GEMSTONES TURNED INTO ART
Stone products are the most fortunate of all man-made creations. From silicon arrowheads and other microlites (work tools of primitive people) to such giants as Stonehenge or statues of Easter Island, all of them are well preserved for the most part. Many museums around the world are proud of their collections of works of art of extreme antiquity created by stone cutters, sculptors and jewelers - stone carvers. The museums of Turkmenistan also boast such treasures.
First of all, this relates to many items found during the archaeological excavations in Margiana, which is now surrounded by the desert, namely the southern outskirts of the Karakum. However, four thousand years ago, it was the fertile delta of the Murgab River, where the so-called country of Margush flourished - a small oasis civilization on the northern periphery of the Near East. According to Victor Sarianidi, who discovered this country and became legendary during his lifetime, it was a centralized monarchy closely associated with neighboring Bactria that maintained trade contacts with the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley and, of course, with Mesopotamia. This is clearly reflected in the finds unearthed by archaeologists that are now open to public viewing thanks to museums and numerous publications.
Written documents of the Ancient East testify that craftsmen who mastered the technique of stone processing, especially gemstones, enjoyed a fairly high status at that time. It is known, for example, that the first Cassian king of Babylonia, Agum II Kakrime, exempted such people from taxes for their high art, along with "their house, their field and their garden". This means that major artisans of that time owned land and ran their own business. The cuneiform texts of the Assyrian and New Babylonian kings repeatedly mention capturing various craftsmen from the conquered lands. These texts also confirm that the great masters of crafts and art, artists and engineers, who often acted as advisers to kings, occupied an honored position in society. In this sense, the situation in the country of Margush was not much different from other ancient Eastern countries, except for the lack of written language. As for the abundance of magnificent stone products, preserved much better that items made of metal and ceramics, it is self-explanatory.
We have very little information about the techniques applied by stonecutters of that time, and we can only talk about the technique of processing of relatively small stone products. Stone tools and weapons of the Neolithic type, such as polished chisels, dart points, arrows and knives are found everywhere in the Kopetdag valley and the ancient deltas of Tejen and Murghab rivers, as well as in other oases of early farmers.
Even much later, with the onset of the Iron Age, that is, about three thousand years ago, stone tools for a long time retained their value because they were cheaper than metal ones. It is probably the Eneolithic era, or, in other words, the Copper Age, which lasted the entire fourth millennium BC, that can be associated with the invention of a stone drill and introduction of a new tool - a heavy baton with a stone tip, drilled on both sides, as evidenced by the shape of the thread and drill marks in it. Since that time, stone spindle whorls have been found in great quantities in the ground of the once inhabited areas. They served as weights in the form of a disk with a through hole along the longitudinal axis that were used to increase the weight a hand spindle and fasten yarn.
Expensive stone vessels were very popular in the Bronze Age that lasted from the middle of the third to the end of the second millennium BC. Sometimes they were made from very hard or valuable rocks such as diorite, alabaster and onyx. The surface of vessels was decorated with carved ornaments, relief images or inlays of pieces of nacre or metal in the drilled recess of the ornament. Beads from gemstones were drilled from both sides. Judging by the finds from Margiana and Bactria, beads were only polished in early times, but then people learned to polish them.
Exactly the same technique was used to drill and finish cylindrical seals that are typical for this region of stone crafts. Other than a simple chisel, the delicate decoration of vessels and cylinder-seals was already performed with the use of a chisel with a round tip - bouterolle, as well as a grinding wheel - a disc-shaped tip of a chisel. These tools constitute a separate group of archaeological finds, perhaps not as spectacular as the final product, but no less important for science. They allow us to understand what technologies people of that era used, although there are still many mysteries.
For example, it is totally incomprehensible how they managed to make a microscopic figurine of a lion, which was discovered by the Sarianidi expedition in one of the burials of the necropolis of Gonur. Carved from turquoise, it is only seven millimeters long, but it conveys an amazingly realistic and dynamic image of a predator. How was it possible long before the invention of the magnifying glass? Experts still cannot answer this question, let alone the fact that nothing like this was found before, among the ruins of other civilizations of that period.
Heavy, ritual staff-sceptres carved from slate, very light spokes of green onyx, heavy marble discs and mysterious miniature columns of different types of stone, their purpose is also a subject of scientific hypotheses and discussions. Sculptures present a special category of stone finds. First of all, these are the so-called composite figurines: female images in a composite technique of two types of rock. Their magnificent fur robes, hairstyles and headdresses are carved from black soapstone, and their heads and hands folded on their knees are made of white marble. A lot of details from statuettes of this kind were also found: steatite shoes, fragments of torsos, not to mention a variety of statues of animals, birds and some fairy creatures. Judging by the numerous finds of items made of steatite, which is a dense variety of talc suitable for making various items, this raw material as well as serpentine, a soft semi-precious stone that can be processed, were widely used in Margiana.
However, flat stone seals are probably the most common material found in Margiana and other similar oases. They represent all the diversity of the spiritual world of that time, in which the means of expression became particularly sophisticated. Craftsmen were able to achieve an organic combination of magical beauty of minerals with a light and almost sketchy engraving. Those were no longer just seals - symbols of property. They also served as amulets endowed with protective and miraculous properties. The myths of ancient Bactria and Margiana can be reconstructed by the images on these seals, and this is what Victor Sarianidi did in his time. His work in this area was continued by his colleague from Germany, Dr. Sylvia Winkelmann, who took part in the excavations at Gonur-Depe.
In 2014, French archaeologists working at the Ulug-Depe settlement located in Akhal province near the village of Dushak made a discovery that was extremely important for the entire region and for the archeology of the Bronze Age. On the high terrace of one of the slopes of the huge hill that forms the core of this monument, they found an ancient burial site with a whole set of alabaster vases of various shapes as funeral offerings. According to the researchers, such stone vases were not common household items. Their great value is confirmed by the material of which they were made and complexities associated with delivery of such raw materials or products made of them. They naturally had some kind of symbolic meaning, which was not utilitarian at all. In this case, "alabaster" does not mean simple powder but real alabaster, that is, translucent white gypsum with marble veins. Even a cursory view is enough to understand that many of these vessels come from the same deposit, since the same veins can be seen on all items.
According to the head of the expedition at Ulug-Depe, Dr. Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento, cylindrical glasses are among the items traded by the Indus civilization. These ties are confirmed by the treasures of Quetta that have two bowls of the same type. This set from Ulug-Depe is now exhibited in the hall of antiquities of the Museum of Fine Arts of Turkmenistan. There are similar vases in the State Museum of Turkmenistan and the Museum of History and Local Lore of Mary province, but they originate from Gonur-Depe and Adzhi-Kui - two main Margian settlements that have been actively explored in recent decades with the support of Russian and Italian archaeologists. Thanks to the excavations, there have been found many different items made of precious and semi-precious decorative stones and minerals of various kind.
The results of mineralogical research, careful processing of stock and published materials made it possible to gather relevant data to conduct the fundamental scientific work under the guidance of Doctor of Historical Sciences, Nadezhda Dubova, at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Similar work on the Adzhi-Kui settlement was carried out by their Italian colleagues under the guidance of Gabriele Rossi-Osmida, an enthusiast and expert on antiquities. All this made it possible to learn more of the mineral wealth of Margiana.
The extreme scarcity of rocks in the Karakum desert forced the Margush people to import this material from afar. An important role was undoubtedly played by their close ties with other countries of the Middle East, from where precious and semi-precious stones could have been supplied for products and ornaments, including anhydrite, gypsum, calcite, aragonite, dolomite, quartz, marbled limestone and marble, talc (steatite), obsidian (volcanic glass), alunite.
What is interesting is that archaeologists regularly come across numerous rounded fragments in the form of pebbles, fragments of boulders of igneous rocks, such as granite and shale, among the Karakum sand and loam. They were clearly brought from afar by once deep and stormy rivers in the distant past. They could be the predecessors of Amu Darya and Murghab rivers that repeatedly changed their beds due to tectonic movements and other natural phenomena. Geologists working in the Karakum Desert have long found traces of the activity of these rivers in ancient times.
There were no deposits of precious stones in Margiana. This area is a link between the Kopetdag and the southwestern spurs of the Gissar ridge. Deposits of metallic minerals were also unknown in this place. Gold and silver, precious and ornamental stones were brought to Margiana primarily from Bactria that boasted the whole ore regions, thus providing favorable conditions for development of mining. Until now, we have very scanty archaeological data on this. At the same time, we know that the peoples of Central Asia used copper, tin, lead, zinc, as well as gold and silver since the third millennium B. In some places, traces of ancient mine workings, huge in scale, have been preserved in the form of numerous "chambers" - a system of caves that opened up after the collapse of the arches, the remains of metallurgical furnaces, lamps and fragments of ceramics. It has been confirmed that in the territory of Turkmenistan in ancient times only one deposit of mercury ore was developed in the Western Kopetdag, north of the Sumbar valley.
The works by Avicenna and Biruni contain records of gold mining at the headwaters of the Amu Darya. Ancient mines of copper, mercury and antimony were also found in this area. In addition to metals, there were mines for extraction of talc ores in Bactria. Turquoise was mined in the Karatau Mountains. There were found 16 ancient workings, and high-quality marble was exported from the Nurata Mountains. These minerals and rocks were delivered to Margiana by caravans.
One can also find lapis lazuli at the excavations of the Margiana settlements. This is a word of Arabic origin, with which Arabs associated the color of the sky on a clear day. It has been known as an ornamental stone since the fourth millennium BC. It was particularly favored by the Egyptian pharaohs. In ancient Egypt, Babylon and Assyria, this stone was considered one of the most expensive stones. The Badakhshan lazurite deposit has been known in northern Afghanistan since time immemorial. It was used to make amulets, mosaics and inlays. When pounded into powder, it was used to produce durable ultramarine paint.
Precious and ornamental stones such as quartz (rock crystal), malachite, beryl and emeralds were also brought to the country of Margush from the Badakhshan Mountains. It was quite possible that malachite and lapis lazuli were even brought from China that had been also famous for these precious stones deposits since ancient times. The necklaces found at the excavations of Adzhi-Kui contained beads made of translucent marble onyx, chalcedony, carnelian, sardonyx, jade that were probably imported from Northern Iran.
Koytendag marble onyx from Garlyk caves in the east of Turkmenistan differs from Iranian by their darker, rich brown-red tones, but there are no such products of this onyx in Margiana. Obviously, the deposits of marble onyx were still unknown in these parts in ancient times and therefore they were not developed. Among the archaeological finds, there were items made of banded chalcedony, amethyst that are found in the Badkhyz region, where volcanic eruptions took place in the geological past.
Gemstones, handicrafts, ivory material, ready-made jewelry, figurines and seals could have been delivered to Margiana from India. Some semiprecious minerals were apparently delivered from the Badkhyz region. Volcanic rocks of Paleogene age in this area are represented by basalts and andesites whose voids are filled with agate, chalcedony, quartz in the form of rock crystal and amethyst. These local minerals could well have been used by artisans from ancient settlements.
It should be noted that academician Mikhail Masson stood at the origins of the study of the history of mining and ancient mining in Turkmenistan and Central Asia as a whole in the thirties of the last century. Modern historical science owes a lot to this devotee of science, who brought up a whole galaxy of students that became brilliant archaeologists.