Sultan Palace Merv

List of main ivory objects found at Gonur Depe (up to 2008 field season) or objects found together with ivory objects

Ivory Stick-dice (6), Ivory Comb (2), Ivory Gaming board (4), Ivory Gaming pieces (3), Ivory Spoon (1), Ivory Winding snake (1), Ivory Decorated discs (3), Ivory Decorated, plaques (2), Ivory Elephant tusk (1), Ivory Cosmetic spatula (1).

Main list of associated finds, revealed together with ivory objects at Gonur Depe (Main Necropolis, Royal Sanctuary, Northern burial ground, Southwestern burial ground)

Unfinished steatite statue of a kneeling man, Large ceramic jars (30), Ceramic vessels (65), Terracotta figurine (1), Stone vessel (2), Stone beads (4), Stone composite, statuette (3), Stone miniature columns (3), Stone cosmetic bottle (3), Stone plate (1), Stone discs (3), Stone scepter (2), Stone horse figurine (1), Stone animal figurines (1), Ram stone sculpture (1), Stone arrowheads (6), Stone container (1), Stone needles, Gold vessels (4), Gold beads (3), Gold bangle (1), Semiprecious stone and gold beads (1), Semiprecious stone and gold flower (1), Silver vessels (22), Silver cosmetic bottle (1), Silver bangle (1), Silver earring (1), Silver spoon (1), Silver pin (1), Silver trumpet (1) Silver hairpin (1), Bronze vessels (15), Bronze bowl (1), Bronze kidney shaped vessels (1), Bronze mace-heads (2), Bronze seal (2), Bronze hairpins (2), Bronze mirror (6), Bronze cosmetic bottle (2), Bronze funnel (1), Bronze knife (1), Bronze spear (1), Bronze and semiprecious stone beads (1), Bronze dagger (1), Bronze mirror (3), Bronze harpoons (2), Bronze bangles (1), Bronze ring (1), Bronze and stone bracelet (1) Bronze axe (1), Bronze cosmetic spatula (1), Faience vessel (1), Faience bangles (3) Faience cosmetic bottle (1), Flint arrowheads (140), Bone arrowheads (3), Double necklace of semiprecious stone beads and silver pendants (1), Semiprecious stone beads (3), Miscellaneous bronze items (5), Large section of elephant tusk, 11 cm long, 15-17 cm diameter.

The artifacts made from Asian elephant ivory found at Gonur Depe mainly belong to the spheres of personal care, gaming or divination. A few miscellaneous objects of still unknown use that might have been part of furniture or used as ritual or cultic paraphernalia. They have been discovered almost exclusively in elite funerary contexts as part of affluent grave goods and in one case, in a room of the so called Royal Sanctuary complex. It appears evident that the objects carved from Asian elephant tusks were regarded as distinctive symbols of the higher social and economic status. Sarianidi found two ivory combs, one in the Main Necropolis (11 X 10.50 cm, undecorated, with a crescent shaped handle). Another comb found in the Western micro complex of the Royal Sanctuary at Gonur North (12 X 8.50 cm, had a crescent shaped handle, likely flattened after its breaking, decorated on both sides with a series of five dot-in-circles motifs and one dot-in-circles at the end of the wide lateral projections that protect the teeth of the comb). Both combs created with a metal saw, 0,8 – 1 mm thick, the marks of which are still clearly visible on the sides of the teeth.

Ivory combs, often decorated with dot-in-circles motifs, have been found at Indus sites. They are also found in southeastern Arabia at Ras Al-Jinz, Tell Abraq and Bat. Similar combs, but made from wood and often undecorated, have been found at sites in northern Bactria and in southeastern Iran at Bampur and Shahr-I Sokhta. The discovery of combs still in place on the head of the deceased in graves at Tell Abraq and Shakhr-I Sokhta testifies to their use as headdresses.

Combs in ivory, but probably also in bone and wood, were exceptional and highly prized items in Bronze Age sites across Middle and South Asia as is confirmed also by textual sources. Their rarity and the common use of dot-in-circles decorative motifs make it difficult to distinct between the regions of productions of combs, preventing from the possible reconstruction of exchange patterns. However, two combs are very similar in shape – to the one from Gonur necropolis - found in collective grave at Tell Abraq (late third millennium BCE), were decorated with floral motif of a long-stemmed tulip identical to the one carved  on a stone flask from Bactria and on a vessel from Gonur Depe. These discoveries from Tell Abraq testify to the local production (or reworking) of ivory combs at Oxus Civilization sites, including possibly also Gonur Depe.

A large spatula, 30 cm long found at Gonur Depe, possibly used for cosmetics or for mixing liquids, ointments or powders, manufactured following local shapes and art styles. Its 15 cm long handle was fashioned and finely decorated in bas-relief on both sides to reproduce a chimeric winged creature, with a snakehead and lion body, devouring a cow. This motif has strong parallels in the polychrome mosaics that decorated several graves of the Gonur necropolis. Another find of an undecorated spatula was probably also produced locally.

A small ivory spoon found in the Royal Necropolis at Gonur North, has the end of its handle carved in the characteristic local shape of a fist. It might have also belonged to the sphere of personal care and was possibly used for dosing cosmetic powders or medicines.

At Indus Valley sites and at Gonur Depe, a significant number of artifacts made from ivory are connected with practices of gaming or ritual divination. The distinction between gaming for amusement and ritual divination to predict the future or discriminate between different possibilities is archeologically elusive.

At Gonur North, in grave beside Royal Sanctuary, Sarianidi found what he originally interpreted as a rectangular wooden lid decorated with of hundreds of tiny ivory segments, triangles, drops and circles. As discovered, the inlays still had their original arrangement and there is no doubt those they were instead part of a gaming board for the so-called game of twenty squares, similar the ones found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur and at Shahr-I Sokhta. Direct examination of these inlays revealed that a few of them retain portions of dot-in-circles visible on the backside. Evidently, they were cut out from larger decorated objects and probably testify to the continuous reworking of ivory objects in order to maximize the exploitation of such a previous material. A similar gaming board, decorated with ivory segments and with two plaquettes carved in the form of a squatting bull. Two more comparable gaming boards in ivory, all found at Gonur North.  This type of gaming board is not very common at Indus sites, where only five broken boards of lower quality have been found so far, one each in terracotta at Lothal and Mohenjo-Daro and three in limestone at Dholavira.

According to the available archeological and textual sources, different types of dice were used with these gaming boards for playing the game of twenty squares, including sheep or ox knucklebones and tetrahedrons or four sided stick dice made of various materials.

A standardized type of four-sided stick dice in ivory, 10 to 12 cm long with a quadrangular section of 1.2 to 1.6 cm found at Gonur Depe. Three complete ivory stick-dice come from the Royal Sanctuary. At least four more dice of the same type found, entire and broken pieces, associated with other ivory objects from around Main Basin of Gonur North. Some preserved fragments of ivory stick-dice found also in the main necropolis. Visual analyses confirmed that they made of elephant ivory. The Shereger lines form in fact an average angle > 115 degrees, which is the case for extant proboscidea , including Elephas maximus.

Three complete ivory stick-dice of the same type discovered at Altyn Depe in levels dating to the late stages of Namazga V, 2200-2000 BCE. The stick dice from Gonur Depe and Altyn Depe have all the same pattern of motifs. Each of the three sides has dot-in-circles in increments from one to three, while the forth side has alternating series of transverse lines and saltire crosses or diagonal lines forming five or seven subdivisions. A similar semantic sequence, but with longitudinal parallel lines or transverse crescents on the for the side, occurs only on a few sticks found at Indus Valley sites. On the other hand, at Indus Valley sites there is a greater variety of rectangular and shaped sticks, bars and rods in ivory, all variously decorated and sometimes inscribed. These were possibly used as gaming dice, either alone or associated with boards and gaming pieces or as fortune telling sticks.

The stick –dice with incremental dot-in-circles have been found in Mesopotamia only at Ur and they have been considered of external provenance. At Shakhr-I Sokhta, in southeastern Iranian, stone stick-dice with dot-in-circles and crosses were found in both settlement area, together with a gaming board and gaming pieces, is dated to Period III. This phase dating is still a matter of debate: Italian archeologist date it between 2500-2400 BCE based on a series of calibrated radiocarbon dates and French specialists date it between 2800-2600 BCE relying on ceramic comparisons. In either case, these prototypes of stick-dice seem to appear earlier in southeastern Iran and only later in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, where cubical dice were also present in significant numbers. In the Indus Valley, gaming boards for the game of twenty squares were used along with other types of boards, very similar to the ones still used in South Asia for the Alquerque and Nine Men’s Morris strategy games, known locally as Quirkat and Sujjua. The present evidence doesn’t permit to understand whether the Oxus Civilization sites acted as a bridge over which the use of stick-dice spread across Middle Asia, but most likely they absorbed influences from different directions, typologically and for the raw materials employed.

Gaming boards and stick-dice are often found associated with various types of gaming pieces. In particular, the two stick-dice found at Altyn Depe were buried together with twelve decorated ivory plaquettes, ten square and two round. Ivory plaquettes, one octagonal and one square, have been found at Dzharkutan (old Bactria center, present -Uzbekistan) in contexts dating to the end of the third – beginning of the second millennium BC.

Identical square, round and octagonal ivory plaquettes have been discovered in several graves at Gonur Depe. They have an average size ranging between 3-4 cm and are variously decorated with oblique lines at their corners and central large concentric circles, with dot-in-circles motifs along the perimeter or completely covering their surface or with orthogonal grid patterns sometimes filled with dot-in-circles. Considering their size, which perfectly matches the squares of the gaming boards and their frequent association with ivory stick-dice, these plaquettes were presumably used as gaming pieces. A few comparable gaming pieces have also been found at Ur and Shakhr-I Sokhta, while they are quite rare at Indus sites.