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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee




Zoroastrian Use of Ossuaries

Ossuaries in Iran - Khark Island

Ossuaries Found in Central Asia

Ossuaries Found in Ancient Sughdha

Ossuaries Found in Ancient Khvarizem

Toprak Kala Ossuaries

Related Reading:

» Zoroastrian After Life and Funeral Customs

» Sogdian Zoroastrian Funerary Couches in China

» Uzbekistan

» Khvarizem

Zoroastrian Use of Ossuaries

An ossuary is a place to collect the bones of the dead. Often an ossuary is thought of as a box, similar to an ash urn, but it can also be a pit or a cave carved into rock. In Iran, an ossuary is called an astudan - meaning a place for the bones. In the Chorasmia / Khvarizem, the word tanbar was written on an ossuary found at Tak Kala (or Taq Qal'a). In Tajikistan, an ossuary is called astudan, ostokhandan, or assuar.

A guiding principle in Zoroastrian funerary practices, is to prevent rotting flesh from coming into contact with the soil, water, and fire. In Zoroastrian dakhmas or towers of silence, the majority of the flesh of the dead is consumed by birds and the rest disintegrates through the action of sunlight and heat. The bleached and dried bones are then placed in an ossuary. The ossuary is either a central pit in the dakhma - a communal way of disposing of the bones - or a container, tomb, pit or cave - a private method for disposing of the bones.

Private, container ossuaries were subsequently placed in the home in a niche, on a special site in a family's property, in a mausoleum as part of a necropolis, or buried.

The choice of the method: communal disposal in the dakhma's central pit ossuary or private ossuaries, seems of have differed from community to community. Orthodox and egalitarian communities such as Yazd and Kerman appear to have opted for communal disposal where rich and poor were united in death. Other communities seem to have used the optional private ossuary method for those who could afford the choice or where families had hereditary ossuaries, say caves carved out of rock hill faces. The grand example of these rock-face ossuaries were the Achaemenian royal tombs in Pars. Examples of less pretentious ossuaries are given below.

Ossuaries in Iran - Khark Island

Sassanid Ossuary Tombs in a Khark Island cliff face
Sassanid era ossuary tombs in
a Khark Island cliff face

In 2006, an archaeological team headed by Hamid Zarei discovered a hundred and six ossuary tombs dating back to the Sassanid era (224-651 CE). The ossuary tombs were found in a cliff face on the Persian Gulf Island of Khark (also spelt Kharg).

The tombs were caves dug out of the rock. The caves would have been suitable for placing the bones of the deceased after they had been removed from a tower of silence, in and ossuary or otherwise. Conceivably, bodies coated in wax might also have been placed directly in the caves. The bones that were found in the caves that been placed in a east-west direction. [The ruins of a fire temple together with a four columned domed building were also be discovered on Khark island by the team.]

On May 1, 2010, Press TV reported that archaeologists have discovered seven towers of silence and several ossuaries which they believe date back to the Sassanid era (224-651 CE), at a 5,000-year-old site near Mohr city in the far south of the province of Fars. From the very short report it appears that the ossuaries were hewn into the side of a rock slope.

Ossuaries Found in Central Asia

The earliest Zoroastrian era ossuaries found so far in ancient Khvarizem & Sughdha (Uzbekistan & Tajikistan) date back to 1,500 BCE. With the passage of time, the ossuaries became sophisticated works of art. Some were probably custom made to depict the individual of symbols important to the family. The ossuaries are of two main type: architectural ossuaries, in the shape of a building, and anthropomorphic ossuaries in the shape of a person - sometimes an animal, and sometimes both such as a man riding a horse.

Ossuaries Found in Ancient Sughdha (Uzbekistan & Tajikistan)

Samarkand Ossuaries

Ceramic Ossuary, Samarkand region, 7th-8th century
Ceramic Ossuary, Samarkand region, 7th-8th century
Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Samarkand was once a capital of Sugd (Sogd), the more modern name for ancient Sughdha, the second nation of the Vendidad.

The ossuary shown here is featured on the website at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

According to the description in the website, the scene on the side of this 6-7th century CE ossuary depicts a Zoroastrian fire altar, and the figures beside the fire are a "priest and his assistant wearing masks to maintain the purity of the sacred fire." The shape of the fire altar is a common shape that is seen elsewhere including on coins.

All the figures portrayed on the ossuary hold in their hands, objects similar to a barsom - a bundle of twigs or a single twig. In Zoroastrianism, the barsom and haoma are associated with Amertat - immortality.

The ossuary is in the shape of a mausoleum. The roof of the building forms the lid. The size has not been stated but it would be large enough to hold all the skeletal bones and skull.

The 6th-7th century CE date of the ossuary is just before the Arab invasion of the area and the conversion of the residents to Islam. The use of ossuaries declined after the invasion and soon stopped.

Ossuaries Found in Ancient Khvarizem (Uzbekistan)

Koykrylgan Kala (Karakalpakstan) Ossuaries

Numerous ossuaries have been found in the Karakalpakstan - the land of ancient Khvarizem. One of the sites where ossuaries have been found is Koykrylgan Kala. Kala means fortress and Koykrylgan Kala are the ruins of an ancient Khvarizemi fortress dating back to the 4th century BCE.

The defining feature of ossuaries from this locale is that many were hollow ceramic vessels in the shape of people and animals, known to archaeologists as statue vessels. The base of a statue vessel would be a hollow vessel made on a potter's wheel, while the lid would be a solid moulded head. A jar with a lion's head at the juncture of handle and rim was particularly common.

The ossuaries were often painted and among the painted motifs the spiral was used commonly while the shoulders of vessels are often ringed with red triangles.

Ceramic masks have also been found together with the ossuaries, though their function is not known.

In the 2nd century CE, statue ossuaries came into use. Here the entire ossuary - not just the head - was sculpted, most commonly as a hollow female figure sitting on a rectangular box base, or a man sitting with his feet crossed.

Toprak Kala (Karakalpakstan) Ossuaries

Lid of an ossuary in the shape of a man's head from Toprak Kala
Lid of an ossuary in the shape of a man's head
from Toprak Kala 3-4 cent. BCE

The image to the left is a solid moulded man's head of a statue ossuary found at Toprak Kala in Karakalpakstan. The base of the ossuary was a hollow vessel in the shape of a man sitting on the armchair.

The features of the head are of interest to us. The figures wears the pointed cap of a Saka. The face had a bread starting with a short tuft under the lower lip and a broad beard on the chin. A diadem, which formed the rim of the cap headdress curiously had shapes of animal ears.

Other males figures are made wearing scull caps.

At the Karakalpak State Art Museum by Savitsky is a box-shaped ossuary from the 6th century CE. It was found in Mizdahkan's necropolis. There is a relief scene on its walls depicting a lion between two stylized pomegranate trees, symmetrically located on both sides of composition. The image of the lion is realistic and detailed. Lions are not found in that part of the world though they could have been hunted to extinction.

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