The Bactrian Archives as a Source for the History and Historical Geography of Afghanistan

This month it was a pleasure to welcome Nicholas Sims-Williams to discuss the difficulties and benefits of the archives of Bactrian documents for the study of Afghanistan in the first millennium AD. These archives surfaced together in the 1990s and consist of legal documents and letters. Properly ordered, these have the potential to shed light on the administrative centres in Bactria which produced them. They also offer an insight into Bactrian language itself, hitherto only dimly understood from a limited number of coins and inscriptions. However, a central problems is converting the dates in the documents into AD equivalents and dating those documents which lack a date. Sims-Williams took us through some of the thorniest issues and the most heated of the debates surrounding the chronology of the Bactrian archives. He pointed out some ways forward by using internal references (to the Sasanian Peroz, the Hephthalites, or Arab tax documents) that helped set parameters for the dating. He then showed how the dated documents could give clues as to the period of the undated ones. Finally, he outlined some of the ways in which these documents contribute to the history and historical geography of the area between the Oxus and Kabul, such as modes of water-use, (co-)ownership of land, inheritance, as well as providing the first mention of the Afghan people in the second half of the fifth century. These Bactrian archives offer unparalleled access to the ancient centres of Rob and  Kadagstān as different ruling dynasties gain paramount authority in the region, the Kushanshahs, the Sasanians, the Hepthalites, Western Turks, and finally the Arabs. The last stages of the archives contain both Bactrian documents and Arabic tax records relating to the same local family.

Michael Willis then followed up this talk by showing some of the Bactrian artefacts housed in the British Museum. He contextualised the fine artwork on seals and coins in order to bring up questions surrounding worship, divinity and kingship, tying the works to later Vaishnavite wall carvings and inscriptions from Udaigiri and other sites.

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