26 • A Polished Limestone Seated Bull

Indus Valley, circa 3000 BC
Size: 11 cm long

The horns, ears and clover leaf inlays are of lapis lazuli, the eyes are inlaid with shell, polished black chlorite and lapis lazuli. The body of the bull is pierced with a vertical hole. Lapis lazuli was mined in ancient Bactria and exported widely, notably to Egypt and Mesopotamia. The technique of inlaying stone in this way was also used over a wide area, with examples known from Susa, Bactria and the Indus Valley, the latter being the most likely origin of this example.

A report of the scientific examination by Striptwist Laboratory is available.


The ancient land of Bactria lay in north-west Afghanistan, with its capital city of Balkh ‘the Mother of Cities’. Cut off to the south by the Hindu Kush mountains and to the east by the Pamirs, it stretched out westwards into the steppes of Central Asia. It was an oasis culture that flourished along the rivers in Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. At its heart was Margiana, at the broad Murgab river delta, and the great city of Merv. It is hard for us to imagine the sophistication of such a culture, so remote, so apparently discombobulated over such a wide area. And yet it was artistically innovative and diverse, as the objects that follow show, dating from the Middle–Late Bronze Age of the 3rd millennium bc to the Hellenistic and later Roman-Gandhara periods of production. One reason was the early immigration from the Kopet Dag and Tejen oasis system, bringing irrigation techniques and material culture. There were rich mineral lodes, gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, gemstones, lapis lazuli and turquoise. Far from being cut off and remote, these oasis communities were the vital trade link between the Indus Valley, Iran and Mesopotamia; they were in touch with everybody, and prospered greatly as a result. We forget that Central Asia became a pre-eminent intellectual hub, prefigured by this oasis culture, connecting India, China, the Middle East and Europe. Merv’s outer rampart ran for 155 miles, and in the Middle Ages the city employed a permanent staff of 12,000 hydraulic engineers to maintain its irrigation system.

The 1st millennium BC saw the growing power of the nomads from the north, who interfered with the peaceful pursuit of trade, and who from the mid-millennium became locked in a struggle with the dominant Achaemenid Empire of Persia. The great artistic contribution of the nomads was the beguilingly beautiful ‘Animal Style’, which they spread from the borders of China to the Crimea. Alexander the Great brought Hellenism to Bactria in the later 4th century bc, followed by the Indo-Greek satrapies, and the close links forged with the Roman Empire in the early centuries AD. These different phases are eloquently illustrated by the works of art that follow.