Archeology and History of the Silk Road

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Friday, 24 October 2014

Ancient City Ruled by Genghis Khan's Heirs Revealed

Live Science  by Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor   |   October 24, 2014 

 Archaeologists with the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore have uncovered part of the ancient city of Ukek, founded by the descendents of Genghis Khan.  Credit: Photo courtesy Dmitriy Kubankin

















































































Remains of a 750-year-old city, founded by the descendents of Genghis Khan, have been unearthed along the Volga River in Russia.
Among the discoveries are two Christian temples one of which has stone carvings and fine ceramics. 
The city’s name was Ukek and it was founded just a few decades after Genghis Khan died in 1227. After the great conqueror’s death his empire split apart and his grandson Batu Khan, who lived from 1205 to 1255, founded the Golden Horde (also called the Kipchak Khanate).The Golden Horde kingdom stretched from Eastern Europe to Central Asia and controlled many of the Silk Road trade routes that connected China to Medieval Europe.

Ukek was built close to the khan's summer residence along the Volga River, something which helped it become prosperous. The name "Golden Horde" comes from the golden tent from which the khan was said to rule. [See Photos of the Medieval 'Golden Horde' City and Artifacts]
Christian quarter
Archaeologists with the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore have discovered the Christian quarter of Ukek, shedding light on the Christian people who lived under the Khan's rule. Ukek was a multicultural city, where a variety of religious beliefs were practiced including Islam, Christianity and Shamanism.
While Christians did not rule the Golden Horde, the discoveries archaeologists made show that not all the Christians were treated as slaves, and people of wealth frequented the Christian quarter of the city.
"Some items belonging to local elite were found in the Christian district," Dmitriy Kubankin, an archaeologist with the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore, told Live Science in an email."Among other things, there is a Chinese glass hair pin, with a head shaped as a split pomegranate, and a fragment of a bone plate with a carved dragon image."
Stone temples
Among the discoveries are the basements of two Christian temples. In eastern Christianity churches are sometimes called temples.
A bas relief showing a lion being clawed by a griffin was found in the remains of a Christian temple at the Ukek city site.
A bas relief showing a lion being clawed by a griffin was found in the remains of a Christian temple at the Ukek city site.
Credit: Photo courtesy Dmitriy Kubankin
One of the temples was built around 1280 and was destroyed in the early 14th century. "It was roofed with tiles and decorated with murals and stone carving[s], both, from the outside and inside," Kubankinsaid.
"The best-preserved bas relief (a type of stone carving) features a lion being clawed by a griffin," said Kubankin, noting that another carving depicts a cross.
Within the basement of the temple, archaeologists found the remains of goods that may have been stored by local merchants, including fine plates and bottles that were imported from the Byzantine Empire, Egypt or Iran. "Any church cellar was considered a safe place to store goods in it, therefore, merchants from the nearest neighborhood used to keep (objects) of sale there," Kubankin said.
After the first Christian temple was destroyed in the early 14th century, a second temple was built in 1330 and remained in use until about 1350. "Most probably, it was stone-walled and had a tile roof. A part of its foundation with the apse has been unearthed," Kubankin said.



The fall of Ukek
The city of Ukek did not last for long. During the 14th century, the Golden Horde began to decline, and in 1395 Ukek was attacked by a ruler named Tamerlane, a man out to build an empire of his own. He destroyed Ukek and took over much of the territory formerly ruled by the Golden Horde, dealing them a blow from which they would never recover.
Today modern-day buildings cover much of Ukek. "This hampers any research and prevents complete unearthing of the entire [site], because it extends over several private land plots," Kubankin said.
“Nevertheless, digging just in one site may lead to significant discoveries.  Archaeological expeditions from the Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore [have made] yearly excavations since 2005," said Kubankin, adding thatthese discoveries will soon be featured in a museum exhibition.

Kubankin presented the team's finds recently at the European Association of Archaeologists' annual meeting in Istanbul.


The Glass Hairpin
A glass hairpin, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos




















This glass hairpin, imported from China, was found in the Christian quarter of Ukek. The head of the pin is carved in the shape of a split pomegranate. It is remarkably well preserved despite the passage of about 700 years of time. 

A fragment
A fragment of bone, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos


















Another treasure from China found in the Christian quarter. This image shows a fragment of a bone plate carved in the image of a dragon. Finds like these indicate that elite individuals visited the Christian quarter even though Christians did not rule the Golden Horde khanate.

A carving
A bas relief showing a lion being clawed by a griffin was found in the remains of a Christian temple at the Ukek city site.






































Archaeologists found the remains of two Christian temples (in eastern Christianity churches are sometimes called temples). One temple was decorated with bas reliefs (a kind of stone carving) and mosaics. One of the carvings, seen here, shows a griffin clawing a lion.

A wooden handle
A fragment of a wooden handle, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos


















A fragment of a wooden handle, in the shape of a panther's head, also found in the Christian temple.

A stonepaste plate
A stonepaste plate, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos



















The basement of the Christian temple would have been used by local merchants to store goods. This image shows a stonepaste (kashine) plate that would have been imported from Egypt or Iran. 

A stonepaste bottle
A stonepaste bottle, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos




























The remains of a stonepaste (kashine) bottle that also would have been imported from Egypt or Iran. 

An imported plate
A plate from Byzantium, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos


























A plate that would have been imported from Byzantium.

An ancient storage vessel
An ancient storage vessel, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos


































While the archaeologists found some fantastic imported goods they also found simpler, homemade, items. This image shows a storage vessel also found in the Christian temple. 

An artifact from the Christian quarter
A Russian pot, golden horde, ancient city, genghis khan, russia archaeology, ancient city photos



























Another, less elaborate, artifact from the Christian quarter. This image shows a Russian pot.

1,300 relics seized in Zhejiang's ‘biggest ever’ tomb-raiding case

South China Morning Post    24 October 2014    James Griffiths

Police in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province have arrested more than 120 people and seized around 1,300 relics in relation to 144 cases of tomb raiding.
Authorities there described it as the “biggest ever” case of tomb raiding and artefact trafficking in the province’s history.
Shaoxing plays host to hundreds of ancient tombs, some of which are thousands of years old. Archaeologists researching the burial sites first tipped off police to the tomb raiders’ activity, after which a task force was set up to track them down.
More than 800 officers from across Zhejiang took part in the investigation, which eventually resulted in the arrest of 124 people and the recovery of 1,335 cultural relics.
One such relic was a large bronze mirror, dating back to the Jin dynasty over 1,800 years ago.
“There may still be some pieces of national heritage in the relics, identification of them is still ongoing,” an investigator told the Qianjiang Evening News.
The majority of the tomb raiders were from the nearby area, police told reporters.
“They tend to have a good understanding of the history of Shaoxing, they know where to find the tombs,” an officer with the Shaoxing municipal public security bureau told the Evening News.
Police said thieves used the so-called ‘Luoyang shovel’ to find the graves. Invented in 1923 by a grave digger from Luoyang, Henan province, the shovel allows for its user to extract a long section of earth without disturbing the soil structure or digging a large hole. This allows the grave robber to analyse the soil for any bits of pottery, metal or masonry that might indicate an underground tomb.
Grave robbery is endemic across China; posing what experts say is a very real risk that priceless historical artefacts will be lost or stolen. One researcher estimated in 2012 that as many as 100,000 people across the country were involved in the crime.
“We used to say nine out of 10 tombs were empty because of tomb-raiding, but now it has become 9.5 out of 10,” Professor Lei Xingshan, an archaeologist at Peking University, told the Guardian.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Is this the world's oldest secret code?

The Siberian Times  22 October 2014

By Anna Liesowska


Scientists close to precise dating of the Shigir Idol, twice as ancient as the Egyptian Pyramids.
The oldest wooden statue in the world. Picture: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately 9,500 years ago, and preserved as if in a time capsule in a peat bog on the western fringe of Siberian. Expert Svetlana Savchenko, chief keeper of Shigir Idol, believes that the structure's faces carry encoded information from ancient man in the Mesolithic era of the Stone Age concerning their understanding of 'the creation of the world'.
German scientists are now close to a precise dating - within five decades - of the remarkable artifact, which is a stunning example of ancient man's creativity.
The results are likely to be known in late February or early March, The Siberian Times can reveal. 
Now the question is turning among academics to a better understanding of the symbols and pictograms on this majestic larch Idol, one of Russia's great treasures, which is now on display a special glass sarcophagus at its permanent home, Yekaterinburg History Museum, where Savchenko is senior researcher.
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
There is no such ancient sculpture in the whole of Europe. Picture: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
German pre-historian Professor Thomas Terberger said: 'There is no such ancient sculpture in the whole of Europe. Studying this Idol is a dream come true. We are expecting the first results of the test at the end of winter, (early) next year.'
Professor Mikhail Zhilin, leading researcher of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archeology, explained: 'We study the Idol with a feeling of awe. This is a masterpiece, carrying gigantic emotional value and force. It is a unique sculpture, there is nothing else in the world like this.  It is very alive, and very complicated at the same time. 
'The ornament is covered with nothing but encrypted information. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the Idol.'
He is adamant that we can draw conclusions about the sophistication of the people who created this masterpiece, probably scraping the larch with a stone 'spoon', even though the detail of the code remains an utter mystery to modern man. 
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago

The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago

The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
This is a masterpiece, carrying gigantic emotional value and force. Pictures: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
Asked if they lived in permanent fear of mighty forces of mysterious nature, nervously casting around, petrified by danger, he replied: 'Forget it. The men - or man - who created the Idol lived in total harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development, and a complicated spiritual world.'
'It is obvious that the elements of geometrical ornament had some meaning,' stated Savchenko and Zhilin in explaining the Idol's ancient markings. 
'The difficulty of interpretation is the polysemy symbolism of these symbols' - in other words, the possible multiple related meanings. According to ethnography, a straight line could denote land, or horizon - the boundary between earth and sky, water and sky, or the borderline between the worlds. 
'A wavy line or zigzag symbolised the watery element, snake, lizard, or determined a certain border. In addition, the zigzag signaled danger, like a pike. Cross, rhombus, square, circle depicted the fire or the sun, and so on.' 
Savchenko and other museum staff have postulated that among its purposes was that of an early map, or navigator. Straight lines, wave lines and arrows indicated ways of getting to the destination and the number of days for a journey, with waves meaning water path, straight lines meaning ravines, and arrows meaning hills, according to this theory which has yet to be fully researched. 
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
The ornament is covered with nothing but encrypted information. Pictures: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
Author Petr Zolin, citing scientific work by Savchenko and Zhilin, stated: 'The characters of Idol cannot have an unambiguous interpretation. If these are images of spirits that inhabited the human world in ancient times, the vertical position of figures (one above the other) probably relate to their hierarchy.
'Placing images on the front and back planes of the Idol, possibly indicate that they belong to different worlds. If there are depicted myths about the origin of humans and the world, the vertical arrangement of the images may reflect the sequence of events. Ornaments can be special signs which mark something as significant.'
The Idol reflects what these people looked like, with straight noses and high cheekbones.
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago

The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
The men - or man - who created the Idol lived in total harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development, and a complicated spiritual world. Pictures: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
The impression of the main three-dimensional face, with a gaping mouth, is of an Aztec look, but it is only because the part of the nose of the main face was broken. In all there are seven faces, six of which are one dimensional. 
'It is clear that the faces together with the ornament form separate figures,' said Savchenko and Zhilin. 'On both the front and back of the Idol there are three figures. Here they are located one above the other, and the upper seventh figure...connects both sides and crowns the composition.'
Some have claimed the Idol includes primitive writing, which, if true, would be amongst the first on Earth, but there is no consensus among experts who have studied the Urals statue. 
The Idol was preserved due to a stroke of luck concerning its resting place in the Urals. 
It happened 'thanks to a combination of antiseptics,' said Professor Zhilin. 'The idol was made from the Phytoncidic larch, then 'canned' in turf which is an acid anaerobic environment that kills microorganism-destroyers and also has a tanning effect.' 
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
Some have claimed the Idol includes primitive writing, which, if true, would be amongst the first on Earth. Picture: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
The scientists from the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage are using AMS - accelerated mass spectrometry - enabling them to compare analysis of five microscopic samples of the larch from the idol with climate changes data for the past 10,000 years. 
This will allow them to figure out when exactly the 159 year old larch - from which the Idol is carved - grew. 
The tests follow what Professor Terberger called 'a very successful summer trip'  in which 'we worked together with our Russian colleagues from the Yekaterinburg History Museum'.
The Idol was originally recovered in January 1890 near Kirovograd; some 2.8 metres in height, it appears to have seven faces. It was protected down the millennia by a four metre layer of peat bog on the site of an open air gold mine.
Lack of funding has, until now, prevented the proper age testing of this Urals treasure. Professor Uwe Hoysner,  from Berlin Archaeological Institute said: 'The Idol is carved from larch, which, as we see by the annual rings, was at least 159 years old. The samples we selected contain important information about the isotopes that correspond to the time when the tree grew.' 
The samples used for testing were cut in 1997. The Idol was extracted in several parts from the peat bog. 
The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago

The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago

The Idol is the oldest wooden statue in the world, estimated as having been constructed approximately  9,500 years ago
First reconstructions of the Idol as walking and standing upright, archeologist Vladimir Tolmachev and his drawings of the Idol, and marked faces of the Idol.  Pictures: Yekaterinburg History Museum 
Professor Dmitry. I. Lobanov combined the main fragments to reconstitute the sculpture 2.80m high but in 1914 the Siberian archaeologist Vladimir Tolmachev proposed a variant of this reconstruction by integrating previously unused fragments.
Tragically, some of these fragments were later lost, so only Tolmachev's drawings of them remain.However, these suggest the original height of the statue was 5.3 metres. Some 1.93 metres of the statue did not survive the 20th century's revolutions and wars and it is only visible on his drawings.
But even the size is it now makes it the highest wooden statue in the world. 
One intriguing question debated by Russian scientists is how the Idol - as tall as a two-storey house - was kept in a vertical position. 
Museum staff believe it was never dug into the ground to help it stand upright, and that it was unlikely it was perched against a tree, because it would have covered more than half of its ornaments. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The golden burial mask of Shamsi

From the beautiful blog Tibet Archaeology and all things Tibetan by John Vincent Bellaza

Fig. A. Golden funeral mask of a woman with tattoo-like decorations which represent the trees of life. These decorations were created by puncturing on the reverse and covering with white paint on the obverse. Rouran period, 5th–6th century CE. Excavated in 1958 in Shamsi, Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan. Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Christoph Baumer. Photo credit: National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
Fig. A. Golden funeral mask of a woman with tattoo-like decorations which represent the trees of life. These decorations were created by puncturing on the reverse and covering with white paint on the obverse. Rouran period, 5th–6th century CE. Excavated in 1958 in Shamsi, Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan. Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Christoph Baumer. Photo credit: National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
The above photo and caption are taken from Christoph Baumer’s forthcoming book, History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads, vol. II. After reading about the golden masks illustrated in last month’s Flight of the Khyung, this author was so kind as to provide me with these materials from his upcoming book due out in July, 2014. I urge anyone with an interest in the history of 1st millennium CE Eurasia to obtain a copy of Dr. Baumer’s book. One will be treated to a rich panoply of cultures, religions, and art, which made the Silk Road one of the greatest chapters in Eurasian civilization.
Courtesy of the publisher, here is the synopsis for Christoph Baumer’s forthcoming book, History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads, vol. II:
The Age of the Silk Roads (circa 200 BC to circa 900 AD) shaped the course of the future. The foundation by the Han dynasty of an extensive network of interlinking trade routes, collectively known as the Silk Road, led to an explosion of cultural and commercial transactions across Central Asia that had a profound impact on civilization. In this second volume of his authoritative history of the region, Christoph Baumer explores the unique flow of goods, peoples, and ideas along the dusty tracks and wandering caravan routes that brought European and Mediterranean orbits into contact with Asia. The Silk Roads, the author shows, enabled the spread across the known world of Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Islam, just as earlier they had caused Roman citizens to crave the exotic silk goods of the mysterious Far East. Tracing the rise and fall of empires, this richly illustrated book charts the ebb and flow of epic history: the bitter rivalry of Rome and Parthia; the lucrative mercantile empire of the Sogdians; the founding of Samarkand; the rise of Turkish Empires in today’s Mongolia; and the Chinese defeat at the Battle of Talas (751 AD) by the forces of Islam.
In style and form, the gold foil mask of Shamsi has certain features of both the Boma Cemetery specimen from northwestern Xinjiang (Ili) and those masks discovered in Tibet and the Himalaya (see last month’s Flight of the Khyung). I invite readers to make their own visual comparisons.
The Shamsi mask is embellished with three tree-like designs created by a series of perforations highlighted with a white pigment. Two of the trees cover the cheeks while the the third one was placed over the entire nose and middle of the forehead.  For the sake of stimulating further discussion, I will offer an alternative interpretation of this motif. It does not seem plausible to me that the ‘tree of life’ would be used to decorate a mask for the dead. Perhaps it should instead be called something to the effect of ‘the tree of regeneration in the afterlife’. In the eastern Altai, coniferous tree trunks were found buried with their roots in some Turk funerary enclosures. The precise function of this ritual object is not known. Given the general proximity in time and space between these Turk funerary sites and the burial at Shamsi, there may be an ideological and/or functional correspondence between the motif on the golden mask and the ritual use of tree trunks. This is one avenue of inquiry worth exploring in more depth.
The archaic funerary tradition of Tibet could also offer valid points of comparison with both the trees of the Shamsi mask and those of early Turkic burials. The old Tibetan death rites were first written down circa the 8th century CE and continued to find literary expression in Bon religious texts until at least the 11th century CE. In the archaic rite, there is a ritual instrument known as the ‘head juniper’ (dbu-shug), which functioned as a vessel to enshrine and protect the the consciousness principle of the dead; it was thus referred to as the ‘soul fortress’ (bla-rdzong). The head juniper, as a kind of miraculous pillar, was employed to orient the soul of the deceased towards the celestial afterlife. Harnessing the Tibetan archaic  funerary tradition as a touchstone, one might speculate that the three levels of branches on the trees of the Shamsi mask, marked the vertical stages in the passage of the soul to the otherworld.
The head juniper is mentioned in evocation rites for the soul of the deceased as part of the Bon funerary collection known as the Muchoi Tromdur. While some of the language of the Muchoi Tromdur passage given below belies Buddhist influence, the ritual itself is fundamentally archaic in character:*
In the beginning, by the sign of perfect accomplishment of the excellent gshen priests, there grew a blue turquoise juniper. Its crown of existence is sharp and hardy. Its roots penetrate the depths of the ocean. Its branches reach all four worlds. Nectar drips from each needle. At its root is the swirling nectar of consummation. At its crown the sun, moon, and stars, these three, circle around. On the branches of white copper (?) and on the conch trunk grows the fruit of perfection. When the excellent gshen were alive, this great precious juniper was a rgyang tree (instrument for securing influence over a wide area?). When the excellent gshen died it was the head juniper. Tonight, deceased dead one, please stay at this great protector head juniper. Make the head juniper, thread cross, and bird wing, these three, the support of the deceased’s body, speech, and mind.
* For a detailed description of the head juniper and a comparison of Tibetan funerary practices with those of the ancient Turks, see the book Zhang Zhung, Part III, Sections 4, 6 and 9 (bibliographic data at: http://www.tibetarchaeology.com/books/).
While very different cultural, ethnic, and historical forces were at play in Shamsi as compared to Tibet, the concept of a tree at the head is given expression. Perhaps in both cases these trees aided the liberation of the dead. If so, this adds to the growing body of evidence indicating the broad dispersal of material and ritualistic elements connected to funerals and burials in Inner Asia over a long period of time. In addition to golden burial masks, these widely distributed features include the erection menhirs, horse burials, horse headdresses, deposition of ephedra and sheep bones in graves, ‘animal style art’, use of effigies, application of substitute body parts on corpses, etc.
Explicit connection between Turkic and Tibetan funerary rites is made in the Dunhuang manuscript Pt 1060 (best attributed to circa the 9th century CE, pending codicological confirmation). This text indicates that Turkic regions north of Tibet shared the same tradition of horses used to ritually transport the dead to the next world. In this text, 12 lineages of psychopomp horses are located in Tibet while a 13th is attributed to Drugu. Drugu seems to refer to the Uighurs, but it could possibly also denote an earlier period in the ethnohistory of the Tarim Basin. In Pt 1060, the gods (Yol, Reg-rgyal hir-kin and Dan-kan) and one of the funerary horses (Hol-tsun) have names of decidedly Turkic origins. The historical placement of this literary reference is not very clear. It likely refers to the period of Tibetan imperial conquest (mid-7th to mid-9th century CE). However, the usage of genealogical terms in the text to denote the male and female sources of lineages (cho and ’brang) may indicate that the psychopomp horses are being enumerated within a deeper historical context.
Did Turkic groups actually have such psychopomp horses, or is the Pt 1060 account merely based on a pretension of Tibetan imperial might? That the Turks and Tibetans did indeed share certain conceptual and procedural structures related to the funeral and afterlife is given credence by some of the archaeological evidence outlined above. While further inquiry into the historical and archaeological dimensions of the horses of Drugu in Pt 1060 is called for, this text  does provide us with an intriguing link, hinting at the widespread diffusion of funerary ritual and eschatological traditions in Inner Asia.
For the Pt 1060 reference discussed above, see Zhang Zhung, pp. 522–524.
I was also able to share a pre-publication version of the above article with another colleague of ours, Sören Stark, Professor of Central Asian Art and Archaeology at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University.  He was kind enough to furnish us with additional comments and observations concerning the burial masks of north Inner Asia and further afield germane to our exploration of the subject. What Professor Sören Stark has written follows next.

An overview of golden masks from Inner Asia: A contribution by Sören Stark

The whole burial complex at Shamsi is discussed by Kožomberdieva, Kožomberdiev, and Kožemjakov (1998). Another example of a golden funerary mask comes from a rich burial at the cemetery of Dzhalpak-dëbë in present-day Kyrgyzstan, dated to the 4th or 5th century CE. (Каниметов et al. 1983, p. 41). For ‘Migration period’ (4-5th century CE) Eurasia a useful (though not exhaustive) overview of the phenomenon of funeral masks during the 4th and 5th centuries CE in Eurasia is given by Benkő (1992-1993). Of course solid metal masks are probably only the preserved ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what once existed, including face-covers made of perishable materials: see the cover made of a hemp fiber mass worn by the famous 4th or 5th century CE burial from Yingpan, or face covers made of precious silks onto which metal appliqués were sewn (for one such appliqué type, which can be traced from Inner Mongolia to Hungary see Stark 2009). We should also not forget the often splendidly painted clay masks from the Tashtyk culture in present-day Khakassia in Southern Siberia, dating roughly to the same period (Вадецкая 2009). And also from further west, i.e. from the northern Black Sea area, golden funerary masks dating to the 2nd-3rd centuries CE have been found (Бутягин 2009). Note also that the kidney-shaped garnet (or almandine?) inlays on the famous Boma mask mentioned above most likely originate from a workshop in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean, as recently pointed out by A. Koch (Koch 2008). See my review of this article (Stark 2010).
Literature mentioned Benkő, M. 1992-1993. “Burial Masks of Eurasian Mounted Nomad Peoples in the Migration Period” in Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 46, pp. 113–131.
Koch, A. 2008. “Boma – ein reiternomadisch-hunnischer Fundkomplex in Nordwestchina,” in Hunnen zwischen Asien und Europa. Aktuelle Forschungen zur Archäologie und Kultur der Hunnen, Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte Mitteleuropas. Edited by Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer, pp. 57-71. Langenweissbach: Beier & Beran.
Kožomberdieva, E. I., I. V. Kožomberdiev, and P. N. Kožemjakov. 1998. “Ein Katakombengrab aus der Schlucht Šamsi,” Eurasia Antiqua 4:  pp. 451-471. ___Stark, S. 2009. “Central and Inner Asian Parallels to a Find from Kunszentmiklos-Babony (Kunbabony): Some Thoughts on the Early Avar Headdress,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 15:  pp. 287-305. ___2010. “Review of”Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer (Ed.): Hunnen zwischen Asien und Europa. Aktuelle Forschungen zur Archäologie und Kultur der Hunnen,” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 5:  pp. 201-208. Бутягин, А. М. Editor. 2009. Тайна золотой маски. Каталог выставки. Санкт-Петербург: Издательство Государственного Эрмитажа. Каниметов, А., Б. И. Маршак, В. М. Плоских, and Я. А. Шер. Editors. 1983. Памятники культуры и искусства Киргизии. Древность и средневековье. Ленинград.

More on the golden mask from Malari

Thanks to the kind regard of Professor R. C. Bhatt of Garwhal University, I now have a copy of the preliminary archaeological report made concerning cut chamber burials in Malari, which was published in Japan:
Bhatt, R. C.;  Kvamme, K. L.; Nautiyal, V.; Nautiyal, K. P.; Juyal, S.; Nautiyal, S. C. 2008-2009. “Archaeological and Geophysical Investigations of the High Mountain Cave Burials in the Uttarakhand Himalaya” in Indo-Kōko-Kenkyū – Studies in South Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 30, pp. 1–16.
I will now provide a synopsis of materials in this paper pertinent to the golden mask of Malari. In 1986 and 1987, Professor R. C. Bhatt conducted archaeological work in the Garwhal Himalaya in order to excavate and better understand the cultural background of an intact cave burial in Malari. Cut from calcareous rock on a hillside, this burial chamber is 2.4 m deep. Its mouth was sealed by a boulder. The chamber contained grave goods as well as the complete skeleton of what is identified as a yak hybrid (zobamdzo-ba). Additionally, some bones of the dog, sheep, and goat were interred (however, no human remains were detected). Based on a recent analysis of animal skeletal remains, iron and bone artifacts, and glazed pottery from the site, this burial and another of its kind in Malari have been dated to circa 1st century BCE. Among the large quantity of ceramics entombed were intact vessels comprised of dishes, spouted pots, and jars of red and black polished ware, some of which are decorated with incised geometric designs filled in with a white pigment. A variety of trihedral iron arrowheads and spear points were recovered. Also, iron nails inserted into oak twigs and a bronze bowl with a diameter of 16 cm were found. The most remarkable discovery was a mask made of beaten gold weighing 5.23 grams (for photograph, see last month’s Flight of the Khyung).
In 2001, a similarly sized and constructed burial chamber was discovered in Malari by R. C. Bhatt and colleagues. This burial yielded a complete human skeleton with the head pointing  southwest and the feet oriented towards the northeast. A preliminary osteological study indicates that this was the skeleton of a juvenile between 12 and 15 years of age. Among the ceramics were 11 intact vessels red and gray in color, some with incised geometric designs. The most distinctive of these are red-ware vessels with wide, slightly flaring mouths, bulbous bottoms, single lug handles, and long spouts supported by a bridge connecting it to the rim of the pots. One of these pots has a conical pedestal.
Bhatt et al. 2009 consider the burials of Malari in the wider cultural and geographic context of western Tibet and Mustang, noting that cave burials are found in these other regions as well. As regards the yak hybrid burial, the authors write, “Taking into consideration the immense usefulness of the animal, it must have been treated as a member of the family, and therefore it was given a proper burial as a mark of respect as evident from the nature of the burial.” It is reported that one AMS assay of an unspecified bone sample from the cave burials was carried out and yielded a date of circa 100 BCE. The authors note that burials at Mebrak (Mustang valley) and Kharpo (Guge) fall within this general time frame. The authors are inclined to group these burials together, in the sense that they demonstrate “a common cultural trait”. The authors elaborate, stating that these regions “must have shared many common practices and beliefs”.
Using techniques based on magnetic gradiometry and electrical resistivity, Bhatt et al. 2009 have identified several other sites in Malari that probably conceal burial chambers.
My comments
It would be helpful if more organic remains from the two excavated burial chambers of Malari were subjected to chronometric testing. The results would help fix the date of the burial, corroborating results from just one sample that was AMS assayed (the details of which have not been published in Bhatt et al. 2009). A formal study of the ceramics recovered would also be very useful. Of course a number of other kinds of analyses (of a stratigraphic, cultural, and molecular nature) of the bones and grave goods could also be carried out to good effect.
In addition to the presence of the golden mask, the ceramics finds from Malari are directly comparable with those recently unearthed at Gurgyam by Chinese archaeologists. See the round bottom pot with single lug handle and wide flared mouth in October 2010 Flight of the Khyung (fig. 15) and fig. 11 in Bhatt et al. 2009. The general similarities in form between two vessels notwithstanding, there are important typological differences between them (shape of the bottom, width and flare of neck, etc.). More important to a comparative analysis is the method of manufacture, fabric and surface finish of the two vessels. This kind of detailed information is not provided in Bhatt et al. 2009, nor yet by the Chinese. Moreover, little can be discerned from the small b&w photo in in Bhatt et al. Anyhow, there is an even more striking parallel in the ceramic assemblages of Malari and Guge: the existence of similarly made red-ware pots with round bodies, wide flaring mouths and long spouts. See figs. 8 and 9 in Bhatt et al. The Chinese example excavated in 2013 has not yet been published; however, thanks to my Chinese colleagues I was able to see the Gurgyam example. The Gurgyam pot is closest in form to the vessel on the right side of fig. 9, sans the conical pedestal, but with the same type of arched bridge connecting the spout to the body of the vessel (the Gurgyam bridge is decorated with three incised circles or eyes extending across its length). The other two spouted vessels from Malari are also close in form but the neck bridges were made with a double curve.
Hopefully the Indian and Chinese archaeologists will furnish us with more serious studies of ceramic finds in adjoining Himalayan regions than what we have to date. Typological and fabric analysis based on modern archaeological methods is sorely called for if we are to achieve a better understanding of the cultural and technological elements involved. It is  essential that standard scientific techniques such as thermoluminescence (TL) dating, X-ray radiography, X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and neutron activation analysis (NAA) are brought to bear on the study of the structure and composition of the ceramics discovered in Guge and Malari. It is only by undertaking these lines of inquiry that the method of firing, mineralogical composition of the clay and ceramic petrology (among other empirical parameters) can be known.
Despite the infancy of our field of study, some preliminary observations are in order. The masks and ceramic vessels underline a cultural relationship between Guge and Malari in the 100 BCE to 400 CE time frame. These two regions possessed similar technological skills (also encompassing iron implements and bronzeware) applied to the world of funerary rites and burial. My hunch is that the ceramics of Malari and Gurgyam were produced locally, as they exhibit significant differences as well as similarities. It is also inherently difficult to transport large numbers of ceramics over the Himalaya. As noted in last month’s newsletter, the evidence generally indicates that these regions shared certain cultural customs and traditions in common.
As for the burial of a yak hybrid in Malari, this is liable to be a constituent part of funerary rites carried out for the dead. The Dunhuang text Pt 1068 furnishes a fairly extensive account of the origins of the yak hybrid used to transport deceased women to the afterlife (see Zhang Zhung, pp. 538–542). In this colorful origins tale, composed circa the 9th century CE, a hybrid yak named Dzomo Drangma (Mdzo-mo drang-ma) is appointed by the funerary priest Durshen Mada (Dur-gshen rma-da) to assist a young girl who died under the most wretched of circumstances. Although this tale is explicitly set in “ancient times”, one should not conflate the older Malari burial with the contents of the text; significant ideological differences in these burial rites may possibly be indicated. Nevertheless, the custom of employing a yak hybrid as a funerary appliance extends to both spheres, strongly suggesting a Tibetic cultural orientation for the Malari burial.
The Malari and Chuthak golden masks are supposedly around 2000 or 2100 years old. If those dates hold up to further scrutiny, they suggest that these masks of sophisticated manufacture predate the cruder Samdzong and Gurgyam examples by three to five centuries (for descriptions and images of these masks, see last month’s newsletter). Continuing in this vein, it may be that the tradition of Himalayan and Tibetan golden burial masks was in decline by the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. In addition to cultural and technological transmissions from the west that appear to have informed the creation of the Shamsi and Boma masks touched upon by Sören Stark in the above article, provided the dates for the Malari and Chuthak masks are confirmed, it is worth pondering that a vector of cultural and artistic influence coming from Tibet and the Himalaya may also have had an impact on the development of north Inner Asian burial masks (one possible carrier northward from the Plateau were the Huns). Furthermore, the provisional chronology for the Malari and Chuthak masks could possibly be indicative of an earlier (Iron Age) Eurasian diffusion of golden burial masks, which also encompassed those of ancient Illyria, Thrace, and Greece. Enough of that now. I think readers will see there are many intriguing angles on the ancient burials of western Tibet and the Himalaya to explore in the years ahead.
Finally, it is worth mentioning Tibetan miniature copper alloy masks classed as thokcha (thog-lcags). The faces represented on this very rare group of artifacts are somewhat different in form from the golden burial masks but probably of comparable age. The thokcha masks appear to be talismanic in function but they may have had other uses as well, such as receptacles (rten) for personal protective spirits. For an image of one of these miniature masks, see the July 2010 Flight of the Khyung.