Sunday, 16 December 2012

Nomads of Eurasia on the Road to Empire

Fragment of wall painting depicting Buddha
13th century A.D.
Plaster and paint

On 18 June 2012, at the Hermitage-Kazan Exhibition Centre theNomads of Eurasia on the Road to Empire exhibition was opened. The exhibition consists of 2190 items from the State Hermitage Museum’s collection, encompassing the period from the first millennium B.C. to the formation of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century A.D. The exhibition is laid out in chronological order and will acquaint visitors with the particulars of the nomadic culture of the peoples of the Eurasian continent with material from archaeological digs, and also items from collectors of the late 19th to early 20th century.
Many of the items will be put on display for the very first time. These include finds at the Aimyrlyg burial ground (Tuva, 1960-1970s) and Kichmalka (Central-Caucasian Archaeological Expedition of the State Hermitage Museum, 2010).
The exhibition opens with an exposition dedicated to culture of the Scythian period, where extremely old remnants from Europe and Central Asia are found next to each other. The abundance of rich golden jewellery from royal tombs are added to by the reconstruction of burial costumes from a single undisturbed tomb of that rank, which was examined at the beginning of the 21st century, the Arzhan-2 barrow. It was here that the plates with rock paintings were found - an extremely rare for such examples of nomadic art to be displayed in museums. An axe from Kelermes made in the seventh century B.C. is one of the masterpieces from the State Hermitage Museum collection and demonstrates the early level of contact between the Scythians and the Middle East.
The next section houses a small collection of items from the Transural nomads with additional items from the Siberian collection of Peter the Great. This section shows the unique craftsmanship of the Pazyryk culture in the Altai. Made from wood, felt and leather, they were preserved in an ice lens, which formed in the deep burials. Of equal interest are the discoveries of the hunnic Noin-Ula barrow dating back 2000 years. These were brought to the State Hermitage Museum from a Mongolian expedition lead by P.K. Kozlov in the 1920s. The European items presented include workmanship by the Sarmatians who replaced the Scythians on the Black Sea steppes. The brightest complex of this period are the decorations from the extremely wealthy priestess from the Khokhlach barrow.
The Migration period (middle of the first millennium A.D.) opened a new page in the history of Eurasian nomadic tribes. Golden items were crafted in a semi-chrome style, bronze cauldrons with special shapes, adorned weapons and harnesses make up the material culture of the European Huns. During this period, Turkic tribes, the ancestors of many modern nations, appear on the historical arena. They moved from the usual nomadic life to the cities, adopting all of the achievements of sedentary agricultural societies while simultaneously preserving the specific features of nomadic culture. The word nomad itself is of historical significance as it is derived from the Ancient Greek nomades, which was their name for nomads). The stone sculptures of warriors, weapons, belts, harnesses and other items of material culture come from different places from Central Asia and show the broad influence of Turkic culture over a huge territory.
The antiquities from the Khazar Khaganate from archaeological digs from Sarkel on the Lower Don demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of the culture and a multi-ethnic population. It is from this period that the Pereshchepina Treasure dates. The find includes gold and silver jewellery, cups, richly decorated weaponry from the tomb of the Bulgarian Khan Kuvrat of the Dnieper.
At the turn of the first and second millennium in the Tian Shan foothills the Kara-Khanid Khanate was established. The expansion of Islam to Karakhanid society enabled the development of magnificent feminine ornamentation in applied art, which is shown in the subtle work of the potters, copper smiths and glassblowers.
During the middle ages the southern Russian steppes were populated by nomads of varied ethnicity. Cumans, Pechenegs, Torkils, Berendei, Chorni Klobuky did not always resemble each other in appearance. However, a section of nomads gradually drifted into a sedentary way of life. One of the best examples of monumental art of this period is displayed at the exposition, known as the Cuman Woman.
The concluding exhibition is dedicated to the Mongol Empire established by Genghis Khan, who united the huge territory of Eurasia - albeit for only a brief period. Material from archaeological digs of this state at Karakorum, and from other Mongol city centres, now studied within Russia have been put on display at this exhibition.
The Nomads of Eurasia on the Road to Empire exhibition has been created to show the wealth and the diversity of nomadic culture during its development over a huge territory and to demonstrate the possibilities and significance of archaeology. The items that archaeologists extract from the ground are evidence of human existence and give us the opportunity to experience the enduring importance of the creative and constructive activities of the nomadic world, making an invaluable contribution to global civilisation.
A fully illustrated catalog has been created for the exposition (Slavia, SPb, 2011). The exposition curator, Konstantine Vladimirovich Chugunov, is a senior researcher in the Department of Archeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia at the State Hermitage Museum.


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