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Transoxiana 6 - Julio 2003

Ancient jewelry from Central Asia

Elena Neva, PhD

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The art of jewelry is a unique area of artistic work, that of great diapason and endless possibilities. Being the most accessible means of connection to art, products of artistic craft have always played a major role in people's lives.

The art of jewelers is one of the most pronounced phenomena in Eastern cultures. It is distinguished in its fulfillment and originality of artistic images, and carries within immense sources of expression. Jewelry art of ancient Central Asia is a complex, non-synonymous phenomenon. In order to comprehend its conformity to natural laws, as well as such conformity of Central Asian culture as a whole, it is necessary to understand its meaning on the basis of new information provided by the latest developments and discoveries in science, especially archaeology.

The period IV BC-IV AD is marked by the creation of unique, highly artistic monuments of jewelry art in Central Asia. It is a period of the greatest craft prosperity of ancient masters, who played an immense role in the establishment and development of Central Asian centers of jewelry art. These centers were formed first on the territory of ancient Bactria (modern territories of south of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the north of Afghanistan), and in XVIII, XIX and the beginning of XX centuries in Samarkand, Buchara, Ura-Tube, Khodzent, Kulyab and Baldzuan.

The art of ancient jewelers developed within a united channel of styles with other types of art, enriching and promoting the rise of diverse facets in the artistic trends of the epoch. Although distinct monuments drew the attention of historians, archaeologists and ethnographists, the history of jewelry art of Central Asia has been researched unevenly. Therefore, elaboration on the suggested theme can unravel unknown pages of birth, establishment and development of this ancient craft, centers of jewelry workshops and unique signs of the individuality of its masters.

The History of Research of the Central Asian Jewelry Art

The history of research on Central Asian jewelry art starts at the end of the last century. However, even today a comprehensive review of all of the monuments of this art is lacking, although related questions have been raised and explored in publications of historians, archaeologists, ethnographists and art historians. In contrast with other ancient works of art, the most known and researched jewelry dates to the XIX and XX centuries because it became readily available to researchers (especially to ethnographists), as a result of scientific expeditions and the studies done on the well-known collections in the museums of the former Soviet Union (in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tashkent, Frunze, Ashkhabad, Dushanbe).

While historians utilized many of the monuments of jewelry art mainly as peculiar illustrations of one epoch or another, archaeologists described jewelry in relation to other finds, and ethnographists researched the symbolism, semantics, and in later periods, the interrelation of jewelry with clothing.

The body of literature that in one way or another touches on the subject of jewelry art is very impressive. All of the currently available literature on a given problem can be subdivided into historical, archaeological, ethnographical, and as well as works devoted to questions of culture and art.

Historical literature that can be utilized as sources of information on jewelry art of ancient Central Asia includes the testimonies of Arrian [1], Herodotus[2], Kvint Kurzii Ruff[3], and Xenophon, which describe jewelry as a defining characteristic of a given epoch.

Archaeological literature serves as the fundamental source for this study. Its review allows to identify artifacts that date to the period of IV BC-IV AD.

When it comes to ethnographic literature on the subject, L.A. Chvir's monograph "Tajik jewelry"[4] is currently one of the major research works on jewelry art of Central Asia. In the introduction to this monograph she reviews the history of research done on Central Asian articles, noting that "in ethnography, research of Central Asian articles has a very brief history. It is true that the establishment of economical, democratic and cultural links between the nations of Central Asia and Eastern Europe (mostly Russia) dates back to VIII-IX centuries...However, even in systematic and detailed studies of the nations of Central Asia...few authors report concrete data on the traditional 'material' culture of the immediate population." M. and V. Nalivkin [5] in "Ocherk bita jenshin osedlogo naseleniya Fergani"(Essay of daily life of women from Fergana) describe the jewelry worn by Sarts; N.S. Likoshin's[6] "Half of life in Turkistan" also describes the jewelry worn there; N.I. Veselovskii's "Zapiski Vostochnogo otdeleniya Ruskogo arheologicheskogo obshestva" (Field notes of eastern department of Russian archaeological society) include descriptions of eastern jewelry, its symbolism and semantics, for example such works as "Basbent", "Rol streli v obryadakh i ego simvolicheskoe znachenie"(The role and symbolism of the arrow in rituals).

"Most of the collection and research on Central Asian women's jewelry," as ethnographists L.A. Chvir notes, "was done in the Soviet period," and the majority of studied jewelry dates back to the end of XVIII-XX centuries. A well-known soviet scientist-ethnograph M.S. Andreev[7], while studying the mode of life of Tajiks from the valley Huff, notes the peculiarities of their jewelry in the part "Svadba"(wedding). Tajik jewelry art is emphasized in one of the latest works by A.K. Pisarchik - in the album "Narodnoe prikladnoe iskusstvo tadjikov"[8] (Tajik Decorative Art). The album describes not only the known types of jewelry but also their technical and artistic characteristics. Another researcher, S.P. Rusyaikina, notes the characteristic nature of jewelry of Tajiks from the Garm area[9].

A vast amount of credit in the gathering and the research of tajik adornments goes to the ethnographist, N.N. Ershov[10] - the founder of a unique museum, the Museum of Ethnography in Tajikistan. The museum was established on the basis of the ethnographic collections gathered in part by the author. Ershov's research was dedicated to the promotion of studies done on these collections, including jewelry. In the work of Z.A. Shirokova, "Odejda jenshin gornogo Tadjikistana"(The clothes of women from the mountain region of Tajikistan) there exists a separate chapter "Ykrasheniya i kosmetika" (Adorments and Makeup), where in the first paragraph she provides detailed descriptions of the rings, bracelets, and jewelry worn on the neck, head, forehead and chest. The descriptions are supplemented by information on related rituals, beliefs, and traditions of wearing jewelry, well-known in the mountain region of Tajikistan.[11]

Adornments of Uzbekistan, their form, types, styles and principles of wearing, their symbolism and semantics are described in the works of well-known scientists-ethnographists such as N.G. Borozna, M.A. Bikjanova, A. Azizova, M.V. Sazonova and O.A. Sukhareva[12]. Decorative art, and adornments in particular, are described in the works of researchers of Kirgiziya such as E.I. Mahova, A.F. Burkovskii, K.I. Antipina and E. Suleimanova[13]. In the research done on Turkmenian jewelry, the works of G.P. Vasilieva[14] deserve attention. In all of the above works, the authors "rely mostly on a well-known source - clothing". And although adornments are examined in distinct areas of the research, they have are never treated as a type of artistic craft.

Art historians are only beginning to research the artistic individualities of Central Asian jewelry art. Their works focus mainly on the later historical periods, while the ancient period remains to be uncovered. An attempt to analyze jewelry art of medieval Maverannahr was made in a small article written by D.A. Fahretdinova[15]. In this article, through research of specific finds (made on the mentioned territory), the author makes conclusions on the state and development of jewelry art of the given region in the XI-XIII centuries. In her recently published monograph "Yuvelirnoe iskusstvo Uzbekistana" (Jewelry art of Uzbekistan), one chapter ­ "Ot drevneishikh istokov"( From ancient roots), is dedicated to a short analysis of ancient jewelry from Central Asia.

Jewelry of the ancient period became known through the works of scientists-archaeologists and their publications. This allowed for the creation of tables of Central Asian jewelry. Among the scientists-archaeologists N.N. Veselovski[16] was the first to carry out scientific excavations on the territory of Central Asia. These excavations brought about interesting discoveries that included jewelry. However, the greatest scope of archaeological research dates back to the 1930's. It seems as if since this period almost all of the publications on excavations, as well as other related archaeological works describe and analyze adornments: jewelry articles from the bronze epoch in the works of A. Askarov[17], V.M. Masson[18], A.M. Mandelshtam[19], and the articles on ancient Fergana in the works of U.A. Zadneprovskii[20]. One of the works by B.A. Litvinskii is dedicated completely to the adornments of Western Fergana, their classification, dating, and possible analogies[21]. Jewelry articles from the Zeravshan valley are described in the work of Y.G. Gulyamov, Y. Islamov and A. Askarov[22], and the articles of Pre-Aral by M.A. Itina[23]. An immense amount of information on ancient articles is included in the reference book, "Srednyaya Azia v epokhy kamnya I bronzi" (Central Asia in the Stone and Bronze Age)[24]. Metallic adornments of the Bronze Age have been also examined by E.E. Kuzmina. Although she collected all of the findings from that time period on the territory of Central Asia, the artistic aspect of jewelry art was left out of her analysis[25]. Adornments from the ancient territory of southern Turkmenia and Khorezm are known through the works of M.E. Masson[26], I.N. Khlopin[27], O.A. Vishnevskaya[28], S.A. Trudnovskaya[29], S.P. Tolstov[30]. On the basis of the above archaeological research, tables have been assembled. From these tables it can be easily seen that the majority of the findings, as well as, most of the publications relate to the ancient country of Bactria.

In the ancient period, Bactria included the modern territories of southern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as northern Afghanistan. The richest and most interesting finds from this territory are described in the works of A. Ascarov, M.M. Dyakonov, I.T. Kruglikova & V.I. Sarianidi, E.V. Zeimal, O. Dalton, B. Litvinskii & R. Pichikyan, G.A. Pugachenkova, A.M. Mandelshtam, E.B. Rtvetladze[31]. The indicated works represent archaeological studies that also mention adornments. However, in contrast with others, Bactrian finds are greatly distinguished by their artistic qualities. This fact allows us to continue the research of ancient Central Asian jewelry art using the monuments of Bactria as a focal point. Jewelry articles of the early medieval period are analyzed in the special work of V.I. Raspopova, "Metallicheskie izdeliya rannesrednevekovogo Sogda" (Metal items in early- medieval Sogd)[32].

Apart from metallic adornments, some scientists have examined the emergence and spreading of glass and stone adornments found on the territory of Central Asia. Such works include those of I.V. Ptashnikova[33], G.Y. Drecvyanskaya[34], S.A. Trudnovskaya[35] and E.D. Saltovskaya[36]. There are also works that examine adornments both as archaeological and culturally-historical material (A.M. Mandelshtam[37], B.A. Litvinskii[38]).

The level of knowledge on the adornments of the ancient and medieval periods is still relatively low. Many aspects of Central Asian Jewelry art were left out of existing research and such sources as monumental paintings, sculpture, and relief were hardly utilized. An attempt at a more comprehensive approach can be seen in the works of K.V. Trever[39], in which she examines the adornments of characters found on Airtam's reliefs. In the works of L.I. Albaum[40], T.I. Zeimal & B.A. Litvinskii[41], M. Belenizki[42], researchers look into the monumental paintings found in excavations, describing the portrayed adornments. Many of the written sources and archaeological findings that date back to the late Middle Ages are currently unknown. Specific notations do exist in the works of such researchers as A.S. Bobrova[43], D.N. Varhotova[44], E.V. Kilchevskaya & N.N. Negmatov[45], G.A. Brikina[46] and E. Attagariev[47]. These authors examine jewelry articles as monuments of culture.

The history of Central Asian jewelry will not be complete until all of the finds of the last decade are included as scientific data and until written sources that contain immense amounts of useful information are published. Medieval poetry of Rumi, Rudaki, Firdousi, Khaiyama and other poets preserved for us some descriptions of jewelry. However, thus far, our knowledge of the history of adornments contains a greater than millennium "white spot".

Research Sources

Two types of sources were used in the following research: museum collections and publications on finds of adornments (monographs, albums, catalogues, articles). Museum collections researched included the Moscow, Leningrad, Dushanbe, Leninabad, Tashkent, Samarkand, Pendjikent, and Frunze museums, as well as jewelry from The British Museum exhibited in Moscow and Leningrad. The findings from Afghanistan were examined mainly through publications. Central Asia jewelry articles are found in very small numbers in the museum collections of Moscow and Leningrad. However, the articles present in these collections served as the basis for comparative analyses. The collections in Leninabad, Samarkand, Pendjikent and Frunze also contain a small number of articles that date to the researched period. These however, represent in most cases 'material', not artistic, cultural monuments.

All of the adornments found in the collections of the above museums are very diverse both in the materials and the techniques of making. They also differ from each other in their functions, forms, ornaments, etc. Articles are presented in random and do not form a discernible ensemble. An extensive review of all of the currently available literature on the subject of adornments found on the territory of Central Asia was especially helpful in this study.

Central Asian jewelry art of the IV BC-IV AD period has never been analyzed before. This paper is the first to address this particular period. However, it seems that even this study will not be able to completely uncover all of the questions that arise from such an informative material as jewelry.

The literature and museum collections utilized herein point to the fact that it is currently impossible to study the history of Central Asian jewelry art in full, for not enough information has been gathered on the various historical periods of the given region.

In the following research primarily highly artistic objects have been utilized, without any regard to their materials or techniques of making: including both separate findings and treasures of jewelry articles. The term treasure is often used to describe groups of adornments or other monuments of art found accidentally. These groups represent an ensemble of a variety of artifacts that differ not only in their types and appearances, but also in their chronology. An example is the Treasure of Oxus.

The Treasure of Oxus

A vivid illustration of the artistic tastes of the Central Asian elite of the V-IV BC, as well as material evidence for the coalescence of different cultural and artistic traditions in achaemenian Central Asia, is the well-known Treasure of Oxus, found at The British Museum in London.[48]. A legend tells that the treasure was found in the wadi of the river Amu-Darya (Oxus - as it was known in Greek sources). The treasure consists of about 220 objects, mostly coins that date back to V-III BC, minted in Greece and Asia Minor, in achaemenian Iran and the country of Selevkids[49]. In light of the newest archaeological discoveries a new hypothesis was proposed to suggest that the Treasure of Oxus was part of the treasury of the Temple of Oxus in the ancient metropolis of Takhti-Sangin, where later in the XX century the second Treasure of Oxus was found (excavations are supervised by I.R. Pichikyan). B.Y. Stavisky was the first scientist to suggest that the Treasure of Oxus I was part of the temple in Takhti-Sangin[50]

The temple of Oxus was discovered in the western half of the center of the ancient metropolis. It seems that the temple was built no later then the III century BC and was under reconstruction until the III-IV AD. Sacrifices to the treasury were very diverse, including primarily coins (a large number of which had been found), jewelry, gold and silver vessels, votive plaques, and small sculpture.

The gifts and crumbling adornments of the temple itself (where a square, four-column "White hall" is completely uncovered, and measures 12m x 12m; its columns - decorated ionic capitols; large altars were placed in the corners and in the arches) were deposited onto the floor of separate sectors, and later these sectors-treasuries were immured (the entire number of findings is over five thousand)[51]. Due to the long-term existence of the temple (several centuries), the finds include artifacts that differ tremendously from each other, both stylistically and chronologically. In the catalogues composed by O. Dalton and E. Zeimal, the articles from the Treasure of Oxus I are subdivided into seven groups, that include round sculpture, vessels, coins, a variety of small articles, plaques and finally adornments - rings, bracelets, torques, and articles with relief images[52]. The dominant artistic style during the period of the Treasure of Oxus I was the imperial art of Susa and Persepolis[53]. However, it is possible to come across articles made in the traditional styles of classical ancient East, and in the particulars of the Bactrian style. Many articles are stunning in the skill and methods of making, technical perfection, distinct styles, and the modeling of parts into a whole.


The other treasure examined in this study is from the metropolis of Dalversin-tepe (modern territory of southern Uzbekistan) dates back to the Kushan epoch and was found under the floor of a small room in a wealthy household (DT-5)[54]. This treasure consisted of carelessly cast disk-like slabs of gold, gold bars inscribed with weight (in some cases gratuitous), jewelry in the form of thick cylindrical or almond-like hoops, earrings, brooches, neck adornments (pectorals & necklaces), bracelets, including those in the form of a hoop with spirals rolling on both sides. Two odd earrings were made in the same technique as the bracelets; the top part of the third one resembles an ornamental cylinder with a bended eye, completed by a snake head. Neck adornments included torques, necklace, and pectoral. A large brooch is very distinct and includes a relief figure of a twisting aural animal, surrounded by heart-shaped openings for incrustation of precious stones[55].

Excavations carried out by an archaeological expedition under the supervision of G.A. Pugachenkova in the valley of Surkhandarya showed that a small Greco-bactrian town, surrounded by pakhsa (a specific type of brick) walls, existed on the territory of Dalverzin-tepe. Also here, a central part of a small buddhist temple, situated to the north of the town wall, was preserved. This may be the reason for the great diversity of articles found in Dalversin-tepe. Some of the articles are made in the artistic traditions of Gandkhara (pectoral, necklace), while others - earrings and bracelets, seem to continue the artistic line of nomads, still others - e.g. the brooch, is an "echo" of the "animal style". This co-occurance may be explained by the fact that "Buddhism was not the only nor the major religion in Bactria, here the gods of 'Avesta' and the Hellenistic gods were worshiped as well"[56]

Tillya-tepe (golden hill)

In contrast to the treasures of Oxus and Dalversin-tepe, Tillya-tepe (from northern Afghanistan) provided researchers with samples of ensembles of adornments. Here in 1978, a joint soviet-afghan expedition uncovered six rich burials (five female and one male), in which many adornments that date back to the begging of this era were preserved. Altogether, 2000 gold jewelry articles with insertions of precious and semi-precious stones were found. The female complexes differ stylistically from each other reflective not only of the differences in the ethnicity of the buried women but also of the differences in fashion. The abundance of jewelry articles in these burials suggests the existence of a jewelry workshop, for such a large amount of sew-on disks could have only been made by several masters.

Aside from treasures and ensembles of jewelry articles, other unique findings of highly artistic monuments of jewelry art from the IV BC-IV AD are rather well-known. Found mainly on the territory of ancient Bactria, these finds include an earring from Dushanbe[57]; the finds from the burials of Bishkent valley[58] - golden earrings, brooch with an image of a "rolled-up horse", beads; adornments from Dangarian burials[59], and finally the jewelry articles from the metropolis Saksanokhur[60].

Rich in jewelry are the collections from ancient Khorezm: Yigarak, Kyusai, Geok-depe, Chirik-rabat, Babish-mulla, Ayaz-kala and others (see the table of finds).

Separate finds that date to the early middle ages from Sogd: the metropolis of Shirin-I and the Kutkat burial vaults are also of great interest[61]. Classification and sorting of these finds resulted in a wider understanding of the areal of the making and the wearing of adornments, where the leading place belongs to Bactria, a country with high culture that was part of the Achaemenian empire (in the middle of the first thousand BC Bactria is mentioned in a Behistun writing of the persian king Darii I). In IV century BC Bactria was conquered by Alexander the Great. "Imported and trophy works of Greek art, as well as those components of Hellenistic art that became part of the imperial style directly or indirectly influenced the culture of Bactria"[62], in its turn influencing the neighboring countries.

Soon after the death of Alexander the Great Bactria was conquered by the Selevkids, and its relations with Greek Mediterranean cities (during that period)...were wide and regular. The on-going gold and ivory trade promoted the blossoming of jewelry and ivory-carving arts in the south of modern Central Asia. Trading channels also served as ways for cultural exchange[63].

An uprising lead by Deodot, in the middle of the IV century BC, resulted in the formation of an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom, known in ancient times as the "country of one thousand cities". With time, its borders widened, reaching all the way to north-western India. After a century, Bactria was invaded by half-nomadic nations from over the Sir Darya - the central-asian Skifs-Saks; following them were the Yuedjies that displaced the skifs and settled in Bactria during the second quarter of the II century BC; the yuedjies that assimilated with the native population, established the nation of Kushan. Their family name became the name of a monarch dynasty and a mighty empire[64]. In the I-III centuries AD the Kushan empire spread its ruling over the territories of the modern southern areas of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, north-western India, but seized to exist in the III century. In the system of the Kushan empire Bactria played a major role, although the main political centers gradually moved to the south over Gindukush[65].

The historical, political and economical processes of the researched period that embraced Central Asia, found their reflection in culture, art and philosophy of the nations that populated the region.


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[46] Brikina, G.A. Karabulak. Moscow: Nauka, 1974

[47] Attagariev, E. O nekotorikh srednevekovikh jenskikh ykrasheniyakh iz Shekhr Islama. IAN Tyrkm. SSR, 1965, #1 pp.8-18

[48] Stavisky, B.Y. Iskusstvo Sredneii Azii. Iskusstvo, Moscow, 1974, pp.19-20

[49] Zeimal, E.V. Amudariyinskii klad..., p.10

[50] Pichikyan, I.R. Komposiziya khrama Oksa v kontexte arkhitecturnikh sopostavlenii. Bulletin UNESCO MAIKZA, 1987, #12, pp.49-64

[51] Drevnosti Tadjikistana. Donish, Dushanbe, 1985, pp.69-70

[52] Dalton, O. The Treasure of Oxus...

[53] Drevnosti...p.70

[54] Pugachenkova, G.A. Khudojestvennie sokrovischa Dalverzina. p.63

[55] Ibid...p.102

[56] Pugachenkova, G.A. Khudojestvennie sokrovischa Dalverzina...

[57] Linde, E. Greko-baktriiskii sfinx/Soobscheniya Resp. ist. kraev. muzeya Tadj. SSR. Dushanbe, 1952, vol. 1, pp.5-21

[58] Mandelshtam, A.M. Kochevniki na puti v Indiyu. Nauka, Moscow-Leningrad, 1966

[59] Drevnosti...p.108 (#284-286)

[60] Ibid

[61] Negmatov, N.N. Khudojestvennie izdeliya iz kurkatskikh sklepov. DI, 1977, #9 pp.42-43

[62] Drevnosti...p.70

[63] Ibid...

[64] Pugachenkova, G.A. Khudojestvennie sokrovischa Dalverzina. p.53

[65] Ibid.

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