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Bronze Age Relationships between Central Asia and the Indus: Archaeology, Language and Genetics.

Long before the kushans expanded their empire in the region of Gandhara--territories that are today part of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India--archaeological research has demonstrated the existence of contacts over vast distances, at least since the Neolithic period. Considerably more evidence for relationships around and across the Hindu Kush is observed in the archaeological record specifically during the Bronze Age, around 3000-1500 BC. These relationships include the diffusions of people, objects, commodities, raw materials, styles, ideas and languages. In this essay, we discuss current data on the Bronze Age in this area, with a specific focus on these demic and cultural diffusions between Central Asia and the northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent (figure 1). We shall see that beyond the controversial question of the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages, which is only one aspect of this interaction, the relationship between Central Asia and the Indus has been a varied, protracted and continuous process that had started millennia before. We also highlight aspects of the archaeological research conducted in these territories, an endeavour that has proven difficult and is today virtually impossible in many regions due to current geopolitics.

A Long Background of Interaction

Archaeologists use objects they excavate and collect on the surface of sites as proxies for human interaction. We know, based on the spatial distribution of fossils and lithic industries, that human groups dispersed across Eurasia and beyond long before our species, Homo sapiens, emerged about 300,000 years ago. Closer to us in time, between 10000 and 9000 BC, during the Neolithic period, agriculture was first practised within the so-called "Fertile Crescent"--the eastern Mediterranean, southern Turkey and western Iran. Researchers generally agree that agriculture then began spreading westward through Europe and eastward through the Iranian plateau and southern Central Asia into South Asia with human migrations during 7000-6000 BC. Some researchers nonetheless believe that agriculture, or aspects of it, was independently introduced locally in some places within these geographical expanses.

Mehrgarh in the Kachi plain, Pakistan, is without doubt the most important Neolithic site excavated so far in the northwestern regions of South Asia. This site was studied by J.E Jarrige and his team in the 1970s through the early 2000s. The results of this research and of additional fieldwork conducted at Nausharo, Sibri and Pirak in the same region have provided us with the longest chrono-cultural sequence of Pakistan, a sequence of archaeological deposits lasting about 6,000 years beginning in the Neolithic period, estimated to date to around 7000-6000 BC, or perhaps earlier. The Neolithic settlement at Mehrgarh yielded objects showing the existence of relationships to the north, beyond the Hindu Kush, hundreds of kilometres away from this site: lithics that parallel specimens found at sites of the so-called Neolithic Kel'teminar culture in Uzbekistan, as well as ornaments in lapis lazuli, a stone commonly thought to come from the Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan. Contacts must have occurred between human communities located north and south of the Hindu Kush during the following Chalcolithic period, around 5000-3000 BC. An illustration of such contacts is provided by some terracotta figurines and cones, as well as handled stone weights from sites in the Bannu basin and Gomal plain in Pakistan, about 200 kilometres southeast of Ghazni in Afghanistan, which have parallels in Turkmenistan and Iran. Evidence however remains rare in the current archaeological record for this period.

The Early Stages: Around 3000 BC

Evidence for contacts between Central Asia and South Asia is in comparison considerably more substantial between 3000 and 1000 BC. Such contacts, through the Himalaya, are documented by rock engravings recorded in the Steppe region and northern India. Evidence for contacts is particularly found during the Oxus Civilization (aka the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) dating to 2300-1700 BC. Indeed, the core of this civilization is between northeastern Iran and northern Afghanistan, and many Oxus-related artefacts and settlements are recorded further south in Iran, southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. This shows that individuals, or communities, relating to this civilization moved southward sometime around 2000 BC or soon after. Less well-known is that a similar pattern of interactions or migrations between and within the regions located north and south of the Hindu Kush had already occurred around 3000 BC.

During the 1970s, archaeologists became more aware of this interaction between Central Asia and the territories south of the Hindu Kush, and, more generally speaking, they began to have a better comprehension of the various cultural materials and their relationships within and between these areas. New sites were now discovered while sites that had been found previously were more fully studied, and new regions were investigated. Meanwhile, archaeological methods improved, and new theoretical frameworks were built, together providing archaeologists with more robust and comprehensive tools for the analysis of ancient cultures. The foundations of these developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan lie in the surface surveys and excavations conducted between the late 1940s and '60s by individuals such as B. de Cardi, J.-M. Casal, G.F. Dales, L. Dupree and W.A. Fairservis. These archaeologists followed in the footsteps of M.A. Stein who tirelessly explored vast geographical expanses between China and Iran and recorded numerous archaeological sites in the first three decades of the 20th century. He is the one who discovered most of the key sites that were to be explored later during the 1960s and '70s.

Shahr-i Sokhta, "burnt city" in Persian, is one of these. Located at the western end of the Helmand valley, in southeastern Iran, around 140 kilometres northeast of Zahedan in Seistan, this site was excavated in the 1970s by an Italian mission led by M. Tosi and is now studied by S.M.S. Sajjadi. Shahr-i Sokhta has been extremely instrumental in reconstructing the past of Seistan and providing evidence for relationships between this region and Central Asia, beginning with its foundation period, around 3000 BC. This evidence consists of painted ceramics, metal artefacts, figurines, terracotta models of houses, and evidence of funerary practices--with parallels recorded hundreds of kilometres further north in Turkmenistan. Many archaeological sites have indeed been excavated in Turkmenistan since the late 1950s by scholars such as B.A. Litvinsky, V.M. Masson and V.I. Sarianidi. This research includes excavations at Namazga Tepe, a key site settled between the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, based on which a large part of the chronological sequence of southern Central Asia has been defined. A possible explanation for the Turkmen-related discoveries at Shahr-i Sokhta is that communities from what is today Turkmenistan, or northeastern Iran, migrated southward and settled in Seistan sometime around 3000 BC.

Archaeologists have also noted Turkmen-related elements at Mundigak, Afghanistan, around 35 kilometres northwest of Kandahar and over 400 kilometres east of Shahr-i Sokhta, in the eastern part of the Helmand river basin. This site, excavated by J.-M. Casal, as well as sites investigated by W.A. Fairservis in the Quetta valley and Mehrgarh in the Kachi plain in Pakistan, have similarities in their material cultures with the foundation period at Shahr-i Sokhta and with sites in Turkmenistan including Namazga Tepe. This has led some archaeologists to believe that Central Asian communities moved south not only to Shahr-i Sokhta, but as part of a greater movement that reached various regions south of the Hindu Kush. After its foundation period, Shahr-i Sokhta became a city, among the earliest ones in the Indo-Iranian borderlands, and was now part of the so-called Helmand Civilization, together with Mundigak as well as Said Qala Tepe and Deh Morasi Ghundai, two sites also in the Kandahar region excavated by J. Shaffer and L. Dupree, respectively. Relationships are also observed as far as the Quetta valley and the Kachi plain in Pakistan at that time. This civilization, characterized by a distinctive style of painted black-on-buff ceramics (figure 2), is dated to around 2750-2200 BC, although some archaeologists believed it ended around 2500 BC.

Another site of considerable importance for the understanding of ancient human interaction between Central Asia and South Asia is Sarazm, Tajikistan. This site, located in the Zeravshan valley, was discovered in the 1970s and has been excavated since then by Russian, Tajik, French and American archaeologists including A.I. Isakov, A. Razzokov, R. Besenval, H.-P. Francfort, P.L. Kohl and C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky. What has drawn such attention to Sarazm is that this site seems isolated in the valley and yet has yielded numerous objects whose styles relate to different archaeological cultures located hundreds of kilometres away Many of these objects consist of ceramics stylistically linked to Turkmenistan to the west and to southern Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south, including Mundigak. Additional remains such as stone and metal objects corroborate these connections and also are similar to materials from Shahr-i Sokhta. The Turkmen-related ceramics from Sarazm resemble materials typical of Namazga Tepe, around 3500-3000 BC, while those connected to the south are slightly more recent, usually dated to 3000-2500 BC, or perhaps even a few centuries younger according to some archaeologists (figure 3). These long-distance relationships and what appears to be the arrival of allochthonous communities at Sarazm are traditionally thought to have been motivated by the high concentration and variety of natural resources available in the Zeravshan valley and adjacent areas, including gold, silver, copper, lead, mercury, tin and turquoise. A similar interpretation is often provided in the case of Shortughai, which is considered a manufacturing place and caravanserai en route to the resources of the Hindu Kush.

An Isolated Outpost of the Indus Civilization: Shortughai

Shortughai is located around 21 kilometres from the confluence of the Kokcha and Amu Darya rivers in northeastern Afghanistan. This site was excavated by one of us (H.-PF.) in the 1970s. The results of this fieldwork surprised the international community of archaeologists when objects typical of the Indus Civilization found at this site were brought to its attention at the sixth international conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in 1981. The Indus Civilization, between 2600/2500 and 2000/1900 BC, whose settlements expanded to northwestern India and Pakistan, is probably the most extensive Bronze Age urban civilization in Middle Asia. It is characterized by imposing cities with public buildings, baths, drains and wells--Mohenjo-daro and Harappa being the earliest known (figure 4), but imposing sites such as Dholavira and Rakhigarhi also illustrating this; a specific system of weights, seals, and a script or a system of symbols (figure 5); a distinctive material culture including typical painted black-on-red ceramics and carnelian and steatite beads (figure 6); and a long-distance trade which reached the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. Surprisingly, Shortughai is over 500 kilometres away from the main core of sites of the Indus Civilization. It was an Indus settlement during its first two occupation periods and is interpreted as an outpost of this civilization, established in the remote area of northeastern Afghanistan to access, or control access to and distribution of, lapis lazuli as well as ores available in the region such as copper, tin, gold and silver. The last two periods at Shortughai are, in contrast, connected to the local Middle Bronze Age cultures typical of southern Central Asia and to the Steppe region, particularly the Oxus Civilization.

The Oxus Civilization and Its Spread to the South

The existence of the Oxus Civilization was revealed through excavations that began mostly during the 1970s. One archaeologist, V.I. Sarianidi, is considered the discoverer of this civilization and indeed excavated many of its sites. Among the most iconic Oxus sites are Gonur Tepe, Togolok Tepe and Kelleli in Turkmenistan, Dashli Tepe in Afghanistan, and Sapalli Tepe and Dzharkutan in Uzbekistan. These sites have yielded the remains of imposing, fortified settlements (figure 7) and graves with a distinctive, rich material culture including stone "weights", rods, grooved columns, and composite female figurines (figure 8); a metal industry with specific copper and silver compartmented seals as well as axes; a plain ceramic industry; jewellery that incorporates various semiprecious stones and gold; gold and silver wares (figure 9); and a specific form of art.

Over 40 years after its discovery, archaeologists are still debating on the origin of the Oxus Civilization as to whether it developed locally in southern Central Asia or resulted from external impulses including the arrival of new populations from the Iranian plateau. Its chronology also has long been discussed, but there is now a consensus that sees its mature phase dating to around 2300-1700 BC. Another aspect that may hardly be contested is the vast spatial distribution of sites, burials and isolated objects observed outside of its main core, mostly after 2000 BC in Iran as far as Susa, and with many examples in its southeastern regions, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In southeastern Iran, sites with Oxus-related remains include Shahdad, Tepe Yahya, Konar Sandal North and South (ksn and kss), and Khurab. These sites increasingly appear as the continuation to the south of the numerous Oxus sites now reported by A.A. Vahdati and R. Biscione from Khorasan and Seistan. Evidence is at present more limited east of Khorasan in western Afghanistan, and recent fieldwork by U. Franke in Herat province did not identify an Oxus-related settlement comparable to that recorded just to the west. However, numerous objects typical of the Oxus Civilization and reportedly from the Herat province in the Herat Museum seem to tell us that such a settiement does exist and has yet to be discovered in western Afghanistan. More is recorded further south in Afghan Seistan. This includes the site of Nad-i Ali "Surkh Dagh" in the lower Helmand valley, explored by R. Ghirshman, W.A. Fairservis and G.F. Dales, as well as additional sites surveyed in the Gardan Reg by W.A. Fairservis in the 1950s and G.F. Dales in the 1960s.

In Pakistan, J.F. Jarrige pointed out the association at Nausharo, in deposits dated to around 2000 BC, of Indus and Oxus objects as well as materials relating to the Kulli culture, a distinct, spatially more limited archaeological culture set in southern Pakistan. Along with many other scholars, he also noted at Gonur Tepe the presence of ivory objects, a seal, carnelian beads and certain ceramic types, as well as stone sculpture in the round, all of Indus style and possibly of Indus origin. Association of Oxus and Indus diagnostics had also been observed in the assemblage from Shortughai. Substantial additional evidence relating to the Oxus Civilization in Pakistan is reported from funerary deposits rescued from destruction in Quetta. These deposits include stone rods, discs and miniature columns; gold jewellery and a gold cup (figure 10); the lower part of a composite stone female figurine; and ceramics--all typical of the Oxus Civilization. More evidence was found in the Period VIII cemetery at Mehrgarh, dating to around 2000 BC, and in a few graves at Dauda Damb, close to Nausharo, where typical Oxus stone and copper objects as well as ceramics are recorded. The same type of archaeological assemblage, which is associated this time with the remains of mud-brick buildings and pottery kilns at Sibri, also in the Kachi plain, corroborates the fact that the Oxus presence in this area was more permanent and anchored than just that of transient, mobile groups of people--a view that prevailed in the past. Oxus-related materials are also observed in southern Pakistan at Mehi, a site included in Kulli culture.

The existence of an Indus settlement at Shortughai may be explained by the presence of valuable natural resources in its broader region. The same explanation seems valid in the case of Sarazm. It is however more complicated to interpret the same way the apparently more massive Oxus-related diffusion to Iran, southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The quest for, or the will to, control access and trade of natural resources may explain part of this Oxus expansion in these regions, but not all its aspects. Does it result from just a cultural diffusion? In other words, did southerners borrow aspects--styles of objects--they liked from their neighbours in the Oxus Civilization? It is possible in certain cases, but this hypothesis does not agree with the amount of data and particularly data from Sibri that show that not only objects, but also the forms of architecture recovered at this site, were radically different from those of the local and partly contemporary Indus Civilization. If, as it appears, this expansion was the result of migrations, did these communities flee a threat in southern Central Asia? Was there an environmental crisis in that area, a possibility that may agree with the general climate change and cooler, dryer and more arid conditions observed in West and Central Asia around 2000 bc? Did the Oxus territories become too populated, and was more arable land sought in other areas? The possibility remains that this expansion was imperial, or political, corresponding to a territorial annexation. J.F. Jarrige pointed out that, although they had been looted, the objects left in the above-mentioned burials in the Kachi plain and at Quetta are similar to those recorded in the elite burials in the Oxus territory. Considering its geographical expanse and timespan, various reasons probably motivated the Oxus expansion. An important aspect of this interaction between Central Asia and the Indus regions that needs to be re-emphasized is that we do not observe in the archaeological record signs of violence that would equate with the idea of a brutal invasion, a view that prevailed in the past. In fact, as P.L. Kohl puts it, it rather appears, at least in some cases, as a peaceful and protracted process. In this respect, it certainly is important to recall again the background of cultural interaction observed across the Hindu Kush hundreds of years before the Oxus and Indus civilizations emerged.

Archaeology, Language and DNA: The Indo-Aryan Mystery

It is indeed important to recall that the archaeological remains recorded in Pakistan which are now securely linked to the Oxus Civilization in Central Asia, along with other finds identified in the latest deposits of the Indus Civilization and in layers posterior to it, used to be considered by many as the archaeological manifestation of tribes invading the Indian subcontinent and disrupting its major urban civilization. M. Wheeler was the one who, in the 1960s, referring to the Rigveda and using these archaeological data, brought forth the view that Aryans from Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, with horses, chariots and metal weapons, invaded and destroyed the cities of the Indus Civilization. These invaders were also thought to have introduced an Indo-European language in South Asia, a language that later evolved into Sanskrit.

As noted above, the Oxus-related remains in Pakistan for the most part do not agree with such a scenario, and more generally speaking, although the Indus Civilization indeed declined, "collapsed" and disappeared soon after 2000-1600 BC, and seems to have broken down into various, more localized archaeological cultures within what was previously its geographical expanse, there is today a consensus that sees its collapse as a more protracted process and as the result of combined other causes. These include poor management and overexploitation of natural resources, climate and environmental changes, epidemics, and trade collapse, combined possibly with political troubles and migrations. In addition to this paradigmatic shift, although many aspects of the Indus Civilization indeed disappeared, the view that prevailed in the 1950s and '60s that saw a "Dark Age" after its breakdown, is now reconsidered and even contradicted by scholars who, through recent re-evaluation of previous discoveries and renewed fieldwork, recognize more cultural continuity and at least continuity in occupation in certain regions. The latter is illustrated by the site of Pirak in the Kachi plain.

Although it is now evident that the Central Asian invasion theory for the collapse of the Indus Civilization does not fit with current archaeological data, the fact remains that Indo-Aryan languages were spoken in South Asia by 1500 BC. Most linguists agree on this date, and most archaeologists and linguists agree that the homeland of the Indo-Iranian parent tongue is in the remote Eurasian Steppe. It is there most often associated with the Andronovo, Sintashta, Petrovlca and Arkhaim archaeological Steppe cultures dated to 2000-1600 BC. The peoples of these cultures are known for their familiarity with horse-riding and wagon-making as well as the production of metal objects. Various scenarios have been offered to explain the southward spread of the Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan languages. One view considers that Steppe Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan speakers moved southward and assimilated with the Oxus communities, which in turn adopted the Steppe language. In this scenario, the resulting Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan speakers from southern Central Asia then spread the languages related to Persian and Sanskrit as they moved further south onto the Iranian plateau and, crossing the Hindu Kush range, into the Indian subcontinent. The Oxus-related remains observed in both areas is for some archaeologists a materialization of this migration, whereas other scholars see this Steppe migration taking place later, between 1700 and 1400 BC, that is, mostly after the dates generally agreed upon of the Oxus Civilization. Still others connect this migration to archaeological cultures that emerged even later in the Indian subcontinent, such as the Gandhara grave culture.

A major issue is that no artefacts of Central Asian type are recorded in the northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent at the expected dates. Can peoples migrate without their original material culture? One also must admit that it is not possible to tell whether these Steppe communities in southern Central Asia were Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan speakers, and the possibility remains that certain elites in the Oxus Civilization were already Indo-European, Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan speakers. C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky is right to say that the abovementioned purported assimilation is difficult to prove. One issue he also points out is that there are considerable chronological gaps between the periods in which the Oxus or Oxus-Steppe communities moved south and the first Iranian speakers (Medes, Achaemenids, and possibly their ancestors) emerged in Iran (1000-300 BC) with the Rigveda being written down for the first time (probably around 500 BC). There is also a lack of continuity between the Oxus and subsequent material cultures, those recorded at these much later dates. As such, although as far as chronology and geography are concerned, the Oxus Civilization and its spread appears as a possible archaeological candidate for the diffusion of Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan languages in Iran and South Asia, considerable reservations must be kept in mind. Many scholars believe that archaeology is simply not the discipline most suited to handle this question and recall examples that show that it may be misleading, and even dangerous, to link linguistic change to artefacts and to the arrival of a new people.

Specialists of genetic studies have recently approached this question. Among them, D. Reich found that the current population of India is genetically built upon two ancestral populations, which he calls "Ancestral North Indians" and "Ancestral South Indians", in addition to a previous ancestral Neolithic population that diffused from Iran. These two populations mixed for the first time between 2000 and 1000 BC. Further analyses at his laboratory in Boston have led him to determine that the Ancestral North Indians had a mixture of a Steppe ancestry and an Iranian farmer-related ancestry, and that the Ancestral South Indians descended from hunter-gatherers local to South Asia and Neolithic Iranian farmers. D. Reich has then concluded that the origin of the genetic Steppe component of the Ancestral North Indians is to be found in the Yamnaya ("Pit Grave") culture in the Volga-Don steppes, dated to around 3500-2500 BC, and that communities from this culture, as they migrated, also spread Indo-European languages to both Europe and South Asia. He however also leaves open the possibility that the peoples of the Indus Civilization were already mixed between Steppe and Iranian farmer-related ancestry and in that sense already spoke an Indo-Iranian language. In a more recent study, Reich's team also observes that the Oxus Civilization had no demographic impact on South Asia, as if Oxus communities were bypassed by Steppe individuals moving south. Not surprisingly, many archaeologists disagree with this reconstruction. Particularly, the central role he gives to the Yamnaya culture is highly questionable: in this reconstruction, "cultures" appear as monolithic, reified concepts, based on an insufficient number of ancient dna analyses.


There is little doubt that the question of the cultural and demic diffusion between Central Asia and the Indus will continue to be refined and agitate generations of linguists, geneticists and archaeologists. In concluding this brief review, it is important to remember--and this is the main point here--that, although archaeology, linguistics and dna analysis work with, or define, single events that appear frozen in time, this is an effect of the nature of the data specialists of these disciplines collect, and one should bear in mind that the world as it is today, including between Central Asia and South Asia, is the result of protracted and continuous processes of interaction that are varied and include cultural influences and migrations.


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Caption: 1 Map of Middle Asia with locations of the main Chalcolithic and Bronze Age sites discussed in the text.


Caption: 2 Illustration of typical painted black-on-buff ceramics from Shahr-i Sokhta, Iran, 3rd millennium BC. Three beakers and a bowl, Grave 39, no. 6545. Heights: 12.2 cm, 14.5 cm, 11.4 cm, 17.5 cm.


Caption: 3 Painted brown-on-buff necked jar from Sarazm, Tajikistan, 3rd millennium BC, with stylistic parallels in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Caption: 4 Mound of the Great Bath, Mohenjodaro, Indus valley, Pakistan (Indus Civilization).


Caption: 5 Steatite stamp seal with carved unicorn, ritual offering stand and inscription, from Harappa, Indus valley, Pakistan (Indus Civilization). 5.2 x 5.2 cm. Harappa Museum, Harappa, H99-4064.


Caption: 6 Carnelian and copper-alloy belt (Hoard DK IE) and gold, semiprecious stone and steatite jewellery (Hoard 3, hr 4212 a(d), DK 1541), from Mohenjo-daro, Indus valley, Pakistan. Belt:i05(l)xi0(w) cm. Mohenjo-daro Museum, Mohenjodaro, MM 1121, MM 1367, MM 1369, MM 1376, MM 1382 (50.28/5), MM 1384 (50.40).


Caption: 7 Plan of the palace, late period, Togolok 21, Turkmenistan (Oxus Civilization).


Caption: It is not clear whom these unusual sculptures represent. They are almost always said to be encountered in funerary contexts. The distribution of the sites of their discovery is extensive, with one example found in Quetta, whereas in Harappa, fragments of a head covering usually associated with this type of sculpture were found in a layer dating from period iii of the Indus Civilization at the end of the 3rd millennium BC. The larger number of them come from northern Afghanistan. The diversity found in the faces and hairstyles suggests a requirement to lend them individual characteristics, making us speculate if they are portraits. Each is made of multiple types of stone, consisting of a number of detachable parts. The two stones most commonly used were green steatite for the garments and headdress or hair, and the white or cream calcite for the parts of the body left bare.

Caption: 8a and b Seated goddess (Bactrian Princess), from western Central Asia (Oxus Civilization). Various types of stone; 9(h) x 9-4(w) cm. [C] MIHO MUSEUM, JAPAN. SS1751.

Caption: 9 Silver cylindrical cup with agricultural and ceremonial scenes, from western Central Asia (Oxus Civilization). Height: 12.2-12.6 cm. [C] MIHO MUSEUM, JAPAN. SF03.055.

Caption: 10 Gold footed cup with lions and guilloche, from Quetta valley, Pakistani Balochistan (Oxus Civilization). Height: 8.8 cm, diameter: 9.5 cm. National Museum, Karachi, SHQ03.


Caption: A One of many cupboards of assorted pre-Harappan pots from Balochistan in the store-room of the National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi. The stemmed cups were a speciality of the ancient Bactrian region. PHOTOGRAPH: NAMAN P. AHUJA, 2016.

Caption: B Mother Goddess, Shaikhan Dheri, 2nd century BC. Terracotta; 8.8(h) x 4.8(w) x 1.2(d) cm. [C] VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM. IS.20A-1951.

Although elements in their form take us to the figurines of Bronze-Age Indo-Iranian cultures, these Mother Goddesses have now been found in sites which were known by this stage to be Buddhist. Terracotta objects are usually taken as a marker of the popular/non-elite culture, and these dramatically abstract female figurines found in the Peshawar valley, reveal much about older religious traditions that were assimilated into the societies embracing Buddhism and the artistic languages of the cultures of the migrating populations.

Caption: C Cremation urn with lid, Gandhara grave culture, Swat valley, 1200 BC. Terracotta; 43.18 (h)x 38.1 (w) cm. [C] LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART. AC1994.234.8A-B. GIFT OF MARILYN WALTER GROUNDS.

Among the sparse discoveries from the period after the decline of the Harappan Civilization come such urns containing ashes which have been found at some sites in Swat which may be contemporaneous with the earliest megalithic burials in South Asia. The pot, as a symbol of the body, continued to have resonance through time, and these ones which have faces represented on them, prompt us to seek connections with the earliest mention of anthropomorphic worship.

Caption: D Hemispherical sundial, Ai Khanum, before 145 BC. Limestone; 37.3(h) x 52(w) cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 05.42.54.

Do diasporic communities live in the time of the land they adopt or in the time of the land they once called home? Ai Khanum, where this object was found, was the capital city of the Bactrian Greeks in Central Asia. However, the sundial is calibrated to read time based on the position of the sun in Alexandria in Egypt. The instrument takes the form of a throne supported by two lion legs in front. The hemispherical seat of the throne forms the dial face. Seven horizontal lines indicate the months, the n verticals indicate hours over which travelled a shadow of the style or gnomon (the rod provided to create a shadow), representing the earth's axis. The metal style is now lost but a hole marks the place it was fixed. The Chaldean priest and historian Berossus (3rd century BC), born in Babylonia, is said to have been the inventor of this type of sundial.

Caption: E Serapis or Herakles, Bagram (Room 13), 1st century AD. Bronze; 24.1(h) x 6.4(w) cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 04.1.90.

Caption: F Eros and Psyche, Bagram (Room 13), probably 2nd to 1st century BC. Plaster; diameter: 16.5 cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 04.1.117.

Caption: G Cameo with Herakles, from the Akra mound at Bannu, ist-2nd century AD. Onyx or dark blue chalcedony; 6(h) x 4-7(w) cm. [C] THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM. 1893,0502.1. PURCHASED FROM LT. P.G. SHERWELL.

Akra is the archaeological mound outside Bannu which has revealed exceptional finds. Carving stones like onyx into cameos was popular in early Roman times for mythological subjects as well as portraits of dignitaries. The naturally occurring layers of the stone were used to artistic effect, rendering the raised relief portion in white against the darker recessed background.

Caption: H Vajrapani in the guise of Herakles, Tepe Shotor, 2nd century AD. Stucco.


The image of the Greek hero Herakles was transformed into Behram and Rustam in Iran and into Vajrapani in Gandhara. This image was one of the finest known sculptures from the region, a testament to the intermingling of diverse traditions. The site where this sculpture was originally placed had several grottoes, in one of which this once flanked an image of the Buddha. The site was bombed some years back.

Caption: Begram or Bagram, north of Kabul, was once a prominent Kushan city. It is the modern name of ancient Kapisha. Here two strong rooms were found in the heart of a palace by French archaeologists in the 1930s. The objects in these two pages were among the wealth of treasures discovered in the rooms.

Caption: I Gold bracteate set with turquoise and pyrite, Tillya Tepe, Afghanistan, Tomb i, 2nd quarter of the 2nd century BC. 0.9 x0.9 cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 04.40.313.

Graves found in Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan revealed skeletons in robes stitched with gold bracteates or ornamental plaques of many different designs. Some, like dozens in this pattern, were encrusted with precious stones. Without a fixed sense of ownership of land, wealth is transportable for nomadic communities. Even the gold crown on one of the skeletons in this excavation was foldable. These objects reveal a distinct Central Asian aesthetic for the communities which would have encountered various Indian, Persian and Hellenistic influences.

Caption: J Throne leg with leogryph bracket, Bagram (Room 13), 1st century BC. Ivory; height: 30 cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 04.1.116.

Among the many precious objects in the Bagram store-room were some exquisite ivory sculptures from India. This is an ivory inlay that was attached to wooden furniture. The bracket was probably part of a throne. It is in the shape of a leogryph or shardula, a mythical creature with the body of a lion, wings of an eagle and the beak of a parrot. The shardula sprouts out of the mouth of a makara and has wings consisting of both feathers and fish scales, which are bordered on top by a row of pearls. On its back, a woman is seated holding a bridle. Between the lower paws of the shardula is a small yaksa figure who supports the leg of the female figure with his left hand.

Caption: K Enamelled glass beaker depicting figures harvesting dates, Bagram (Room 10), ist-2nd century AD. Glass and painted enamel; height: 12.6 cm, diameter: 8 cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 04.1.43.

Caption: L Fish-shaped flask, Bagram (Room 10), 1st century AD. Glass; 10.7(h) x 2o(w) x 8.7(d) cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. ACC. NO. 04.1.45.

The Roman-style glassware from Bagram and Taxila shows a diverse variety of techniques. There are cut-glass vessels, mould-blown glass, glass with faceted decorations, coloured enamelled vessels, ones with applied moulded relief decoration, and even bowls of millefiori or mosaic glass. There is variety in their shapes too, including this multicoloured flask in the shape of a fish. The finely painted beaker (figure K) belongs to a set with the types of scenes that would have reminded their users of Egypt: images of the goddess Isis, the lighthouse of Alexandria, and in the glass illustrated here, a scene of the harvest of dates.

Caption: M Two porphyry vessels found in excavations, Bagram (Room 13), c. 1st century AD. (Vase) height: 25.38 cm, diameter: 11.8 cm. (Dish) height: 4.5 cm, diameter: 18.5 cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFGHANISTAN. (VASE) ACC. NO. 04.1.65. (DISH) ACC. NO. 04.1.67.

Porphyry is a purple-red igneous rock consisting of large-grained crystals such as feldspar or quartz. Pliny in his Natural History affirmed that "Imperial Porphyry"had been discovered at an isolated site in Egypt in 18 ad, by a Roman legionary, after which the stone began to be used for portraits of emperors and for the most expensive luxury objects.

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Author:Mutin, Benjamin; Francfort, Henri-paul
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9TURM
Date:Jun 1, 2019
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:One Mother, Many Mother Tongues.

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