Accepted paper:

Achieving Ancestorhood: The Reused Burials in the Peripheries of the Bukhara Oasis (Uzbekistan)


Shujing Wang (New York University)

Paper abstract:

This paper investigates the reused burials in the peripheries of the Bukhara Oasis in present-day central Uzbekistan. Around 200 burials have been excavated in this region between the early 1950ies and the late 1970ies. Conventionally, these burials near Bukhara are understood as burial mounds of pastoral nomads from the steppe, mainly because 1) these burials are located at the fringes of the intensively farmed river oasis adjacent to the desert steppe; 2) these burials are kurgan burials (i.e. burials with an aboveground mound), the construction of which has been adopted in the pastoral world of Central Eurasia as early as the Bronze Age (c.a. 4th to early 1st millennium BCE). However, in this paper, I argue that kurgan burials around Bukhara have been adopted by both pastoralists and sedentary groups, through the analysis of the reuse of burials, the mortuary practice of which is still understudied in Central Asian archaeology. Based on the new archaeological data collected from my scientific excavations in 2017 and 2018, as well as the reassessment of published and unpublished reports, photos, and field diaries, the development of reused burials in the Bukhara region can be reconstructed. In the first stage (ca. 3rd century BCE. to 1st century CE), the skeletons of previous deceased were piled to the side of burial chambers, whereas the new tomb occupants were located in the middle of the vault. In the second phase (ca. 2nd to 4th centuries CE), the later entombed deceased was located in a new type of burial furniture—pottery ossuaries (i.e. bone containers), which are associated with the Zoroastrian belief among the sedentary residents in the oasis. Moreover, these wheel-made ossuaries are of good quality and must have been produced in the oasis. In the last phase (ca. 5th to 7th centuries CE), large ossuaries with the bones of the later deceased were found in or right beneath the kurgan mounds. Therefore, I argue that the reuse of kurgan burials, especially in the last two stages, indicates to the burial practice of settled population in the oasis commemorating their ancestors from the steppe; meanwhile, the borderland of oasis should not be considered as a dividing line between nomads and their sedentary counterparts but an interactive zone of both groups.

panel HIS-19
Early History and Archeology