Thursday, August 6, 2015

Tracing the Route to Bactria Part One: Methods

There are at least three ways of tracing the ancient migration route of the people from the steppes to the oases they found and settled.  The three different methods are used by a variety of interested authors.  I find a great deal of information on the proposed origins of the ancient Bactrian people and their proposed routes to Bactria.  You will find illustrations and captions borrowed from two of my sources with acknowledgment. 

1. Archeological excavations lead archeologists to follow pot shards and burial customs.  Often the pot shards are found in the tomb with the deceased.  This photo shows this method of tracing a certain culture:

A male and a female burial from Tulkhar [in upper Central Asia].  The male was buried with a rectangular hearth and with bones of a sheep, a dagger, pot, bead-amulet and a flint arrowhead.  The female was buried with a round hearth, sheep bones and a pot.  -- from In Search of the Indo-Europeans by J.P. Mallory, 1989   -- See the hearths in the upper left of the tomb sketch.

The author from which I took the photo above is not an archeologist, but has written the important work mentioned in the previous paragraph in which he includes the various methods of identifying ancient cultures.  He is perhaps best known as a historian of anthropology; he seems to be entranced with the Indo-European language and the cultures in which the various branches of the Indo-European cultures developed.  

2. Historians base their suppositions about pre-literate cultures on the archeological finds of ritual objects, personal adornment, utensils, tools, weapons and service animals.  For example, here are some early stories told in images.
Luristan [in Western Iran] bronze covering for a quiver dating to about the eighth or seventh century B.C....Georges Dumézil has interpreted the figures as representatives of the three Indo-European 'functions'.  Three Registers are shown in detail: Sovereigns (figures enthroned between lions), warriors (figures dressed for battle with assistants holding weapons) and twins (two figures with ram's horns).  -- from Mallory, p. 134

3.  Linguists solve the problem of tracing ancient cultures through the language that is finally put into writing as the culture develops.  After identifying the language, they then trace backward through the methods of the archeologists and historians to a satisfactory -- and often debatable --conclusion.  Here is an example of how linguists trace backward from the present or recent language to their assumption of the original form of a certain language group.

Caption: A diagram of the sequence and approximate dates of splits in early Indo-European as proposed in this book, with the maximal window for Proto-Indo-European indicated th the dashed lines.  The dates of splits are determined by archaeological events.... -- from David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel and Language, 2007.

In the chart you will notice that the Greek, Iranian and Indian language had split from the original proto-Indo-European root language used by the Greek speakers stemming from the Central Steppe regions as early as 2,500 B.C.  A dialect of Greek was certainly brought to the Iranian people in the Bactrian region by Alexander the Great (the 300s B.C.) in Bactria.

There is much more to be learned from the chart.  For example, the Germanic people from the West Steppe region  in 3,300 B.C. had developed a language that had also split from the proto-Indo-European mother tongue.  English is one of its great grandchildren.  

Through archeological findings and scientific examinations of the corpses and the grave goods in Bactria-Margiana tombs, the interpretation of the narrative images made in stone or metal, and finally the translation of the earliest writings by or about the Bactrians, the general scholarly conclusion is that the Bactrians were proto-Iranian people speaking what is now known as an Indo-European language, probably the old Persian that we could have heard if we were to visit the market places in Bactria of 1,800 B.C.

You are welcome to comment or inquire in the Comments section below this blog.
Contact me with questions or for invoice through the private message form at the top right of this page.


  1. The study of language and how they came to be is always fascinating. So much branching out and intermingling. Thank you for sharing this, Anna

    1. You are very welcome. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing. Yes indeed it was the English language whose history I was interested in tracing. Who knew that it would involve me in the archeology of Bactria and lead me into all kinds of other adventures. ;)

  2. Such an interesting post, Anna! It seems strange to see Mallory and Dumezil quoted - both of them are familiar to me from a couple of courses back in grad school. It always seems a bit ironic to me that burial practices are one of the most trustworthy identifiers of a culture. Also, the linguistic tree is great. Is there a particular reason why Armenian stands out enough to be mentioned in it? It's amazing how so much emerged and forked out from the steppes - although the region is pretty vast. (It just occurred to me that one of my best friends has a Ph.D. in Indo-European studies - I wonder if she ever came across Bactria in her studies. Her dissertion was on the figure of Helen, more than just a pretty face.) :) Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to more. Will share … (P.S. Check typo "femalw" in paragraph 3.)

    1. What would I do without your excellent proof-reading skills? ;) The tracing of burial practices were emphasized by our archeologist friend, Dr. Sarianidi, in his "teaching sessions" in our home. He learned so much from discovering and digging up the Gonur Necropolis in Turkmenistan. Thank heavens, he had time to get so much of his knowledge published before he died in 2013. I am certainly glad to know that you have crossed some of the same paths that I am traveling on. ;)

      Thank you so very much, Mary. I am working on getting together some photos of peculiar burial practices that these steppe people brought into the Bactria-Margiana region. Of course, more maps and clearly described routes are absolute necessities, though they must also fit in a blog of reasonable length.

    2. Will be looking forward to it, Anna! :)