Mulla Kurgan Ossuary

Mulla Kurgan Ossuary

Ossuary with Pyramidal Lid
Mulla Kurgan , west of Samarkand, Uzbekistan (in ancient Sogdiana), 7th century CE
Baked clay; H. 75 cm × W. 52 × D. 24
Afrasiab Museum, Samarkand.

After Sarah Stewart, ed., The Everlasting Flame. Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 100, no. 36.

In accordance with Mazdean belief that held in-ground burial to be polluting the earth, Sogdians exposed their dead to carrion-eating dogs and birds and then gathered the bones in ossuaries (“bone boxes”). Like many Sogdian ossuaries, this one, found by farmers at Mulla Kurgan, was decorated using molds stamped onto wet clay. Similar to the series of ossuaries from Durman Tepe in Uzbekistan, an arcade beneath a parapet with stepped crenels encompasses the container’s rectangular base. Beneath each arch is a Mazdean priest, his robe fastened around his waist by three encirclings of the kusti. This is the sacred belt worn to remind all Mazdeans of the ethical imperative to have “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.” The lower part of each priest’s face is protected by a mouth covering (padam), so his breath will not pollute the sacred fire. On the long sides, two priests officiate at the Afrinagan ceremony, performed on the morning of the fourth day after death. They face a stepped fire altar from which leaves appear to sprout. The standing priest holds bellows or tongs to keep the fire going, while the other priest holds short barsom bundles or sticks as he kneels to recite the Gathas, short verses believed to have been composed by Zoroaster himself; Fig. 1.

Fig. 1 Detail, lower part of the Ossuary from Mulla Kurgan: Two Mazdaean Priests Perfoming the Afrinagan Ceremony. Samarkand State Museum of History, Art and Architecture.

Image courtesy of Frantz Grenet.

The four facets of the pyramidal lid show female dancers—the two wider facets containing two dancers, the two narrower a single dancer each. Each of the six holds a plant. The dancers may represent the houris (ramenagan or “pleasure givers” mentioned in a Zoroastrian text), who dwell in paradise, or they could personify the qualities aspired to in life and the afterlife: “wholeness” or “perfection” and “immortality.” Above each pair are a crescent and a flowerlike star—the moon and the sun.

by Judith A. Lerner

Frantz Grenet, “No. 36. Mullakurgan ossuary,” in The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination, ed. Sarah Stewart (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 101.

The moon and star motifs are called the haurvatat and ameretat in the ancient Avestan language. Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012), 140.