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Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy
The area of Central Asia comprises parts or all of the modern states of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many of the newly independent former Soviet Republics on the southern border of Russia. It was an important area in antiquity because it was a meeting ground for the great eastern cultures of antiquity centered in Persia, Mesopotamia, India, and China. But it also developed important indigenous cultures. Some of them were nomadic, mostly to be found in the great central plains and grasslands of the region; others were settled civilizations mostly found in the western and southern fringes of the area. Both the nomads and the settled civilization produced important works of art which are only gradually beginning to be understood through archaeological excavation.
One of the most important of the settled civilization occupied the Indus Valley from about 2700 to 1750 B.C. Because its script remains undeciphered, the Indus civilization is known only from archaeological evidence. It is sometimes referred to as the Harappan civilization, named for the site of Harappa, one of its major centers. Geographically one of the most extensive early civilization of the Old World, it stretched from north of the Hindu Kush down the entire length of the Indus and beyond into peninsular India. In the west, outposts that extended almost to the present-day Iranian-Pakistani border have been found along the inhospitable Makran coast. Excavations at the important site of Mehrgarh, at the foot of the Bolan Pass, indicate that large settlements may have existed in the area as early as the 7th millennium B.C. Two thousand or more years later sites in eastern Baluchistan and the Indus Valley were larger and more numerous. At some sites archaeologist have found various distinctive ceramic objects, such as terracotta toy carts. From this evidence archaeologist speculate that there took place an early, or pre-Harappan, spread of culture from the Punjab south to the Arabian Sea.
The famous cities of the mature Indus civilization were discovered accidentally in the mid-19th century during the construction of a railroad. Archaeological excavations were not begun until the 1920s. During that decade the so-called twin capitals of Indus civilization, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, were excavated under the direction of Sir John Marshall. Recent archaeological investigation has been concentrated on documenting the beginnings of urban life in the area. The civilization appears to have declined rapidly in the early 2nd millennium B.C. Some scholars have speculated about a final massacre, possibly by conquering Aryan peoples whose epics refer to their conquest of walled cities, but others have postulated an ecological disaster as the cause.
Archaeologists have long commented on the uniformity of the material remains of the Indus civilization. Pottery forms and designs were remarkably similar throughout the vast area encompassed by the Indus civilization. Few large works of art or pieces of statuary have been discovered, except for several notable examples from Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Spears, knives, and other objects of copper and bronze have been found, but most are of rather poor quality. The most developed craft appears to have been the carving and drilling of square stamp seals that depict various domestic animals, such as humped bulls, rhinoceroses, and elephants. These seals, numbering in the thousands, are the major source of writings in the pictographic Indus script. Attempts to decipher these symbols have so far been unsuccessful. Although not common on the art market, Indus Valley objects are highly sought after by collectors.
Another important early civilization in the area was centered in Bactria. Bactria was an ancient land on both sides of the upper Oxus River, today called the Amu Darya, in present-day northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan. Bactria was important for its strategic location between China, India, and the West. The prophet Zoroaster is said to have made his first converts in Bactria and have died there. Bactria became an important province of the Achaemenid Empire, and after the conquests of Alexander III it became the center of an independent Greek kingdom whose rulers stuck fine Greek-style coins. Many interesting artifacts have also been found including seals, stone vessels and figurines, and pottery. The kingdom lasted until 128 B.C., when northern nomads overran it. Bactria then became part of the Kushan Empire and remained so until the 4th century A.D., when Sassanian governors became its rulers. The nomadic Hephthalites (White Huns) took control in the following century, ruling until the Arab conquest at the end of the 7th century. Much Bactrian art has come on the market in recent years, mostly from Afghanistan.
The Turkmen, or Turkoman, are a Central Asian ethnic group related to Anatolian Turks who are the principal nationality in Turkmenistan (Turkmenia). They probably arrived in the area about 600 A.D. They occupy a vast steppe which in antiquity was the home of nomadic peoples who, like the Lures of Persia and the Sythians of the Caspian area, created many interesting art objects. It was also an important link in the great silk caravan route to China. Now that the area is more accessible to western scholars, we will undoubtedly learn more about its art.
Gandhara was a semi-independent kingdom that flourished from the 3rd century B.C. to the 5th century in what is now northern Pakistan. It extended from present-day Rawalpindi through the Peshawar Valley to Kabul. The region was invaded by Persian rulers in the 6th century B.C. It came under Alexander the Great in 327 B.C., and was soon after captured by Chandragupta Maurya. Subsequently it fell to the Saka dynasty (Scythians) in 95 B.C., the Kushans in A.S. 48, and finally to the Muslims in the 7th to 8th century. Its main city was Taxila. Gandharan art is principally known for its Greco-Buddhist school of sculpture, but lesser arts such as pottery and glass making were also practiced. Because of its affinity to classical sculpture, Gandharan sculpture is very popular among collectors today.
Central Asian seals are found mainly from two of the cultures of the area. Perhaps the most interesting group comes from the Indus Valley culture where a large number of important seals were discovered. These may be a form of writing or may symbolize elaborate heraldic devices or standards that served to identify families and their properties from others. The other major groups come from the Bactrian area where many bronze and stone seals have been found.
Although weapons have been found in Central Asian excavations they are, with a few exceptions, mostly from the western area near Persia, and are usually poor quality.
Pottery and terracotta sculptures from central Asia range from the many interesting examples of terracotta sculpture from the Indus Valley cultures, particularly figurines and chariot models, to the characteristic pottery and stucco sculpture of Gandhara.
Some of the cultures of the Central Asian area famous for their stone sculptures such as the Gandaran culture whose sculptures, mostly executed in schist, combined elements of Classical Art with native Indian art. Others produced beautiful jewelry such as the nomadic cultures of Turkmenistan. Writing records in general do not play an important role in most Central Asian cultures with the possible exception of the Indus Valley cultures where seal inscriptions and the like seem to point to an indigenous language. However, largely because no major inscriptions have been discovered, some scholars have surmised that the characters do not represent writing in the same sense that Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics were writing.