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. The nomads were looked down on 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 dispelled notions that nomadic societies were less developed. 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 with powerful foreign neighbors like the Persians and Chinese.
Archaeological discoveries dispel the notion that nomadic societies were less developed than sedentary ones. Burial mound in eastern Kazakhstan. A drawing showing the construction of a burial mound, called a kurgan. Zainolla S. Samashev / Margulan Institute of Archaeology
Some of the most illuminating discoveries are coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near 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.
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 can be seen through June 3 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, on loan from Kazakhstan's four national museums.
Two 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. Artifacts from recent kurgan digs include gold pieces; carved wood and horn; a leather saddle; a leather pillow; 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 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."
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."
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 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.
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.
The nomads of the first millennium B.C. never failed to apply imaginative touches to the foreign artifacts they acquired. Dr. Chi 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.