Ancient Greeks had a word for the people who lived on the wild, arid Eurasian steppes stretching from the Black Sea to the border of China. They were nomads, which meant “roaming about for pasture.” They were wanderers and, not infrequently, fierce mounted warriors. Essentially, they were “the other” to the agricultural and increasingly urban civilizations that emerged in the first millennium B.C.
As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves. To their literate neighbors, they were the ubiquitous and mysterious Scythians or the Saka, perhaps one and the same people. In any case, these nomads were looked down on — the other often is — as an intermediate or an arrested stage in cultural evolution. They had taken a step beyond hunter-gatherers but were well short of settling down to planting and reaping, or the more socially and economically complex life in town.
But archaeologists in recent years have moved beyond this mind-set by breaking through some of the vast silences of the Central Asian past.
PRESERVED Some of the most illuminating discoveries dispelling notions that nomadic societies were less developed than many sedentary ones are now coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders with Russia and China. Credit Z. Samashev/A. Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology, Almaty
These excavations dispel notions that nomadic societies were less developed than many sedentary ones. Grave goods from as early as the eighth century B.C. show that these people were prospering through a mobile pastoral strategy, maintaining networks of cultural exchange (not always peacefully) with powerful foreign neighbors like the Persians and later the Chinese.
A teardrop-shaped gold plaque is one of the objects that shows the strong social differentiation of nomad society. Credit Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Almaty
Some of the most illuminating discoveries supporting this revised image are now coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders with Russia and China. From the quality and workmanship of the artifacts and the number of sacrificed horses, archaeologists have concluded that these were burials of the society’s elite in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. By gift, barter or theft, they had acquired prestige goods, and in time their artisans adapted them in their own impressive artistic repertory. Almost half of the 250 objects in a new exhibition, “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” are from these burials of a people known as the Pazyryk culture. The material, much of which is on public display for the first time, can be seen at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, on loan from Kazakhstan’s four national museums. Two quietly spectacular examples are 13 gold pieces of personal adornment, known as the Zhalauli treasure of fanciful animal figures; and the Wusun diadem, a gold openwork piece with inlaid semiprecious stones from a burial in the Kargaly Valley in southern Kazakhstan. The diadem blends nomad and Chinese characteristics, including composite animals in the Scytho-Siberian style and a horned dragon in an undulating cloudscape.
Artifacts from recent kurgan digs include gold pieces; carved wood and horn; a leather saddle; a leather pillow for the deceased’s head; and textiles, ceramics and bronzes. Archaeologists said the abundance of prestige goods in the burials showed the strong social differentiation of nomad society.
Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s chief curator, writes in the exhibit’s catalog, published by Princeton University Press, that the collection portrays “a world of nomadic groups that, far from being underdeveloped, fused distinct patterns of mobility with apparently sophisticated ritual practices expressive of a close connection to the natural world, to complex burial practices and to established networks and contacts with the outside world.”
A copper alloy tray on a conical stand with an archer at center. Credit Viktor Kharchenko/Museum of Archaeology of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Almaty
Walking through the exhibit, Dr. Chi pointed to nomad treasures, remarking, “The popular perception of these people as mere wanderers has not caught up with the new scholarship.”Excavation at the Altai kurgans, near the village of Berel, was begun in 1998 by a team led by Zainolla S. Samashev, director of the Margulan Institute of Archaeology, on a natural terrace above the Bukhtarma River. Some work had been done there by Russians in the 19th century. But the four long lines of kurgans, at least 70 clearly visible, invited more systematic exploration. Of the 24 Berel kurgans investigated so far, Dr. Samashev said in an interview, the two he started with were among the largest. The mounds, about 100 feet in diameter, rise about 10 to 15 feet above the surrounding surface. The pit itself is about 13 feet deep and lined with logs. At the base of Kurgan 11, he said, the arrangement of huge stones let the cold air in but not out.
This and other physical aspects of the pits created permafrost, which preserved much of the organic matter in the graves — though looting long ago disturbed permafrost conditions. Still, enough survived of bones, hair, nails and some flesh to tell that some of the bodies had tattoos and had been embalmed. Hair of the buried men had been cut short and covered with wigs. The Kazakh conservator of the artifacts, Altynbekov Krym, said that remains in several kurgans were a challenge. “Everything was jumbled together, getting moldy almost immediately,” he said, and that it “took six years experimenting to create a new methodology to clean and preserve the material.”
An embroidery of a winged bull. Credit A. Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology, Almaty
Dr. Samashev said that his international crew, which is limited by climate to summer work, had excavated at least one kurgan a year. Several were burials of lesser figures. These were usually only a man and one horse. Kurgan 11 had a man who apparently met a violent death in his 30s; a woman who died later; and 13 horses, dressed in formal regalia before they were sacrificed. So many horses, found in a separate section of the pit, affirmed the man’s lofty social status. Their leather saddles with embroidered cloth survived, as well as bridle and other tack decorated with plaques of real and mythical animals — like griffins, which had the body of a tiger or lion with wings and the head of a bird.
Soren Stark, an assistant professor of Central Asian art and archaeology at the N.Y.U. institute, said networks of contacts with the outside world were crucial to the political structure of the people throughout the Altai and Tianshan Mountains. On the most basic level, they moved with the seasons by horse and camel, tending the flocks of sheep and goats that gave them the meat, milk, wool and hides of their pastoral economy. To make the most out of grasslands that were only seasonally productive, they went in small family groups into the highland meadows for summer grazing and returned to the lowlands in winter. They crossed broad plains to avoid overgrazing any one marginal pasture.
A drawing showing the construction of a kurgan. Credit V. Efimov/A. Kh Margulan Institute of Archaeology
At their late autumn and winter campsites, herders assembled in large groups and engaged in tribal hunts and rituals. The exhibition includes bronze caldrons, presumably for preparing communal feasts, and several bronze stands, including one with a seated man holding a cup and facing a horse, that have the experts puzzled. Equally enigmatic are the symbols on rock faces that perhaps mark sacred places. From the camps, parties of mounted warriors set out to raid settlements, both to supplement their meager resources and to obtain luxury goods coveted by their leaders. Dr. Stark said the nomad elite considered such goods necessities to be displayed and distributed to key followers “to build up and sustain their political power.”
As their networks widened, foreign influences, notably Persian, began to appear in nomadic artifacts from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. The griffin, for example, originated in the West by way of the Persian Empire, centered in what is now Iran; the nomads modified it to have two heads of birds of prey topped by elk horns.
A feline face and stylized ornaments from horse tack, made of wood, tin and gold foil. Credit Viktor Kharchenko/The Presidential Center of Culture of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Astana
Beginning in the third century B.C., Chinese luxury items, like the Wusun diadem, appeared in nomad burials, mainly associated with Han dynasty. According to Chinese accounts, the Wusun nomads may have furthered contacts between Central Asian nomads and Han China, at the time expanding westward and in need of horses in its campaign against borderland rivals.
For all their networking, the nomads of the first millennium B.C. never failed to apply imaginative touches to the foreign artifacts they acquired. Dr. Chi, the curator, said the nomads transformed others’ fantastic animals into even more fantastic versions: boars curled in teardrop shapes and griffins that seemed to change their parts in a single image.
By these enigmatic symbols, a prewriting culture communicated its worldview from a vast and ungenerous land that it could never fully tame — any more than these people of the horse were ever ready to settle down.
Correction: March 14, 2012 - An article on Tuesday about the excavation of nomads’ burial mounds in Kazakhstan misspelled the name of the society whose artifacts are the focus of the “Nomads and Networks” exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. It is the Pazyryk society, not Pazyrk.
“Nomads and Networks” will continue through June 3 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th Street, Manhattan. Information is at isaw.nyu.edu.
05 March 2017 1260 views