Ossuary, Mulla-Kurgan

This ossuary depicts two levels of Zoroastrian practice and belief: the lower register shows what has been interpreted as a Zoroastrian ceremony, while the upper register shows a scene from heaven. The overall format of the decoration echoes other contemporary ossuaries, such as the Ishtikhan ossuary, which also features arcaded architecture with figures between columns. The central image on the body is the classic representation of Zoroastrianism, the fire altar, which appears across many media. Two flanking figures are identifiable by their attributes as officiating priests. The raspig or assistant priest, to the right, uses bellows on the sacred flame. The zot or main priest, to the left, holds a short barsom (ritual bundle of twigs or sticks) and kneels on the ground (Stewart et. al. 2013, 101, cat. 36). Such depictions date back to at least the fifth century BCE, including a similar figure holding barsom on a gold plaque from the Achaemenid Oxus Treasure at the British Museum. On the Mulla-Kurgan ossuary, both male figures wear the characteristic face coverings of Zoroastrian priests. On the pyramidal lid, two female figures are depicted holding plants in their hands (possibly the sacred haoma), belong a crescent and a circle (which may signify the sun or the planet Venus) (Pugachenkova 1994, 235). The format of the object itself echoes Sogdian architectural tropes. Ossuaries came in several forms in the seventh and eighth centuries: rectangular, box-shaped, oval, and pyramidal. This example is the latter and is unusual in its good state of preservation. Like most contemporary terracotta ossuaries, it was decorated by stamping or impressing the clay, with the crenellations at the base of the pyramid cut out by hand. The Mulla-Kurgan ossuary is unusual not only for its state of preservation, but for the circumstances of its rediscovery. Unlike the groups of ossuaries found at Biya-Nayman and Ishtikahn, this ossuary was found by itself on the hill of Mulla-Kurgan. Pugachenkova suggests that the specific depictions on the ossuary, including priestly devotions, indicate that the object was meant for the remains of an important priest who had performed those same devotions in life (Pugachenkova 1994, 235-236). The ossuary itself is evidence for another Zoroastrian religious practice: the deceased would have been exposed to the elements in a specific raised area called a dakhma, usually circular so that the corners would not hold pollution. Ossuaries such as this one were used for the burial of the bones following their cleaning.


This clay ossuary was found in the village of Mulla-Kurgan near Samarkand. Compared to other ossuaries dating to this time, it is extremely well-preserved. An ossuary is a vessel used to hold bones from the deceased after they have been cleaned. Zoroastrians believe that flesh pollutes the earth, so they traditionally expose their dead to scavengers and bury the cleaned bones in ossuaries.

The lid of the box depicts two female dancers wearing transparent robes. Since there is little evidence of priestesses in this region, they may be mourners at a funeral. More likely, they could be beautiful, young women waiting to greet the deceased in the afterlife. The two women are holding plants above their heads that can be interpreted as the sacred haoma, a plant that can be pounded to extract juices used in Zoroastrian medicinal practice. Another possibility could be that the vine-like plant depicts grapes. Grapes in Sogdian art and artifacts allude to wine and rejoicing. As this is a religious object, this secular interpretation is less likely.

The base of the ossuary depicts a fire altar, a key signifier of Zoroastrian rituals. The altar is flanked by two priests and they wear are called padam masks. These masks are worn to cover the face and hair and prevent any bodily substances from polluting the fire. The priest to the right uses bellows to keep the sacred flame alive. The main priest kneels to the left is kneeling and is either feeding the fire with wood or holding a ritual bundle of twigs or sticks, called barsom rods (Lerner 1995, 183). An ossuary of Krasnaia Rechka also depicts ceremonial priests wearing padam masks and attending to the sacred fire altar.

The shape of this ossuary is similar to the Durman ossuary. In both examples, a triangular lid sits atop a rectangular base with architectural motifs. Although the scenes depicted are different, the columns that divide the scene and the crenellations that span the perimeter are the same. Crenellations are the step-shaped protrusions on the roof of a castle that have gaps in between them for firing guns or arrows. This architectural detail is typical of castles that were fortified and suggests the inhabitants needed protection. 

(SF)

Bibliography

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

Pavchinskaia, L. V. 1994. “Sogdian Ossuaries.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 8: 209–25. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24048775. (SF)

Pugachenkova, G. A. 1994. “The Form and Style of Sogdian Ossuaries.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 8: 227–43. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24048776.

Stewart, Sarah, Firoza Punthakey Mistree, and Ursula Sims-Williams. 2013. The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. London: I.B. Tauris.

Lerner, Judith. “Central Asians in sixth-century China: A Zoroastrian funerary rite,” Iranica Antiqua 30 (1995): 179-90 (SF)

Lerner, Judith. “Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China,” The Silk Road 9 (2011): 18-25. (SF)

Rose, Jenny. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. I.B. Taurs, 2014. (SF)

Metadata

Date

7-8th century

Materials

Terracotta

Location

Samarkand State Museum of History, Art and Architecture

Additional Research Metadata

Provenance

Samarkand

Citation

“Ossuary, Mulla-Kurgan,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed May 29, 2020, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/51.