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Bactrian Gold and Lapis Necklace, Western Asiatic, 3rd-2nd Millennium B.C., Gold tube and lapis bead, L: 48cm © David Aaron

The ancient kingdom of Bactria lay between the Amu Darya river in the West, and the mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and Pamirs to the East, in what is modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. During the third and second millennia B.C., this expanse of plain grew wealthy as an oasis, flourishing on an intersection of the silk trade routes from India and China to the Mediterranean.[1] Little is known of this enigmatic kingdom, yet a rich material culture survives it, including ornaments and jewellery pieces of extraordinary beauty. 

his beautiful necklace is made up of long gold tube beads alternating with beads of lapis lazuli. The lapis beads are disc-like in shape, punctuating the slender string of gold beads between them. The gold tube beads are fluted, and ringed with incisions at either end. A large, particularly beautiful, cylindrical bead of lapis centres the piece – much brighter than the others in hue.  It is flanked by two biconical gold beads of beaten gold. The beads offer a sumptuously contrast between bright gold and intense blue - a combination often found in jewellery pieces from the Western Asiatic. The necklace is finished with a modern gold S-hook clasp.

The mountains of modern-day Afghanistan lay within the Bactrian kingdom, and in their remote valleys were rich mines of lapis lazuli.[2] The beautiful stone was coveted for its rarity, given the dangers and effort associated with mining it. The sophisticated design of this piece, as well as its use of lapis stones, would have been well-understood as an unequivocal statement of social position, taste and affluence. 

Many examples of worked lapis lazuli survive from the Sumerian tombs at Ur, which date similarly from the mid-second millennium B.C. The stone used for these pieces would almost certainly have been imported from mines in the mountains Afghanistan – from Ancient Bactria.[3] The taste for biconical beads and the combination of gold and lapis lazuli can be seen in a necklace in the University of Pennsylvania Archaeology Museum, found in Mesopotamia but bearing resemblance to contemporaneous Bactrian style.[4] Another in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, again from the same Bronze Age period, provides a further parallel, in stone and bead shape.[5] It is notable the burial sites at Ur are amongst the most remarkable sites from this period to survive. The graves provide a snapshot of the customs and dress of the mid-third millennium B.C. elite, and given that little survives from Afghanistan and the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, the Afghan lapis lazuli found there offers interesting context for this piece.[6] 

[1] Aruz, J., Wallenfels, R., Art of the First Cities: the third millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 347

[2] Aubet, M. E., Commerce and Colonization in the Ancient Near East, 2012, p.182

[3] Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., Metropolitan Museum, New York, p.68

[4] University of Pennsylvania Archaeology Museum, 83-7-1.5

[5] Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 33.35.48.

[6] Ligabue, G., & Salvatori, S. (eds.), Bactria: An Ancient Oasis Civilisation from the sands of Afghanistan, 1995, p.11

David Aaron, 22 Berkeley Square, London UK-W1J 6EH, United Kingdom