Ishtikhan ossuary

This ossuary comes from Ishtikhan (Miankal), a settlement in Sogdiana west of Samarkand along the Zarafshan River (Pavchinskaia 1994, 212). According to other pottery found at the cemetery of Ishtikhan, the graves date no earlier than the second half of the seventh century CE (Shenkar 2014, 171 ff.) Due to their sturdy fired terracotta composition and their burial, many ossuaries survive. They were key to the practice of secondary burial in the Zoroastrian belief system: bodies would be exposed to the elements and then the resulting bones buried in containers similar to this one. Not all are decorated as elaborately as this example, which belongs to the type of ossuaries showing a group of crowned figures under arches forming an arcade holding attributes and standing or sitting under an arcade (Shenkar 2014, 171). A sizable amount of today’s evidence for the Sogdians as a people comes from outside the territory of Sogdiana proper, especially from tombs in China such as that of Shi Jun. This ossuary represents a local Sogdian type identified as Miyan-qal’a, to which several other ossuaries in this exhibit belong (see Mulla-Kurgan and Biya-Nayman ossuaries). The cycle is comprised of nine possible figures, usually three female and three male, under an arcade (Pugachenkova 1994, 235). These six figures, three of which are shown in this image, are priests and priestesses possibly shown in the image of the six Amesha Spentas, deities of Avestan myth and allegories of higher incarnations of earthly life (Pugachenkova 1994, 235-236). The proportions of the figures are slightly distorted, with large heads and elongated arms that make the figures’ bodies appear small (Hermitage 2014, cat. ). This ossuary has been reconstructed in modern times, both physically and as a line drawing. It originally would have included a top, likely a pyramidal terracotta top similar to the one seen on the ossuary from Mulla-Kurgan, though that ossuary carries unusual iconographies. G. A. Pugachenkova has suggested that, despite the similarities of the columns depicted on ossuaries such as this one from Ishtikhan to extant wooden columns from the ninth and tenth centuries, such wooden columns could not have supported arches. The most likely construction would therefore have been arched niches for statues with blind columns (Pugachenkova 1994, 229). Boris Marshak’s reconstructions of residential houses, however, are based on archaeological evidence and illustrate the use of wooden columns and ceilings. The pyramidal form of Miyan-qal’a ossuaries gives a three-dimensional look at Sogdian architecture in miniature — at least as far as providing a house for the bones of the dead — but this interjection of practical structural considerations illustrates one of the complications of using two-dimensional representations of architecture (even those on the sides of a three-dimensional object) to extrapolate contemporary Sogdian architecture.


Bijl, Arnoud, and Birgit Boelens. 2014. Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West: Treasures from the Hermitage. Amsterdam: Hermitage Amsterdam.

Marshak, B. I., and V. A. Livshit︠s︡. 2002. Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press.

Pavchinskaia, L. V. 1994. “Sogdian Ossuaries.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 8: 209–25. Accessed March 14, 2016.

Pugachenkova, G. A. 1994. “The Form and Style of Sogdian Ossuaries.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 8: 227–43. Accessed March 14, 2016.

Shenkar, Michael. 2014. Intangible Spirits and Graven Images: The Iconography of Deities in the Pre-Islamic Iranian World. Magical and religious literature of late antiquity 4. Boston: Brill. Accessed March 14, 2016,



Not earlier than the second half of the 7th century



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“Ishtikhan ossuary,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed April 1, 2020,