Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bactrian Composite Figures

Bactria was, more or less, the part of Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush and some surrounding bits of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan where the Tibetan mountain massif runs down to the Central Asian plain.

In the latter part of the third Millennium BCE a Bronze Age civilization arose there, based on irrigated agriculture. This civilization spread to several oases farther north on the plains. Real understanding of this Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex has been achieved only in the past 40 years; before that it was known only from occasional mysterious artifacts that showed up on the antiquities market with vague information about their origins. The most famous of these artifacts are the "composite figures", small statuettes made of two or three kinds of stone.

Above and top, one of the most famous of these, which is in the Louvre. Her skirt is chlorite, her face calcite. Notice that her skirt resembles the skirts of Sumerian priests as shown in their art, which most people think is no coincidence. There are other indications of influence from Mesopotamia to Bactria, so either the form of garment or the way of depicting it was probably copied from Sumerian examples.

Most of these figurines are 8 to 14 cm tall, or 3 to 6 inches. The Louvre's example is the largest known at 20 cm. Above is only one excavated by professional archaeologists from a good context, recovered by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi from a grave at Gonur Tepe in Turkmenistan. The body of this one is steatite, the head and arms limestone. Sarianidi dates it to between 2000 and 1650 CE.

The ruins of Gonur Tepe.

Opinions differ as to what these female figures represent. They are traditionally called "princesses," and some people think they are portraits of royal women. Others, including me, prefer to think of them as goddesses.

This one is in the Met. Now I ask you, is that a princess or a mother goddess? The Louvre says that a divine nature
would account for the serene, immobile appearance of these figures, their hands joined together at waist level, both in statuary and on compartmentalized seals.
One sold a few years ago by Bonham's. There are said to be 38 of these female figurines in the world. To me this is a good reason to think of them as goddesses; why so many portraits of queens and none of kings?

Christie's  sold this one a few years ago for $68,000.

The other reason to think of these composite figurines as goddesses is that there are actually two forms. This is the other, a demonic male known as the Scarred Man or "Anthropomorphic Dragon-Snake." Fewer than ten of these are known, none of them from good contexts. This one is in the Louvre, which says this about it:
Like the princesses of Bactria, scarfaces are bicolor statuettes, but the use of the materials-chlorite and calcite-is reversed. The body of the scarface is green and covered with snake scales, signifying his ophidian nature, and the skirt is white. There are two other white touches, in the eye and a tiny incrustation in the lower lip. These are calcium carbonate, perhaps fragments of shell. The head is circled by a band of meteoritic iron and there is a small hole in the forehead for fitting horns. . . .

Like the three other complete examples, that in the Louvre is meant to hold a vase under his arm. This would perhaps contain beneficial water that the evil figure is withholding. The strength of the figure is expressed in his emphasized musculature, and his expression is made more intense by the absence of a neck.
This terrifying apparition of a man with the scaly skin of a snake or dragon seems, in the inverted use of the two different stones, to be the polar opposite of the goddess.
"Scarfaces" are anthropomorphic dragon-snakes belonging to the mythology of central Asia, where they incarnated the hostile forces of the underworld. Their power was controlled not by killing them but by reducing them to silence by a slash across the right cheek. Thus dominated, they could become benevolent.
Another view. I think these are just wonderful.

This one is in the Met, which describes it like this:
In the world of the ancient Near East, images and beings that combined human and animal qualities were thought to possess supernatural powers. This small yet potent figure, with its human face and serpentine-scaled body, probably represents such a creature, enlivened and charged with magical efficacy whether propitious or demonic. The monstrous figure's most enigmatic and distinctive features are the prominent scar across its face and the two holes pierced into its upper and lower lips. The scar may indicate that the figure was defaced, and the holes suggest that the lips were sealed, literally. Taken together, the scar and the sealed lips imply that the figure portrays a decommissioned being whose power is no longer operational. Having served its purpose, it may have been ritually muted and "killed."
I don't know if these interpretations are right, but these bizarre figures invite such speculations. Put the wicked dragon man together with the serene mother goddess, and what myths might one unfold.

If you collect this sort of thing you should know that in recent years the market been flooded with fakes; check out this post this post before you buy. The various animal forms are particularly dubious.

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