Véronique Schiltz, member of the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, delivered a fascinating lecture on ancient nomadic jewellery, highlighting the spirit and soul of these treasures, at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre last Monday evening, as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.
Schiltz trained as a Hellenist, and following the steps of Herodotus on the northern shores of the Black Sea, became a specialist of Scythian art. She has been the curator of many exhibitions (“From the Lands of the Scythians,” New York and “Or des Scythes” Paris). Her publications include: La redécouverte de l’art des Scythes (1992), and Les Scythes et les nomades des steppes (1994) Gallimard.
In her lecture on ‘Ancient Nomadic Jewellery’, she said that in ancient times, between the Danube and the Yellow River, from the edge of the Siberian taiga to Central Asia, on the immense expanses of the Eurasian steppes alternating between mountainous uplands and deserts, a very unique civilization was born.
This civilisation was of nomadic herdsmen, Scythians, Sakas, Sarmatians, who moved from place to place with their families and their flocks according to where they found grass and water. They relied on an ‘animal style’ vocabulary as a whole semiotic system, but also borrowed from neighbouring civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans, Persians, Indians, and Chinese. She said that they used a great diversity of materials, of which metal has survived best. She chose to focus on their jewellery, providing the audience a glimpse of its diversity and splendour with extensive illustrations.
The spirit and soul of nomadic art corresponds with a world without frontiers, without State or administration, an art made of transportable items. There was no architecture, no monumental sculptures except for some erected stones, and they had no money of their own. Their main goods were the cattle around and the gold they wore on themselves. Their archaeology of finery consisted of tombs and mounds.
Their art is one without frames, angles, or sharp lines, but dominated with curves. She pointed out that the main goal of nomadic art is the appropriation of space, illustrating this point with several objects from the Siberian Collection of Peter I, now in the Hermitage Museum, including a rounded plaque of a panther, belt plaques and buckles depicting hunting scenes, among others.
She pointed to the themes of hunting and fraternity depicted in the scenes. She shared that the Iyrcai lived by hunting, which they practised by waiting up a tree for game while the trained horse was taught to lie down upon its belly along with a dog. On spotting a wild animal from the tree, the hunter would shoot his arrow and mount upon his horse to pursue it, and the dog would seize hold of it.
Another object depicted the manner in which Scythians make oaths to one another. They poured wine into a great earthenware cup, mingled with the blood of the oath takers, and after invoking many curses on the breaker of the oath, they would drink it off, both they who are making the oath and the most honourable of their company.
Another object depicts a warrior resting under a tree with a quiver hanging over the tree to signify a will for intimacy. She highlighted several details of the objects such as the braided tale of the horses and cut mane, the reins and lacks of stirrups, but most importantly, the woman pictured in the scene, hunting for lice on the head of the man, in a gesture of love.
Moving to the region of Arjan, Schiltz touched upon an unlooted burial from the 6th Century BC, and discussed a sword of the region of Filippowka in the Southern Urals similar to one from Arjan. Coming to Datchi, she expounded on a burial site in the Lower Don region, discovered in 1986 not far from Azov. There was a kurgan with the grave of a warrior or a tribal king. She shared that while the burial complex had been looted, the grave-robbers failed to discover some hidden recess where the kinsmen of the deceased had placed the most valuable offerings. All these objects were packed in a blanket, precisely in a chabraque, which means a horse blanket, totally sewn with golden appliqués.
She showed the audience several objects including a bracelet with jumping rams, a dagger with a four-lobed sheath, which was originally intended to secure the weapon tightly to the upper leg so that it could not hurt the rider when galloping, but which has here obviously a ceremonial function, and several others.
Schiltz then held the attention of the audience with the treasures of Tillya Tepe. She shared that there were six graves found in Tillya Tepe. The main grave was of a man with the surround five, placed at a lower level of women. Over the grave, were found the skull and bones of a horse, the head and forelegs. She revealed that this was a typically nomadic custom — to be accompanied in the other world by at least one, or many horses.
She also highlighted another way, a strange custom, described by Herodotus as, “They strangle fifty of the finest horses; and when they have taken out their bowels and cleansed the belly, they fill it with chaff and sew it together again. Then they set the half of a wheel upon two stakes with the hollow side upwards, and the other half of the wheel upon other two stakes, and in this manner they fix a number of these; and after this they run thick stakes through the length of the horses as far as the necks, and they mount them upon the wheels; and the front pieces of wheel support the shoulders of the horses, while those behind bear up their bellies, going by the side of the thighs; and both front and hind legs hang in the air. On the horses they put bridles and bits, and stretch the bridles tight in front of them and then tie them up to pegs.” She pointed out that Ibn Battuta too would describe the same custom much later.
She informed that the wooden coffin was covered with red leather, with painted motifs in black and white, and sewn with thousands of gold appliqués. The man was tall and was buried with weapons characteristic of the nomads, especially a dagger with a four-lobed sheath, and an additional sheath for various knives. A long sword and two bows were laying apart. A folding seat on x-shaped legs adapted to nomadic way of life was also found. She remarked that all the contents were symbols of power denoting this grave to belong not to a common horseman but a knight or a warlord.
She added that his jaw was fastened with a double chin band and he wore a head covering to which were attached a golden wild ram and a golden tree, and a necklace consisting of two cables twisted with figures of 8 shaped loops, and a braided gold belt with nine medallions.
Schiltz highlighted items found in the surrounding graves of women such as a collapsible nomadic headpiece with five removable tree decorations, and a system of tubes attached to each other which could be fixed to the golden band, to the diadem and be flat for transportation, representing the “Tree of Life”, with birds on it. She touched upon a pendant found in the form of two horses, a pair of bracelets in Gold, turquoise, and carnelian, necklaces, and others.
She discussed the frequent use of the heart-shaped motif in these tombs, be it smooth or faceted, wide or long, inlaid or not, there is not a single grave where the heart was not found in some form. The heart here does not represent warm feelings but probably an ivy leaf, or peepal.
She also touched upon a pair of pendants showing the “Dragon Master” in gold, turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian, pearls, with various chains and pendants, ingeniously attached and providing a tinkling sound, adds a sonorous effect to the impressive visual aspect of the object. The two dragons with crests of turquoise droplets, their backs form a double S, their rear legs are reversed. She shared that this is a typical motif from the art of the steppes and stressed that the iconography of these pendants reflects the essence of the nomadic spirit — an attempt to seize hold of space and experience an attachment to it. She concluded her lecture by expounding on a selection of clasps, coins, medallions and other captivating objects found in the Tillya Tepe graves.