It often happens that when we visit museums with rich archaeological collections, we skim over showcases with a vacant stare, being overwhelmed by the abundance of exhibits and having little time and often the desire to look closely at the silent evidence of the past life. Terse lines on the labels can tell little to an unprepared viewer, and only a good guide can slightly open the veil of secrecy that cloaks literally every artifact. Meanwhile, even scientists that devoted their lives to the study of ancient cultures sometimes cannot give clear answers to questions posed by many archaeological finds. Yet, they know that the most outstanding examples of human activity are always associated with the epochs of large empires that began to emerge in the first millennium BC owing to the invention of technology for production of iron from rock ore and especially file-hard metal such as steel.
Ancient empires were the enormous entities that preserved and developed the traditions of predecessor states. They became the crown of the long evolution of political systems, dating back to the very first small monarchies isolated from each other, ruled by the tsar-priests. They included the kingdoms of Ancient Egypt and the country of Margush, or Margiana, of the Bronze Age that existed in the territory of modern Turkmenistan.
The borders of all ancient Oriental empires were mobile. They varied from great to small ones, foreshadowing a collapse. And when empires crumbled to smithereens like broken ceramics, only historians could try to collect their fragments. It is natural that nothing goes unnoticed. New peoples and states emerged and ideological systems developed under the powerful force of the vanished empires. The influence of imperial tastes and preferences in architecture and art echoed for many centuries. At any major museum in any part of the world, one will see a lot of evidence of cultures and life of former empires. The museums of Turkmenistan can also boast many such artifacts.
The imperial rule creates an extremely favorable ground for development of architecture, as well as fine and decorative arts. Yet, there remained only fragments of the material culture of ancient empires. Only amorphous ruins, miserable remains of painted frescoes, sculptural statues and fragments of individual texts survived. At the same time, even such fragments are sufficient to understand that the great powers ensured conditions for turning craft production into creative activities and emergence of spiritual environment in which a permanent dialogue on certain professional standards evolved. In spite of the unconditional supremacy of religion in the eastern and western empires, there existed intellectual interaction that contributed most to the growth of skills and knowledge.
The Achaemenid Empire was the oldest one that seized the lands of Central Asia. Created by King Cyrus the Great from this Persian dynasty, it existed in the VI-IV centuries BC in the territory of the Near East and North East Africa. Its borders extended from the Indus River in the east to the Aegean Sea in the west, from the Nile Valley in the south to Transcaucasia in the north. Almost the entire modern territory of Turkmenistan was also subordinated to the Achaemenids. However, the material traces of their existence are extremely insignificant, and excavations of the ancient settlements of Khorezm, Margiana and Parthia have so far produced very few materials of that period.
That is why of particular interest is the recent discovery at New Nisa of a very small ceramic fragment of the facing tile or some other product that depicts the head of an Achaemenid warrior and the upper parts of his spear and bow, and this fragment poses a lot of questions. This image is well known due to the famous images of archer guards on the stone reliefs of metropolitan Persepolis, located in southern Iran.
The find from New Nisa is absolutely unique, as it is currently the only image of the Persian guard that originates from the territory lying outside the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenids. Only one detail distinguishes it significantly from Persepolian reliefs. This is the background in the form of an embossed net of rhombuses. How should this decorative element be interpreted? The image of a royal yurt-type tent, as if guarded by our warrior, would unlikely be depicted in this way.
Another version is more plausible. A rhombic net may be interpreted as a kind of geometric ornament that was used as dcor on painted ceramic vessels beginning the Eneolithic era and continued to live in the Bronze Age. Anyway, the terracotta fragment with the warrior's head found at Nisa suggests that Nisa existed already in the 5th century BC, as opposed to the argument that it emerged only three hundred years later under the Arshakids, who founded their power on the ruins of the fallen empire of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Seleucids.
It is natural that the greatest number of various two thousand year old items was found during excavation of Parthian settlements in the territory of Southern Turkmenistan and, above all, in Old Nisa. There are things to fit any taste! In addition to the ruins of temple complexes, these are also items of artistic culture, combining ancient Greek and Roman motifs with the traditions of the Scythian tribes of Eurasia, local Central Asian peoples and their southern neighbors in Persia, Mesopotamia and India. Here is a terracotta mask of a Nemean lion with an open mouth and tousled strands of mane, the killing of which was Hercules' first labour. Here is a deer with branched horns, racing in a furious gallop, as well as a lion depicted in relief on the back of a bronze mirror. Millennia passed before European sculptors could depict similar dynamics in their works.
The Parthian clay statues that stood in the halls of the temple complex of Old Nisa are also distinguished by classical realism. One of the fragments of such sculpture remained miraculously intact. Painted in natural colors, as was customary in the ancient world, this is the head of a warrior, wearing a helmet with the emblem of Zeus on cheek protectors, with an impassive expression on his face that corresponds to the Greek ideals. This is not surprising. It is known that the Parthian aristocracy from the Arshakid dynasty was obsessed with phyllinism, that is, a worship of the culture of Ancient Greece. After all, they lived in the era of the still strong influence of the crumbling empire of Alexander the Great and its successor state of the Seleucids that disappeared too.
The Greek influence is very much visible in the now famous Nisa rhytons. According to Doctor of Art History from the State Museum of Oriental Art (Russia) Tigran Mkrtychev, an impressive set of these horn-shaped vessels for wine was a big and expensive service in antiquity. The fact is that the Nisa rhytons were made using the technique known in Greece as chryselephantine. This technique was used for production of very important items, such as the legendary statue of Zeus at Olympia, as well as small items like rhytons. They were made of ivory, gold, precious stones, but the base for them was always made of wood. Similarly, the Nisa rhytons were not made entirely of ivory. Their frame was wooden. They featured a lot of metal parts that did not survive, but they most likely were gilded. As for the customary whiteness, it is not the rhytons' true color. They became white and polished over the long time. In their original form, the rhytons were bright with gilded wings and colored protomes (sculptural finishes), while their friezes (crowning decorative ribbons) were adorned with sculptural scenes from the Greek myths and gemstone inserts. Imagine how this set sparkled during royal feasts or mysteries!
And in neighboring Margiana, which in the 1st century BC was part of the Parthian state, coroplasty became widespread, i.e. manufacture of female figures from burnt clay. It seems that the the most popular images included figurines with a characteristic small round mirror, as a symbol of reflection of human fate in the hands of the goddess. As art historian Galina Pugachenkova noted in her time, the Margiana goddess with a mirror resembles the Hellenistic statues of Isis, whose cult was most widespread in that era. A mirror pressed to her chest presents her as a prophetess.
At the time, Parthian caravans in the west would reach Palmyra, which is associated with another unexpected find discovered in Vekil-Bazar district near the modern city of Mary. Palmyra emerged in the heart of the Syrian desert as a purely caravan city. It maintained neutrality in relation to the two hostile empires - Parthian and Roman. Owing to its favorable location and huge proceeds from transit trade, Palmyra quickly turned into one of the richest and most luxurious cities in the ancient world. In the 3rd century AD, it was the capital of the separatist empire for a short time, uniting the Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Palmyra merchants also had their trading station in Parthian Merv, where a small necropolis had already appeared by that time. Someone died and found his final resting place in a remote foreign land.
And at the end of the 19th century, when Merv was annexed to the Russian Empire, the inhabitants of a neighboring village unearthed two pagan stone plates not far from the summer cottage of the head of the local colonial administration, Lt. Col. Alikhanov-Avarsky. They handed these finds to him or his successor in the hope of reward. One plate features a bas-relief portrait of a man, while the other carries a sculptural image of a full-length girl in a long dress, holding a bird in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other. A military official, who had little understanding of antiquities, handed over their photographs to Director of the Caucasus Museum in Tiflis Gustav Rudda, who, in turn, sent them to the famous orientalist Mikhail Nikolsky for identification in Moscow. The latter established that both plates from Vekil-Bazar were tombstones of the Palmyra type. He even translated epitaphs carved in Aramaic to the right of the portraits. Following many twists and turns, both plates found their place in the fund of the State Museum of Turkmenistan.
About two thousand years ago, there existed probably the most mysterious empire of the ancient world, now called the Kushan Kingdom, between the imperial Rome and the Chinese power of the Han Dynasty. The history of this monarchy, stretching from the Aral Sea in the north to the banks of the Indus in the south and from the Ferghana Valley in the east to the Karakum desert in the west, is replete with "blank spots". Only some episodes were restored in the mid-19th century, mostly due to the analysis of the Kushan coins. Scientists managed to find out something over the past century and a half. For example, there were discovered terracotta figurines depicting a king or some kind of god in the area of Central Amu Darya, where many Kushan settlements were concentrated. This character leans his two hands on a long sword that looks like a scepter - the oldest symbol of power.
In the III century AD, following the fall of the Parthian empire, the neighboring Kushan state began to disintegrate too, as it was unable to withstand the onslaught of the Sassanid power that emerged in Persia. The new empire naturally absorbed the cultural heritage of its predecessors, and archaeologists find it difficult sometimes to associate certain items with the Parthian, Kushan or Sassanid group of monuments. Such controversial artifacts include the finding made 20 years ago at the Mele Heyran settlement in the Serakh oasis by the Polish expedition from the University of Warsaw. Carved from bones, the elegant figurines depict a ruler on a throne, a horseman and naked young men. They all are distinguished by magnificent hairstyles, as well as Indian goddess of fertility Yaksha and various animals. These items joined the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts of Turkmenistan.
It was also at Mele Heyran that a rectangular ivory plate with double-faced relief carving was found on the crest of the wall of the Zoroastrian temple. To all appearances, this item was a lid of the box. The image was made in the best traditions of the early non-Buddhist plastic. It subtly conveys both the motion of characters and soft modeling of forms. So, is this an illustration to the great Mahabharata, or perhaps a scene from the once extremely popular Jataka - folklore stories popular among Buddhist that described enlightening events that happened to Buddha in one of his past lives?
And Buddha himself is depicted on two miniature stone statuettes with gilding that were removed from the stupa at the walls of Ancient Merv. According to experts, these relics were brought there from distant Kashmir in the VI century. The archaeologists were puzzled by another discovery made in the Buddhist temple complex of Merv, namely a walled-up painted vase of the 4th-5th centuries that served as a repository of Buddhist manuscripts. However, the vase images are in no way associated with Buddhism. They are more reminiscent of images on the ossuary - a funeral vessel characteristic of the Zoroastrian burial rite.
A bronze statuette of the many-faced goddess, called Kali in Hinduism, who destroys demons, points to connection with India. It was discovered at Kandym-Kala settlement near Kunya-Urgench in northern Turkmenistan. The statuette presents a sitting lion with front legs of an eagle, and there is a mask of a bearded man on its back and a woman, as if "growing" from the withers, with a high headdress and a small bowl in her hand, and a human figure curved in the shape of a vessel handle in the background. Kandym-Kala dates back to the 4th-2nd centuries BC. It means that this statuette belongs to that distant time.
One can't ignore another wonderful find made in the Meruchak oasis near Tagtabazar at the border with Afghanistan. During excavation, two excavator operators saw a jug containing an oval-shaped bronze mirror with a handle in the form of a two-humped Bactrian camel. It is very similar to some early Scythian mirrors. It was made obviously even in the pre-Achaemenids era. So, this is the oldest item of all mentioned in this article.
Unlike the collections of many major museums of the world that were gathered by legal acquisitions at auctions or even have a dark history, all archaeological materials of Turkmen museums were found in Turkmenistan without exception. In other words, they are located in the country of their origin and are not subject, according to national legislation, to trade and exchange. You can see them with your own eyes not only by visiting Turkmenistan but also at foreign exhibitions in which Turkmen museums participate. The latter, by the way, are working on digitizing their exhibits for presentation in 3D-format during virtual tours of the museum halls. The material traces of empires, rare monuments of ancient cultures are thus becoming accessible to everyone who wants to learn more of the origins of our civilization.