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This beautiful earthenware ossuary is a Sogdian piece from the 7th century AD.  It was unearthed from the ruins of ancient Samarkand (in what is today Uzbekistan) and reflects the Zoroastrian faith of the Sogdian traders who flourished along the Silk Road in that era.

Zoroastrians believe that both fire and the earth are sacred, and thus human remains can be neither interred nor cremated.  Instead, corpses are laid out in “houses of silence” open to the heavens above, or otherwise exposed to the hungry creatures of the wasteland.   Once the vultures, jackals, maggots, and other scavengers had finished their repast, the bones were gathered up and placed into an ossuary like this one.

The figures on the front of the box (see detail immediately above) are Mazdaean priests dressed in flowing white robes as they tend the sacred flame burning upon the stepped altar.  The mouths of the priests are covered with “padam”–facemasks which prevent their breath from polluting the sacred flame.  Upon the pyramid-shaped lid are female dancers, each of whom holds plants and strange dance implements.

At the apex of the ossuary is a radiant circle and a crescent–the sun and the moon. Like the dancers, the fire, and the priests, they seem also to be turning into flowers, foliage, and herbs. The whole ossuary is colorless, dry, lifeless, and fire-themed–yet its secret meaning seems to be about greenery, wild dance, and the flowing sensuous lines of life!

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