Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The golden burial mask of Shamsi

From the beautiful blog Tibet Archaeology and all things Tibetan by John Vincent Bellaza

Fig. A. Golden funeral mask of a woman with tattoo-like decorations which represent the trees of life. These decorations were created by puncturing on the reverse and covering with white paint on the obverse. Rouran period, 5th–6th century CE. Excavated in 1958 in Shamsi, Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan. Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Christoph Baumer. Photo credit: National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
Fig. A. Golden funeral mask of a woman with tattoo-like decorations which represent the trees of life. These decorations were created by puncturing on the reverse and covering with white paint on the obverse. Rouran period, 5th–6th century CE. Excavated in 1958 in Shamsi, Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan. Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Christoph Baumer. Photo credit: National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
The above photo and caption are taken from Christoph Baumer’s forthcoming book, History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads, vol. II. After reading about the golden masks illustrated in last month’s Flight of the Khyung, this author was so kind as to provide me with these materials from his upcoming book due out in July, 2014. I urge anyone with an interest in the history of 1st millennium CE Eurasia to obtain a copy of Dr. Baumer’s book. One will be treated to a rich panoply of cultures, religions, and art, which made the Silk Road one of the greatest chapters in Eurasian civilization.
Courtesy of the publisher, here is the synopsis for Christoph Baumer’s forthcoming book, History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads, vol. II:
The Age of the Silk Roads (circa 200 BC to circa 900 AD) shaped the course of the future. The foundation by the Han dynasty of an extensive network of interlinking trade routes, collectively known as the Silk Road, led to an explosion of cultural and commercial transactions across Central Asia that had a profound impact on civilization. In this second volume of his authoritative history of the region, Christoph Baumer explores the unique flow of goods, peoples, and ideas along the dusty tracks and wandering caravan routes that brought European and Mediterranean orbits into contact with Asia. The Silk Roads, the author shows, enabled the spread across the known world of Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Islam, just as earlier they had caused Roman citizens to crave the exotic silk goods of the mysterious Far East. Tracing the rise and fall of empires, this richly illustrated book charts the ebb and flow of epic history: the bitter rivalry of Rome and Parthia; the lucrative mercantile empire of the Sogdians; the founding of Samarkand; the rise of Turkish Empires in today’s Mongolia; and the Chinese defeat at the Battle of Talas (751 AD) by the forces of Islam.
In style and form, the gold foil mask of Shamsi has certain features of both the Boma Cemetery specimen from northwestern Xinjiang (Ili) and those masks discovered in Tibet and the Himalaya (see last month’s Flight of the Khyung). I invite readers to make their own visual comparisons.
The Shamsi mask is embellished with three tree-like designs created by a series of perforations highlighted with a white pigment. Two of the trees cover the cheeks while the the third one was placed over the entire nose and middle of the forehead.  For the sake of stimulating further discussion, I will offer an alternative interpretation of this motif. It does not seem plausible to me that the ‘tree of life’ would be used to decorate a mask for the dead. Perhaps it should instead be called something to the effect of ‘the tree of regeneration in the afterlife’. In the eastern Altai, coniferous tree trunks were found buried with their roots in some Turk funerary enclosures. The precise function of this ritual object is not known. Given the general proximity in time and space between these Turk funerary sites and the burial at Shamsi, there may be an ideological and/or functional correspondence between the motif on the golden mask and the ritual use of tree trunks. This is one avenue of inquiry worth exploring in more depth.
The archaic funerary tradition of Tibet could also offer valid points of comparison with both the trees of the Shamsi mask and those of early Turkic burials. The old Tibetan death rites were first written down circa the 8th century CE and continued to find literary expression in Bon religious texts until at least the 11th century CE. In the archaic rite, there is a ritual instrument known as the ‘head juniper’ (dbu-shug), which functioned as a vessel to enshrine and protect the the consciousness principle of the dead; it was thus referred to as the ‘soul fortress’ (bla-rdzong). The head juniper, as a kind of miraculous pillar, was employed to orient the soul of the deceased towards the celestial afterlife. Harnessing the Tibetan archaic  funerary tradition as a touchstone, one might speculate that the three levels of branches on the trees of the Shamsi mask, marked the vertical stages in the passage of the soul to the otherworld.
The head juniper is mentioned in evocation rites for the soul of the deceased as part of the Bon funerary collection known as the Muchoi Tromdur. While some of the language of the Muchoi Tromdur passage given below belies Buddhist influence, the ritual itself is fundamentally archaic in character:*
In the beginning, by the sign of perfect accomplishment of the excellent gshen priests, there grew a blue turquoise juniper. Its crown of existence is sharp and hardy. Its roots penetrate the depths of the ocean. Its branches reach all four worlds. Nectar drips from each needle. At its root is the swirling nectar of consummation. At its crown the sun, moon, and stars, these three, circle around. On the branches of white copper (?) and on the conch trunk grows the fruit of perfection. When the excellent gshen were alive, this great precious juniper was a rgyang tree (instrument for securing influence over a wide area?). When the excellent gshen died it was the head juniper. Tonight, deceased dead one, please stay at this great protector head juniper. Make the head juniper, thread cross, and bird wing, these three, the support of the deceased’s body, speech, and mind.
* For a detailed description of the head juniper and a comparison of Tibetan funerary practices with those of the ancient Turks, see the book Zhang Zhung, Part III, Sections 4, 6 and 9 (bibliographic data at:
While very different cultural, ethnic, and historical forces were at play in Shamsi as compared to Tibet, the concept of a tree at the head is given expression. Perhaps in both cases these trees aided the liberation of the dead. If so, this adds to the growing body of evidence indicating the broad dispersal of material and ritualistic elements connected to funerals and burials in Inner Asia over a long period of time. In addition to golden burial masks, these widely distributed features include the erection menhirs, horse burials, horse headdresses, deposition of ephedra and sheep bones in graves, ‘animal style art’, use of effigies, application of substitute body parts on corpses, etc.
Explicit connection between Turkic and Tibetan funerary rites is made in the Dunhuang manuscript Pt 1060 (best attributed to circa the 9th century CE, pending codicological confirmation). This text indicates that Turkic regions north of Tibet shared the same tradition of horses used to ritually transport the dead to the next world. In this text, 12 lineages of psychopomp horses are located in Tibet while a 13th is attributed to Drugu. Drugu seems to refer to the Uighurs, but it could possibly also denote an earlier period in the ethnohistory of the Tarim Basin. In Pt 1060, the gods (Yol, Reg-rgyal hir-kin and Dan-kan) and one of the funerary horses (Hol-tsun) have names of decidedly Turkic origins. The historical placement of this literary reference is not very clear. It likely refers to the period of Tibetan imperial conquest (mid-7th to mid-9th century CE). However, the usage of genealogical terms in the text to denote the male and female sources of lineages (cho and ’brang) may indicate that the psychopomp horses are being enumerated within a deeper historical context.
Did Turkic groups actually have such psychopomp horses, or is the Pt 1060 account merely based on a pretension of Tibetan imperial might? That the Turks and Tibetans did indeed share certain conceptual and procedural structures related to the funeral and afterlife is given credence by some of the archaeological evidence outlined above. While further inquiry into the historical and archaeological dimensions of the horses of Drugu in Pt 1060 is called for, this text  does provide us with an intriguing link, hinting at the widespread diffusion of funerary ritual and eschatological traditions in Inner Asia.
For the Pt 1060 reference discussed above, see Zhang Zhung, pp. 522–524.
I was also able to share a pre-publication version of the above article with another colleague of ours, Sören Stark, Professor of Central Asian Art and Archaeology at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University.  He was kind enough to furnish us with additional comments and observations concerning the burial masks of north Inner Asia and further afield germane to our exploration of the subject. What Professor Sören Stark has written follows next.

An overview of golden masks from Inner Asia: A contribution by Sören Stark

The whole burial complex at Shamsi is discussed by Kožomberdieva, Kožomberdiev, and Kožemjakov (1998). Another example of a golden funerary mask comes from a rich burial at the cemetery of Dzhalpak-dëbë in present-day Kyrgyzstan, dated to the 4th or 5th century CE. (Каниметов et al. 1983, p. 41). For ‘Migration period’ (4-5th century CE) Eurasia a useful (though not exhaustive) overview of the phenomenon of funeral masks during the 4th and 5th centuries CE in Eurasia is given by Benkő (1992-1993). Of course solid metal masks are probably only the preserved ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what once existed, including face-covers made of perishable materials: see the cover made of a hemp fiber mass worn by the famous 4th or 5th century CE burial from Yingpan, or face covers made of precious silks onto which metal appliqués were sewn (for one such appliqué type, which can be traced from Inner Mongolia to Hungary see Stark 2009). We should also not forget the often splendidly painted clay masks from the Tashtyk culture in present-day Khakassia in Southern Siberia, dating roughly to the same period (Вадецкая 2009). And also from further west, i.e. from the northern Black Sea area, golden funerary masks dating to the 2nd-3rd centuries CE have been found (Бутягин 2009). Note also that the kidney-shaped garnet (or almandine?) inlays on the famous Boma mask mentioned above most likely originate from a workshop in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean, as recently pointed out by A. Koch (Koch 2008). See my review of this article (Stark 2010).
Literature mentioned Benkő, M. 1992-1993. “Burial Masks of Eurasian Mounted Nomad Peoples in the Migration Period” in Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 46, pp. 113–131.
Koch, A. 2008. “Boma – ein reiternomadisch-hunnischer Fundkomplex in Nordwestchina,” in Hunnen zwischen Asien und Europa. Aktuelle Forschungen zur Archäologie und Kultur der Hunnen, Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte Mitteleuropas. Edited by Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer, pp. 57-71. Langenweissbach: Beier & Beran.
Kožomberdieva, E. I., I. V. Kožomberdiev, and P. N. Kožemjakov. 1998. “Ein Katakombengrab aus der Schlucht Šamsi,” Eurasia Antiqua 4:  pp. 451-471. ___Stark, S. 2009. “Central and Inner Asian Parallels to a Find from Kunszentmiklos-Babony (Kunbabony): Some Thoughts on the Early Avar Headdress,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 15:  pp. 287-305. ___2010. “Review of”Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer (Ed.): Hunnen zwischen Asien und Europa. Aktuelle Forschungen zur Archäologie und Kultur der Hunnen,” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 5:  pp. 201-208. Бутягин, А. М. Editor. 2009. Тайна золотой маски. Каталог выставки. Санкт-Петербург: Издательство Государственного Эрмитажа. Каниметов, А., Б. И. Маршак, В. М. Плоских, and Я. А. Шер. Editors. 1983. Памятники культуры и искусства Киргизии. Древность и средневековье. Ленинград.

More on the golden mask from Malari

Thanks to the kind regard of Professor R. C. Bhatt of Garwhal University, I now have a copy of the preliminary archaeological report made concerning cut chamber burials in Malari, which was published in Japan:
Bhatt, R. C.;  Kvamme, K. L.; Nautiyal, V.; Nautiyal, K. P.; Juyal, S.; Nautiyal, S. C. 2008-2009. “Archaeological and Geophysical Investigations of the High Mountain Cave Burials in the Uttarakhand Himalaya” in Indo-Kōko-Kenkyū – Studies in South Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 30, pp. 1–16.
I will now provide a synopsis of materials in this paper pertinent to the golden mask of Malari. In 1986 and 1987, Professor R. C. Bhatt conducted archaeological work in the Garwhal Himalaya in order to excavate and better understand the cultural background of an intact cave burial in Malari. Cut from calcareous rock on a hillside, this burial chamber is 2.4 m deep. Its mouth was sealed by a boulder. The chamber contained grave goods as well as the complete skeleton of what is identified as a yak hybrid (zobamdzo-ba). Additionally, some bones of the dog, sheep, and goat were interred (however, no human remains were detected). Based on a recent analysis of animal skeletal remains, iron and bone artifacts, and glazed pottery from the site, this burial and another of its kind in Malari have been dated to circa 1st century BCE. Among the large quantity of ceramics entombed were intact vessels comprised of dishes, spouted pots, and jars of red and black polished ware, some of which are decorated with incised geometric designs filled in with a white pigment. A variety of trihedral iron arrowheads and spear points were recovered. Also, iron nails inserted into oak twigs and a bronze bowl with a diameter of 16 cm were found. The most remarkable discovery was a mask made of beaten gold weighing 5.23 grams (for photograph, see last month’s Flight of the Khyung).
In 2001, a similarly sized and constructed burial chamber was discovered in Malari by R. C. Bhatt and colleagues. This burial yielded a complete human skeleton with the head pointing  southwest and the feet oriented towards the northeast. A preliminary osteological study indicates that this was the skeleton of a juvenile between 12 and 15 years of age. Among the ceramics were 11 intact vessels red and gray in color, some with incised geometric designs. The most distinctive of these are red-ware vessels with wide, slightly flaring mouths, bulbous bottoms, single lug handles, and long spouts supported by a bridge connecting it to the rim of the pots. One of these pots has a conical pedestal.
Bhatt et al. 2009 consider the burials of Malari in the wider cultural and geographic context of western Tibet and Mustang, noting that cave burials are found in these other regions as well. As regards the yak hybrid burial, the authors write, “Taking into consideration the immense usefulness of the animal, it must have been treated as a member of the family, and therefore it was given a proper burial as a mark of respect as evident from the nature of the burial.” It is reported that one AMS assay of an unspecified bone sample from the cave burials was carried out and yielded a date of circa 100 BCE. The authors note that burials at Mebrak (Mustang valley) and Kharpo (Guge) fall within this general time frame. The authors are inclined to group these burials together, in the sense that they demonstrate “a common cultural trait”. The authors elaborate, stating that these regions “must have shared many common practices and beliefs”.
Using techniques based on magnetic gradiometry and electrical resistivity, Bhatt et al. 2009 have identified several other sites in Malari that probably conceal burial chambers.
My comments
It would be helpful if more organic remains from the two excavated burial chambers of Malari were subjected to chronometric testing. The results would help fix the date of the burial, corroborating results from just one sample that was AMS assayed (the details of which have not been published in Bhatt et al. 2009). A formal study of the ceramics recovered would also be very useful. Of course a number of other kinds of analyses (of a stratigraphic, cultural, and molecular nature) of the bones and grave goods could also be carried out to good effect.
In addition to the presence of the golden mask, the ceramics finds from Malari are directly comparable with those recently unearthed at Gurgyam by Chinese archaeologists. See the round bottom pot with single lug handle and wide flared mouth in October 2010 Flight of the Khyung (fig. 15) and fig. 11 in Bhatt et al. 2009. The general similarities in form between two vessels notwithstanding, there are important typological differences between them (shape of the bottom, width and flare of neck, etc.). More important to a comparative analysis is the method of manufacture, fabric and surface finish of the two vessels. This kind of detailed information is not provided in Bhatt et al. 2009, nor yet by the Chinese. Moreover, little can be discerned from the small b&w photo in in Bhatt et al. Anyhow, there is an even more striking parallel in the ceramic assemblages of Malari and Guge: the existence of similarly made red-ware pots with round bodies, wide flaring mouths and long spouts. See figs. 8 and 9 in Bhatt et al. The Chinese example excavated in 2013 has not yet been published; however, thanks to my Chinese colleagues I was able to see the Gurgyam example. The Gurgyam pot is closest in form to the vessel on the right side of fig. 9, sans the conical pedestal, but with the same type of arched bridge connecting the spout to the body of the vessel (the Gurgyam bridge is decorated with three incised circles or eyes extending across its length). The other two spouted vessels from Malari are also close in form but the neck bridges were made with a double curve.
Hopefully the Indian and Chinese archaeologists will furnish us with more serious studies of ceramic finds in adjoining Himalayan regions than what we have to date. Typological and fabric analysis based on modern archaeological methods is sorely called for if we are to achieve a better understanding of the cultural and technological elements involved. It is  essential that standard scientific techniques such as thermoluminescence (TL) dating, X-ray radiography, X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and neutron activation analysis (NAA) are brought to bear on the study of the structure and composition of the ceramics discovered in Guge and Malari. It is only by undertaking these lines of inquiry that the method of firing, mineralogical composition of the clay and ceramic petrology (among other empirical parameters) can be known.
Despite the infancy of our field of study, some preliminary observations are in order. The masks and ceramic vessels underline a cultural relationship between Guge and Malari in the 100 BCE to 400 CE time frame. These two regions possessed similar technological skills (also encompassing iron implements and bronzeware) applied to the world of funerary rites and burial. My hunch is that the ceramics of Malari and Gurgyam were produced locally, as they exhibit significant differences as well as similarities. It is also inherently difficult to transport large numbers of ceramics over the Himalaya. As noted in last month’s newsletter, the evidence generally indicates that these regions shared certain cultural customs and traditions in common.
As for the burial of a yak hybrid in Malari, this is liable to be a constituent part of funerary rites carried out for the dead. The Dunhuang text Pt 1068 furnishes a fairly extensive account of the origins of the yak hybrid used to transport deceased women to the afterlife (see Zhang Zhung, pp. 538–542). In this colorful origins tale, composed circa the 9th century CE, a hybrid yak named Dzomo Drangma (Mdzo-mo drang-ma) is appointed by the funerary priest Durshen Mada (Dur-gshen rma-da) to assist a young girl who died under the most wretched of circumstances. Although this tale is explicitly set in “ancient times”, one should not conflate the older Malari burial with the contents of the text; significant ideological differences in these burial rites may possibly be indicated. Nevertheless, the custom of employing a yak hybrid as a funerary appliance extends to both spheres, strongly suggesting a Tibetic cultural orientation for the Malari burial.
The Malari and Chuthak golden masks are supposedly around 2000 or 2100 years old. If those dates hold up to further scrutiny, they suggest that these masks of sophisticated manufacture predate the cruder Samdzong and Gurgyam examples by three to five centuries (for descriptions and images of these masks, see last month’s newsletter). Continuing in this vein, it may be that the tradition of Himalayan and Tibetan golden burial masks was in decline by the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. In addition to cultural and technological transmissions from the west that appear to have informed the creation of the Shamsi and Boma masks touched upon by Sören Stark in the above article, provided the dates for the Malari and Chuthak masks are confirmed, it is worth pondering that a vector of cultural and artistic influence coming from Tibet and the Himalaya may also have had an impact on the development of north Inner Asian burial masks (one possible carrier northward from the Plateau were the Huns). Furthermore, the provisional chronology for the Malari and Chuthak masks could possibly be indicative of an earlier (Iron Age) Eurasian diffusion of golden burial masks, which also encompassed those of ancient Illyria, Thrace, and Greece. Enough of that now. I think readers will see there are many intriguing angles on the ancient burials of western Tibet and the Himalaya to explore in the years ahead.
Finally, it is worth mentioning Tibetan miniature copper alloy masks classed as thokcha (thog-lcags). The faces represented on this very rare group of artifacts are somewhat different in form from the golden burial masks but probably of comparable age. The thokcha masks appear to be talismanic in function but they may have had other uses as well, such as receptacles (rten) for personal protective spirits. For an image of one of these miniature masks, see the July 2010 Flight of the Khyung.

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