The Central Asian Dimension of the Symbolic System in Bactria and Margiana

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The Oxus and its iconography

The Bronze Age civilization of Bactria and Margiana emerged after 2500 BC from the local cultures represented at the sites of Sarazm, Mundigak and Shar-i Sokhta, incorporating elements from Turkmenia (especially in Margiana), from the Indus (pottery techniques and some iconographic traits) and from Iran through the Proto-Elamite past and by an Elamite influx (techniques, parts of iconography and mythology), but also incorporating old Central Asian features connected with Inner Asia.

This civilization flourished in Central Asia, in the Oxus basin 2300-1800 BC (Francfort 1984; Francfort et al. 1989; Hiebert 1993), in the deltas of the Murghab and Balkhab Rivers. It expanded to Uzbekistan, to eastern Iran and into Baluchistan (Santoni 1984; 1988; Jarrige & Hassan 1989; During-Caspers 1992; Hiebert & Lamberg-Karlovsky 1992), and Seistan (Besenval & Francfort in press), merging with the piedmont Namazga V at the Kelleli and ancient Gonur oasis of Margiana. At a later phase (Namazga VI or Mollali) 1800-1500 BC, it penetrated into Tadjikistan (works of P'yankova and Vinogradova) and northeast Afghanistan and reoccupied partially the abandoned cities of Turkmenia (Francfort 1981). Contemporary with the (late) Namazga V of Turkmenia, with the Indus Harappan and the Iranian Elamite civilizations, it is chronologically close to the supposed 'coming of the Aryans' from Central Asia or Syria to India.

Usually, the iconographic mythological elements known from the Oxus Civilization are analysed and interpreted by a framework of Indo-Iranian (Sarianidi works in references), Aryan (Parpola 1993), Iranian (Pottier 1981; 1984; Azarpay 1992) or Elamite terminology (Amiet 1986).

But the present approach is structuralist and therefore refrains from bestowing Zoroastrian or Elamite names on deities or devils. Structuralism is out of fashion but certainly not out-dated in a case like the Oxus Civilization iconography. Here the representations are taken as a whole set, in spite of their chronological dispersion, or the uncertainty of their origins from unstratified or approximately dated contexts. The relations between the iconographic elements are the primary focus, since no textual or oral tradition exists to define the nature of the various elements. Synchrony and sets of relations between discrete elements are basic to the structuralist approach in art history, as exemplified by the studies of Palaeolithic art by Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan (for a fair account in Englmsh of the structural analysis in ancient art see Conkey 1989).

This approach permits a tentative reconstruction of a distinctive system of images. The Oxus Civilization scheme, representing the cycles of nature and life, is notably different from the usual and well-known interpretive schemes of the Mesopotamian, Indus or Avestan mythologies, but certainly related to the Iranian Elamite artistic language (forms and style) if not beliefs, and deeply rooted in Bactria-Margiana. In this respect, the symbolic system of the Oxus Civilization is an original expression of a more general Eurasian mythological universe of very ancient origin, which can be termed shamanistic.

Divine and human hierarchy

A system of hierarchical relations is represented in the antiquities of the Oxus Civilization, with a correspondence between the images of mythological beings in heraldic positions and the images of humans in narrative scenes. TABLE 1 summarizes this hierarchical system.

The mythological beings are represented on seals and vases of stone, copper, silver and TABULAR DATA OMITTED gold, mainly in relief or intaglio (Masimov 1981; Pittman 1984; Amiet 1978; 1983; 1986; 1989; Sarianidi works in references; for details of the corpus see Francfort 1992). Some small round sculpture statues depict a goddess or a devil (Ligabue & Salvatori 1989: plates 106, 108-15). The narrative human scenes are displayed on gold and silver vases (Amiet 1983; 1986: figures 201,202). …