Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Shapes and Styles of Ancient Bactrian Seals

This amulet bead makes a seal impression when the wearer wished to mark a possession, but probably served also as a bearer of religious symbols.  Dr. Victor Sarianidi interpreted thousands of seals yielded from the excavations of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, where he led the Russian teams for forty years.  His work Myths of Ancient Bactria Margiana on Its Seals and Amulets explores his discovery that the Bactria-Margiana culture was the precursor to the Zoroastrian religion of the later Indo-Iranians.

Many of the mythical images on the bead seals/amulets were drilled dots to create abstract "dot figures" of creatures from nature both wild and domestic, and humans in conflict with lions, tigers and dragons.  Here is an example of a three sided prism with a drilled dot image on each side.  

Bactrian three sided bead seal/amulet authenticated and published by Sarianidi
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The prism shaped beads are just one of the traditional styles created by the craftsmen of Bactria and Margiana.  Sylvia Winkelmann is a specialist in this field and her recent book on Seals of the Oasis based on the Ligabue collection describes the various shapes: 

- Button shaped seals with pierced lug
- Discs, round bifacial seals, longitudinally perforated
- Rectangular bifacial plate, longitudinally perforated
- Square bifacial seal with longitudinal perforation
- Lanceolate forms with truncated ends, longitudinally perforated
- Rhomboid bifacial seal (stepped-cross seal) with longitudinal perforation of two holes in opposite corners of the rhombus.
- Prisms with longitudinal perforation (note: the one pictured above is three sided)

The categories of "bead seals" or amulets listed here are not the only shapes we will discuss.  But since I am showing an example only of the three sided prism bead/amulet, I will not add the several other shapes we will encounter as I show in other blog posts these ancient stamp seals/amulet beads from my collection.  

The compartmented cast metal stamp seals is another distinctive product of the Bactria-Margiana culture, as are the rarer cylinder seals from the Bactrian part of the widespread Bactria-Margiana Archeological Culture (BMAC).  

Speaking of which, I will add simplified maps of the region here, first showing the location of Bactria: 
U.S. Army map ca. 2001 - the oval shows the Balkh or Bactrian province of Afghanistan

The whole BMAC region is now understood to have symbolic art similar to the archeological findings in Anatolia and in the Southwest of Iran and the Northern tip of Syria.   The yellow marked area below emphasizes the ancient settlements whose archeological findings substantiate a relationship to the findings at the digs at Altyn Depe.   


  1. A very interesting bit of history, Anna! I like that you showed the impressions three sided bead makes in the clay and how the dots are raised. I wonder how this area has been affected by the unstable conditions caused by ongoing conflict.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I doubt if the Russians and Italians are still exploring and cataloging the Bactrian (Balkh) ruins. Victor, our friend and leader of the Russian team, died last year. He had moved on to uncover the ruins in Turkmenistan, where there has not been the extremism that the Afghans are dealing with.

  2. Very interesting, Anna. I see several creatures in each sets of dots - wonder what they actually did symbolize. Also was interested in your mention of the Zoroastrian religion, knowing how most religious scholars feel that the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith have adapted many of their beliefs directly from that religion. Fascinating how things are so intertwined.

    1. I had the pleasure of meeting several people of the Zoroastrian faith in Afghanistan and in Turkey; in Cameroon, I had friends who were from Canada and Michigan. They do seem to be spread out in small groups here and there in the Old World. In Pakistan, they were known as "Parsees," meaning Persians. In other parts of the world they call themselves B'hai.

      They have been persecuted by the governments in the Middle East for many centuries now.

  3. Popping by to say hello, Anna.
    An interesting piece of art. I'm curious about how old this piece is.

    1. Thank you, Natalie! Nice to hear from you. The Bactrian settlements in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan date to 2500 B.C. to 1600 B.C. according to various carbon dating tests of the archeological findings.

  4. This is really fascinating, Anna! Such an interesting seal. The impression really is curious. Been looking at some maps online ... I found a map of the ancient Greco-Bactrian Kingdom - just amazing! I never knew there had been such a thing. :)

    1. Thank you, Mary. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom was ushered in by Alexander the Great, as you probably know. It was founded in the region of the much older Bactrian civilization that had been in ruins for a long while before Alexander established his "headquarters" in Bactria around 300 B.C., because he had married Roxanne, the princess of a little kingdom in N.E. Afghanistan. My youngest son kept a National Geographic map of Alexander's travels and we took him almost everywhere Alexander had traveled and ruled.