., Bactria was being ruled by a series of men that is now known as the Kushan Dynasty.  

The Greek explorers to that region wrote of people that we have labeled the Tocharians in Bactria.  But it is probable that the same people as we see in the Tarim Basin mummies were not the rulers of Bactria, judging from the heads of the Bactrian rulers on coins.  For example: 

Some historians say that the Kushan rulers were the Tocharians, but I think it is more likely that the Tocharians merely served the court of the Kushans.   The Greek explorers on reaching Bactria certainly saw, recognized and reported on people who resembled the Tarim Basin mummies.  But it is still an open question whether the Tocharians actually ruled Bactria.