Portraits in Miniature: Glyptic Art from Bactria to Gandhara, 4th – 8th century CE

Judith Lerner

The vast geographic region that stretches from northwest Afghanistan, north of the Hindu Kush (ancient Bactria), across eastern Afghanistan and south of the Hindu Kush into Pakistan (ancient Gandhara) has long been a crossroads for the exchange of goods and ideas from the Mediterranean to the China Sea and Indian Ocean. Afghanistan, in particular, was a meeting point for travelers—traders, missionaries and pilgrims, who represented a rich and broad ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. The region had come under the successive control of different entities—Achaemenid Persians, Alexander and his Seleucid successors, nomadic Kushans, Sasanian Persians, Hunnic tribes, and Turks—each of whom also left their cultural mark; and, as a result it was home to diverse religious beliefs, most prominently Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

The last twenty years have seen an increase in scholarly interest and an expansion of knowledge of the region’s culture and history. This, in great part, has been spurred by the coming to light and subsequent decipherment of the Bactrian documents and the refinements by numismatists of the sequence of rulers known from the vast number of coins. Nevertheless, the actual history of the region from the end of the Kushana Empire to the coming of Islam—political, social and artistic—is imperfectly known. Fixed chronological points for this time span are minimal, depriving us of a clear picture of historical and cultural developments. For art history, much of the painting and sculpture of the region lacks internal evidence for dating; this has also been the case for seals, which, after coins, forms the largest category of visual documentation.

Recent discoveries and the accessibility of unpublished seal collections have provided insight into the cultural dynamics and chronology of the region. I have been privileged to study these hitherto unavailable collections, which not only contribute to our understanding of the region’s art but to the social and economic interactions among officials and others in this part of the world. My talk will survey the range of glyptics from Bactria to Gandhara and focus on the style and meaning of the predominant mode, the so-called portrait seals.

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