Recent research has enriched our understanding of cultural diversity during the 5th to 8th centuries (pre-Islamic period) in areas of Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite this expanded body of information, the study of interaction between different sites has not been well understood. My study investigates individual motifs in their own cultural context and the context of other sites around Central Asia. The natural surroundings of this area, and the dependency on the landscape for trade migration during the silk road period, appears to have been a vital part of the cultural milieu. There are many examples of this, but for this research, I focus on the crescent moon and totemic motifs (animal parts like horns and wings) that are employed in a social or cultural context, such as on a coin or in a painting. I am interested in finding out why these motifs were used so widely, and why it was used in a variety of contexts. The aim of this research is to infer whether there are any connections or interactions between sites in Central Asia based on evidence that these motifs are found throughout the region.
After some time researching, you realize how your original research questions might change to fit to the data you collect. In my research, I began with an idea to examine the connections between the natural landscape and iconography observed in the visual culture. These past few weeks, I have realized that this is a very broad area to study and therefore I concentrated my efforts to examine what I was consistently observing. I decided to look at crescent and totemic motifs on headdresses: crowns and tiaras. The reason for choosing headdresses as a basis of cultural context is because I observed this motif consistently; and because the implications of crowns is that there is a social and political value behind it.
For this endeavor, I chose to examine parts of the visual and material culture that are both a part of the Expeditie Zijderoute exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, and other artifacts that have been featured in past relevant studies. I examined objects such as plates and bowls, coins and seals; As well, I examined fragment of wall paintings found in homes, temples, and funerary spaces. The diverse range of ‘things’ where, especially the crescent and animal symbols are observed suggests that these motifs that I analyzed are (1) used frequently and (2) were more than just a decorative addition to an image placed on an object. The hypothesis is that by comparing the different contexts of where these motifs occur, in what context (thing) and where is it located (place), this study can show how these set of motifs played a role in the overall social constructions of this time period.
I had the opportunity to interview Curator of Exhibitions, Dr. Brigit Boelens and Dr. Pavel Lurje, about the use of these motifs in the visual culture. Both of these scholars offered vastly different opinions on my research. Lurje argued that motifs are simply decorative additions to painted scenes or sculpted objects. Boelens suggested that these motifs, especially the crescent and sun, relate to human behavior, such as good and evil. Though I may agree with Boelens that there is an inherent cosmology surrounding the use of nature-type motifs, any intangible will be perhaps part of my research once I am visiting Central Asia. I disagree with Lurje, because though a basic observation of these motifs might conclude that they are somehow part of the “artist’s decision”, if the focus is on headdresses with these motifs, it almost inevitably develops into much more than mere decoration. I argue that the motifs used on headdresses, which relate to nature and animals, is one way to mark identity and social heirachy for groups of people who are constantly moving and who are ethnically diverse. The history of use of these motifs in visual culture also attests to its significance in Central Asia.
Natural and animal symbols have been observed in the archaeological record of Central Asia since the Bronze Age. More than two thousand years ago, people in these regions have created images that either show an animal or natural element. These images were often painted or carved into rock. Later periods show that these same symbols were employed on coins, either in the symbolic headdresses of rulers or part of the inscription. During the 5th to the 8th century, the height of the Silk Road period, these symbols were found again on headdresses depicted on rulers and dieities on wall paintings and again, on coins and seals.
I observed that the crescent or animal type headdress was usually found on coins. These coins are from all periods, before the 5th century, but are not observed on coins after the 8th century. The coins are made of various metal alloys and provenance. This means that the geographic distribution of where the crescent or animal motif is found is all over sites of Central Asia, and coins that were minted out of different empires: the Sassanian, the Turk, and the Hunnish. The results of my analysis conclude that similar type headdresses were found in regions of ancient Persia to areas of Central Asia. Chinese coins do not contain depictions of rulers with these headdresses.
The headdress containing either crescent or totemic symbols are also observed in other contexts, mostly in wall paintings, but not limited to prestige objects. The major provenance areas for the paintings or objects are found in areas of Sogdia, Chorasmie, and further south into archaeological sites in present day Afghanistan. There are some sporadic evidence of headdresses in material culture located further east in present day China, but there was not enough data collected to prove the intensity of interaction. Thus, this study concludes that the use of the crescent type or animal type headdress is concentrated in areas of Sogdia and the Amy Darya (the Oxus River separating Uzbekistan and Afghanistan) because this where interaction between social and political groups took place the most. It is well known that Sogdia was an area with significant trade and religious activity before and after 5th century AD. In my informed opinion, the motifs of crowns were one way to market a kind of cultural or social identity. The control of these areas, by means of ‘cultural branding’, could have been one way to display power and influence in this region.
Interaction and Concluding Remarks
Aside from the stylistic comparisons that can be made by observing the different elements of each headdress type, it is the aim of this study to focus on what kind of interaction can be summated by the occurrence of similar type crowns. The interaction between the Sogdian region and elsewhere is endless. The crescent or animal type headdress is found mostly in the visual culture in sites between Sogdia and areas further south. This study concludes that north-south routes of the silk road were very important during the 5th to 8th centuries A.D.
The geography of this part of Central Asia is composed almost entirely of high altitude mountains until the plateau steppes of Sogdia. Assuming that these headdresses are connected with the interaction of cultural groups, crowns could have been a part of people’s identity with the landscape and their own history of powerful empires. In many ways, interaction would have been necessary between Sogdia and its peripheries his because the people who lived there depended on kinship for trade and for livelihood.
The conclusion is that symbols, in this case natural and animal motifs, were not just decorative elements. Instead, headdresses may have been associated with sophisticated social and political ties, in this case between Sogdia and areas south. In the future, the connections of identity and what I have called ‘social branding’ may help piece together the cultural milieu that existed during the silk road period in Central Asia.