Ritual Matters: Archaeology and Religion in Hellenistic Central Asia

The second meeting of the Hellenistic Central Asia Research Network took place on November 2–4, 2017, in the Topoi building in Dahlem, Berlin. This international conference was made possible by the Eurasien-Abteilung of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (Eurasia Department of the German Archaeological Institute) and was organized by Dr. Gunvor Lindström (Eurasien-Abteilung of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Berlin ) and Dr. Rachel Mairs (Department of Classics, University of Reading, England). Speakers were coming from Afghanistan, Australia, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the USA. The conference was interdisciplinary as it gathered archaeologists, historians, numismatists, epigraphists, art historians and Iranologists.

This blog post will give a short review of the conference to show how ritual evidence can help us to understand ancient religions in Central Asia.

Nowadays, talking about religion can cause problems. Every corner of the world has its own traditions and rituals rooted in local customs that have been known for centuries. Although very differentiated and complex, most of the ‘world religions’ are regarded from an outer perspective as unitary entities. For example, most Europeans do not know about the different religious traditions and sub-groups of Islam. Therefore, they use the term ‘Islam’ to encompass all Muslim people, as they think they all belong together. However, the matter at hand is not that simple.

Talking about religions in ancient times is even more complicated. Only few indications of rituals and beliefs are preserved and suitable for analysis with regard to religion. Therefore, it seems impossible to describe these ancient complex religious ideologies in total.

Bearing these problems in mind, around 80 scholars gathered in Berlin with the aim to discuss about the ancient religions of Pre-Islamic Central Asia. During the conference senior scholars as well as young researchers had the chance to present their research on religious practices and recent excavation results – with 29 presentations in all.

Fig. 1: The general secretary of the German Archaeological Institute (Berlin) Dr. Philipp von Rummel opened the conference.

Philipp von Rummel, the general secretary of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) in Berlin, welcomed the participants (Fig. 1) and highlighted the past and ongoing research activities of the DAI in Central Asia, which have been gathered in the Eurasia Department since 1995. Rachel Mairs and Gunvor Lindström presented the Hellenistic Central Asia Research Network, which was founded in 2016 in Reading (UK) during the last international conference on Hellenistic Central Asia (join the facebook group of the Hellenistic Central Asia Research Network). It connects researchers from different nations working on ancient Central Asia and it distributes information about recent publications and discoveries, but it also provides feedback and offers mentoring.

The presentations were arranged according to historical phases and covered at least three main topics related to ancient ritual customs:

  1.  The sacred structures and their features related to ritual activities (with focus on current field work).
  2.  The identification of the gods and goddesses who were worshipped in Pre-Islamic Central Asia.
  3.  Votives and iconographic themes from various archaeological contexts (hoards, pits etc.).
  4. Recent excavation results (not connected to ritual customs) were also presented on the last day of the conference.

The first topic was devoted to temples and temple-like structures, which are still very few. Wu Xin (Department of History. Fudan University, Shanghai) presented some of the cultic places dated to the Achaemenid period and bearing some traces of ritual activities. Viktor Mokroborodov (Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Science, Moscow) talked about a temple structure excavated in Kindyk Tepe (Uzbekistan). He linked the ritual features found there to Zoroastrianism, a religion that originated in the 1st millennium BCE in ancient Central Asia – as far as sources can be interpreted. The temple consists of a main chamber with a fireplace surrounded by four columns. In a narrow corridor eight pits were revealed. They gave rise to a discussion about their possible link with the (nine!) ritual pits used in Zoroastrian purification rituals. Was there already some kind of canonical type of Zoroastrian sanctuary at that time or was an old-Iranian/Bactrian practice later adapted to Zoroastrianism? At the turn of the 1st millennium religious architecture connected to fire features (fire places etc.) can be found at Akchakhan-kala in Chorasmia. Alison Betts (School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Department of Archaeology, Sidney) presented this remarkable site as probably refering to early Zoroastrian practices. But should we interpret the rituals performed on the site rather as those of an autonomous religious tradition? Another problematic identification of a temple complex was that of the famous Oxus-temple at Takht-i Sangin, Tajikistan, which was presented by Anjelina Drujinina (Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan). She showed that the altars in the so-called “fire chambers” of the temple were not used for a fire cult, at least not in the pre-Kushan phase of the temple. If Zoroastrianism has to be excluded, then what was the religion practiced there?

In pre-Sasanian Central Asia there are at least some indications of pre-Zoroastrian or Zoroastrian customs. Frantz Grenet (Histoire et cultures de l’Asie Centrale préislamique, Collège de France) focused on iconography and showed some astonishing analogies between the votive plaques from the Oxus treasure, the Akchakhan-kala wall paintings, and the dress of Zoroastrian priests. Nargis Khojaeva (Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan) linked Avestan texts to the Oxus temple. However, Alberto Cantera (Institut für Iranistik, Freie Universität Berlin) pointed out that the Zoroastrian tradition is not continuous. He considers it highly probable that the Zoroastrians were only one among many religious groups in ancient Central Asia and that Zoroastrianism as the main religion in ancient Central Asia is in some way a construct of later Zoroastrian or Sasanid traditions. New evidence on burials of the 1st millennium BC was brought into discussion by Johanna Lhuillier (CNRS UMR 5133 Archéorient), Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento (CNRS Ext-500, head of the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan), and Philippe Marquis (conservateur à la Ville de  Paris). Dismembered parts of skeletons, in some cases with traces of excarnation, were excavated at Tepe Zargaran and other sites. These burials evoke the Zoroastrian practices of the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Marc Mendoza (Ciències de l’antiguitat i de l’edat mitjana, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) discussed Alexander the Great’s ban of the exposure of corpses in Bactra, which was often perceived as a violation of Zoroastrian burials. Michele Minardi ( CNRS UMR 5607 Ausonius) presented the results of the surveys and excavations in the surroundings of Akchakhan-kala, namely the ossuaries discovered on the Sultan-Uiz-Dag, which may be dated to the Choresmian Antique 2 and 3 periods (2nd century BC to 4th century AD). Burial practices are highly important in the discussion on rituals, as they are directly connected to religious attitudes and behaviours.

In Torbulok, where Gunvor Lindström has been excavating a sanctuary since 2014, some ritual features such as a Greek type of cultic vessel (perirrhanterion) and micro bases or miniature altars can be compared to features from other Hellenistic religious sites, whereas others have no parallels yet: a cult shaft situated close to a large water basin with beads and river pebbles from the Vakhsh River (30 km walking distance), and pits filled with ashes, pottery and bones. So far, the ritual behaviour testified by these finds cannot be linked to any specific religious tradition, either Greek or local. Laurianne Martinez-Sève (UFR des Sciences historiques, artistiques et politiques, Université Charles-de-Gaulle – Lille 3) presented the main sanctuary of Ai Khanoum. Beside the main temple, several small chapel-like buildings were found. The architectural layout of the sanctuary has been modified several times, indicating some kind of ritual changes – perhaps connected to the different, and still unknown, gods and goddesses who were worshipped there. Milinda Hoo (Human Development in Landscapes, Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel) suggested that cultural models should be reconsidered: instead of thinking in terms of local and non-local/Greek, one should adopt a different understanding of processual activities and realise that the latter were influencing each other. She brought the “communities of practice” into discussion. Hence, sanctuaries can be interpreted as places of interfering communities of practices.

The societies of pre-Islamic Central Asia were more diverse than we can possibly imagine. Nonetheless, Hellenistic Central Asia was not separated from the rest of the Hellenistic world in the West and in Iran. On the basis of epigraphical finds Hanna Golab (Department of Classics, Princeton University) and Olga Kubica (Faculty of Historical and Pedagogical Sciences, University of Wrocław) showed that on the contrary they were part of the Hellenistic world, forming a kind of koinè.

Fig. 2: There were intense discussions that continued during the numerous coffee breaks.

The second main topic was about the iconography of the gods and goddesses who were worshipped in Central Asia, with a discussion led by Ladislav Stančo (Institute of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague), Hafiz Latify (National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul) and Juping Yang (History College, Nankai University, Tianjin). At the turn of the 1st millennium religious iconography connected to Zoroastrianism can be found at Akchakhan-kala in Chorasmia. One of these motifs depicts a deity wearing a turreted crown. Its interpretation as the Zoroastrian god Sraoša was rejected by Michael Shenkar (Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem). He suggested that it depicts a protective, fortune-bringing god similar to the Syrian and Mesopotamian Tyche or Gad. His presentation caused a lively discussion and it proved very problematic to find an agreement. Rachel Mairs also drew attention to the fact that one should be careful when using phenomena from other regions of the Hellenistic world to explain those of Central Asia.

In addition to gods and goddesses, the participants also talked about a small social group that at some point wanted or even needed a connection to rituals, namely the kings and rulers of ancient Central Asia. How they used rituals to legitimise their position was discussed by Rolf Strootman (Department of History and Art History, Utrecht University). Gunnar Dumke (Max-Planck Institut für Anthropologie and Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg) focused on the epithets of the rulers on coins. Razieh Taasob (Associate Professional Specialist on Central Asian Numismatic, Princeton University) gave an overview on Kushan coinage and how Kushan kings used religious symbols for their own portraits. He also showed that propaganda was carried even further by the image on the reverse of the coins, where religious symbols were shown and placed into context with the ruler himself.

The third focus of the conference was on altars, votive offerings and hoards. Barbara Kaim (Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw) talked about a specific kind of altar known as ‘micro bases’ (as they have the form of column bases). These small-sized bases were produced in different types and were connected to ritual acts that were practiced in Hellenistic Central Asia. They can be most probably identified as small altars upon which some kind of offerings (food?) was placed. Interestingly, some of these small bases were found in Iranian fire temples of the Parthian and Sasanian period. They originated in Bactria during the Hellenistic period but they were also in use as far as Pergamon, where two examples were found in the Hellenistic grotto sanctuary. These special ritual objects are highly interesting but further research must be carried out to explain their original use. The same can be said about (ritual?) hoards. They have much potential for interpretation, as discussed by Lauren Morris (Seminar für Alte Geschichte, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg).

Finally, recent excavation results were presented by Luca M. Olivieri and Elisa Iori (Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, Bologna) about Bazira, an urban site of early-historic times in Swat, Pakistan. Sören Stark (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University) and Fiona Kidd (New York University, Abu Dhabi) gave a presentation about the new excavations at Bashtepa (Bukhara region, Uzbekistan) – with the remarkable discovery of a fragment belonging to a so-called “Megarian bowl”!

Three days were not sufficient to discuss every aspect of religious rituals in ancient Central Asia. However, the participants came one step closer to together, crossing their traditional academic borders and trying to understand each other’s methods and reasoning. Some arguments and statements were discussed more than others. One of these was the identification of Zoroastrianism during the 1st millennium BCE in Central Asia.

The participants were clearly divided between two groups having different opinions on how to reconstruct the ancient history of Central Asian religions. The followers of the late Mary Boyce, an expert in Zoroastrian studies, assume a more or less continuous development of Zoroastrianism. They use the rituals described in Avestan texts (mostly written in the first millennium AD) as well as present-day Zoroastrian ideas to explain the archaeological finds linked to ritual customs of the 1st millennium BCE.

By contrast, the cautious empiricists (second group) describe the features and discoveries related to ancient rituals without linking them to a specific religion. They argue that archaeological evidence is not sufficient to identify Zoroastrian religion in these early periods. On one hand, these early ritual features share similarities with Zoroastrianism, but, on the other hand, it is not possible to identify them as those of a main canonical religion that would have been practiced in the same manner over centuries.

Fig. 3: The participants to the conference “Ritual Matters: Archaeology and Religion in Hellenistic Central Asia. The second meeting of the Hellenistic Central Asia Research Network”.

This discussion has not come to a conclusion and will continue for sure during the next meetings of the Hellenistic Central Asia Research Network. The third meeting will be organized by Ladislav Stančo in Prague. The topic of the conference will be announced in the following weeks.

To end this paper I would like to quote one of the speakers. Paul Bucher-Dietschi (Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica, Bubendorf) finished his presentation about Bamiyan saying that “rituals continue to matter”, therefore “archaeology matters.” And this is quite true with regard to research in Central Asia. Archaeology has much to contribute to our understanding of religious practices in this region.


Kristina Junker, M.A., Eurasia Department of the German Archaeological Institute. The author graduated from the Humboldt University in Berlin. Co-organizer of the conference “Ritual Matters”. Since September 2016 she has been working on her PhD (Free University in Berlin) about the Hellenistic pottery from Bactria. At the same time she has participated in the excavation team, headed by Gunvor Lindström, in Torbulok, Tajikistan. In addition to Central Asia she has worked in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. Her general research focuses on the development of architecture, pottery and landscape archaeology of Central Asia and Iran from Achaemenid to Parthian times.

Pour citer ce billet : Kristina Junker. Ritual Matters: Archaeology and Religion in Hellenistic Central Asia, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 8 décembre 2017, [En ligne] http://archeorient.hypotheses.org/7982

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