In the ancient world, ossuaries were used for storing the bones of individuals who had passed away and were indicators of religious practices in a given region (Lurje 2014). From 40BCE to 135CE, ossuaries became popular amongst Jews, mainly in Jerusalem. There is no hard evidence of this practice past the time of the Second Temple. Although there was no uniform style of Jewish ossuary, they often had Hebrew or Aramaic inscriptions with either flat or vaulted lids. Some were painted with red or yellow hues, whereas others were carved. Usually, the sides of the ossuary were divided stylistically into two balanced sections, often showing rosette motifs with six leaves. Dots or wreaths sometimes filled in the surrounding areas. Other common motifs included plants, buildings, and gates (“Ossuaries and Sarcophagi”).
In a Zoroastrian kingdom such as Sogdiana, ossuaries were particularly important in funerary practices. According to Zoroastrian beliefs, bodies could be not be buried, as this was seen as polluting the earth (Hansen 2015). After death, the body was exposed to the elements, particularly carnivorous birds and scavengers. The bones were then collected and placed in ossuaries, often decorated with Zoroastrian deities (Lerner 2011). Only then would the bones be buried, readied for reconstitution by Ahura Mazda on Judgment Day, a belief evidenced on some ossuaries (Hansen 2015).
In Sogdiana, the first known uses of ossuaries in funerary rites date to the late fifth or early sixth centuries CE, and it did not become a widespread practice before the seventh century CE, centuries after ossuaries were popular amongst Jews (Pavchinskaia 1994). Along with depicting Zoroastrian deities, Sogdian ossuaries often reveal Greek and Sasanian influence in their subject matter, including vegetation like that displayed on the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary (Barthold 1962). Sogdian ossuaries were often made of fired clay, however, alabaster was sometimes used (Pavchinskaia 1994). The protrusions along the edges of the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary, called appliquéd thorns, were popular on ossuaries found at Samarkand (Pavchinskaia 1994). Sogdian ossuaries vary in container and lid shape throughout time and space. A box-shaped chamber was built in strips, and the a vaulted lid, a trend in Penjikent, was made separately (Pavchinskaia 1994). Boxy ossuaries with vaulted lids were the uniform style of the area of Sogdiana west of Samarkand (Pugachenkova 1994). If Sogdian in origin, the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary could have been made in a number of regions of Sogdiana.
The Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary’s balanced design and vaulted lid are also reminiscent of some Jewish ossuaries. Arches made of dots surround the symmetrical plant designs. These plants, possibly flowers, have stems, roots, and six finger-like protrusions, possibly leaves, at the end of two stems. The plant design in the middle, both on the main container and the lid, also calls to mind Jewish motifs. Further, the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary does not depict deities, but organic designs. Swirls and plants decorate the outside of the ossuary in a symmetrically balanced pattern.
It is difficult to place the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary. Pishpek and Alamadin lie in the Semirechyé, along the trade routes from Western Asia to China. If the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary were from Penjikent or Samarkand originally, it would have travelled around 1000 kilometers to its place of discovery. It would have travelled much farther from Jerusalem. Could this ossuary have belonged to a member of the Jewish community that sources suggest lived in Sogdiana? Although there is no conclusive evidence for this theory, the choice of motifs on this ossuary follow Jewish models and some Sogdian models. All that can be conclusively said about the Alamedyn-Pishpek ossuary is that it was found at an area where two of the Silk Road trade routes converged (Barthold 1962).
Barthold, V.V. 1962. Four Studies on the History of Central Asia. Vol. 1. Trans. V. and T. Minorsky. Netherlands: Brill.
Hansen, Valerie. 2015. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lerner, Judith. 2011. “Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China.” The Silk Road. New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.
Lurje, Pavel. 2014. “Other Religions on the Silk Road.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.
“Ossuaries and Sarcophagi.” Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed March 13, 2016, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0015_0_15249.html.
Pavchinskaia, L.V. 1994. “Sogdian Ossuaries.” In Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, Vol. 8, The Archaeology and Art of Central Asia Studies From the Former Soviet Union, pp. 209-225.
Pugachenkova, Galina. 1994. “The Form and Style of Sogdian Ossuaries.” In Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, Vol. 8, The Archaeology and Art of Central Asia Studies From the Former Soviet Union, pp. 227-243.