For some reason, I can't find the photos of Scythian art I'd
wanted to scan. They must be buried around here someplace.
So for now I'm going to put in a link, which has some interesting history about these fascinating people.
They were tremendous artists, especially in gold. And as you see their territory abuts and in some cases overlaps with the Caucasus.
I did find a picture of a very old textile, just a small black & white photo, which I'll scan & post - but I'd prefer to see if I can find a good picture of their work as well.
So, enjoy the link!
A couple great Scythian links
A quick note from work. The Hermitage Museum in Moscow has a GREAT web site and a lot of information on Central Asian cultures. A quick look at the tattoos these folks had and Conan The Barbarian starts looking like a better movie.
5th Century B.C. Felt Saddle Cover (note the Well Drawn critter):http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/imgs_En/03/artwork/e3_2_7a_early_nomads.jpg
I Found Some Pictures!
Chuck - those are AWESOME. Wow - full of life.
I also found some pictures. I made scans, which I'll email to Steve.
A couple more links
Here is the general link for the Hermitage Scythians page:
Probably the broadest selection of online images that I'v found, with jewelry, textiles, metalwork, etc.:
And the most INCREDIBLE dragon piece!!:
Finally, a painted felt that is quite notable:
Some amazing stuff, by the folks that forced the army of the Persian emperor Darius [CHW 2/21/02 No, not Darius. It was Cyrus the Great. Darius came later, at the Danube west of the Ukraine] to abandon its attempt to conquer Central Asia north of the Syr Darya AND found time to be nomadic as well. (But then, the Mongol hordes were nomadic in their own funny little way as well; rather different from your average Shahsavan herders, though. What EXACTLY do the historians mean when they say nomadic ?)
I hope Yon understands where I was going with my question. Consider the nature of native art form in South, Central, and southwest North America. Throughout the centuries, the same geometries, colors, and zoomorphs have persisted despite the best efforts of the Catholic Spaniards to delete the pagan ritualism from the culture. Frequently, their solution was to delete the culture. And look at the impact of U.S.ization !! I admit that native American art is probably losing ground to modernity, but the last time I was in Albequerque it was still going strong.
So how is it that artwork like this just disappeared from the region ? The Scythians eventually made peace with the Persians; there's even one of them carved into the side of the wall in Persepolis, taking a horse as a gift for the emperor (and that carving looks a LOT like the lads and their horses in the border of the Pazyryk rug. Maybe the rug was a gift from the Persians to the Scythians ?) They were active traders with the Greeks and Caucasians as well. It just seems strange that the loss of art form would be so severe. I understand a little about art; there's a difference between abstraction of form and generating stick figures. The Scythian abstractions are substantial but well done.
Your point in the other thread regarding certain religous influences is well taken, as are the points of the others. And constraints due to weaving geometries are real, if you ALLOW them to be (the Fars lion rugs are pretty quirky, but they're a long way from stick figures).
I will try to go over the Salon mentioned by Yon, soon.
And finally, one last dragon thing; an image of a Beshiri rug border element that I will look at with one eye cocked from now on...
Whoa - what a dragon! He's AMAZING.
Do you have and ideas whether this was a local dragon, or was he "derived" from someplace else?
I've written a post with scans which I'll send to Steve now. I don't know that it answers all your questions but I've tried to take a crack at it. I've also played a bit of the "devil's advocate", to propose the possibility of another source for the Pazyryk carpet - although it most certainly expresses the ideas found in Scythian art.
Meanwhile, don't forget to feed your elephants
You've made a number of excellent points in your posts. The references to American art - both North & South - are excellent.
Well, let me send off my post. I love their art too.
Something to remember, also, about some of the great modern Hopi pottery being made today - there is a direct connection between that work and the ancient Sityaki pottery, as I'm sure you know. But it had gotten lost until Nampeyo of Hano started working with old shards. So - lost is not necessarily lost forever,
The Scythians’ Animal Style
Since the question of Scythian art has come up, I’ve decided to start with one of their most famous pieces:
This is a section of the famous Pazyryk carpet, which was found at the gravesite of a Scythian prince. Apparently this pile carpet dates to the 4th or 5th century B.C.E. and as Chuck has pointed out, it is decorated in a very well drawn, naturalistic style.
Here’s a related felt, from the same region:
The Scythian attribution for the carpet is not accepted by all scholars. Gantzhorn, for example, believes it was made by Armenians and I’m sure there are those who would argue other parentage. Nevertheless, it’s in the style of the Scythians and we must give that some weight.
Weighing in for the Armenians, Gantzhorn states, “the Pazyryk carpet will have to be regarded as one of the first testimonies to early Armenian work, quite possibly produced in the vicinity of the old textile center of Ardashad in the south-western Caucasus.” He goes on to site the similarities between this carpet and some ancient floor mosaics made or invented by the Phyrgians. Further, he goes on, “Schurmann assumes that this carpet was made in Sakis, the capital of Scythia. . .in the workshop of Proto-Armenian craftsmen.”
And, he points to a bas relief dating to the 5th century B.C.E., which is called, “The Armenian Delegation”, and which is mounted near the stairs on the east side of the Adapana at Persepolis. Look at the poses of the men and horses, as well as the headdresses on the men and the relative size of man and horse.
At this point in history, most of the art of the Mediterranean World and the Middle East, including Persia, was also influenced by the art of Ancient Greece. So striking are some of the details of the Adapana in Persepolis – the columns for example – that we are immediately reminded of the Athenians and their work. And in turn, Greek art was influenced by the Oriental. Cyrus the Great of Persia had swallowed and incorporated several Greek cities in Asia Minor into his empire in 546 BCE. In 480 BCE, Athens was destroyed. Finally, however, an alliance of Greek city-states led by Athens and Sparta managed to repel the Persians from the Pelleponis.
Was it impossible for the Scythians, a nomadic, horse-mounted group, to have woven the Pazyryk carpet? Quite probably, I think, they did make the felt. And Turkoman weavers can make pile carpets – so why not the Scythians?
Well, we don’t know that they didn’t! We do know, however, that the links to the Armenians are apparently quite strong and that Herodotus wrote something on the subject of elaborate funerary carpets being ordered well in advance of one’s demise, from workshops that specialized in this type of work. So it does seem unlikely if not impossible that the carpet was actually the work of a nomadic people.
And as far as the apparently very old age of this carpet is concerned: it must be remembered that 400-500 BCE is not “old” – not in terms of human history. People first started domesticating animals and plants perhaps 12,000 years BCE – ample time for civilizations to have risen and fallen, and for carpet art of this refinement to have been developed and made, commercially, in city workshops. Think about that: in “our” time – Christian era time – we have lived only about 2,000 years. Before Jesus was born, more than THREE THOUSAND years before Jesus was born – the cultures of Egypt, China and the Semitic people were well along in development. And that still leaves another EIGHT TO NINE THOUSAND YEARS to account for, during which time we have no written records that we know of, at all.
Hopefully, we are beginning to see how difficult it can be to make attributions, and how many influences can come into play when we are discussing sources for design inspiration.
Let’s look at a couple of Persian pieces, both of which are considerably older than the Pazyryk Carpet or the Adapana.
I wanted to show you this cup because it’s beautiful, but also because I think it exemplifies exactly the type of “modernistic”, semi-geometric, semi-naturalistic design we so often see on tribal carpets. One can tell the creature is a goat with large horns, yet the forms have been abstracted to the point where the goat becomes almost more of an abstract symbol for a goat than a “realistic” impression of one. And yet, look how evocative he is! The artist has captured his majestic horns, the beard on his chin, the turn of his head, the jut of his hipbones. To a person familiar with goats, this one perfectly captures the idea of ‘RAM’. And, he was made in Persia, 4000 years BCE.
Here’s a later piece, from Sumeria – thank you, Jane, for reminding me about this type of work! This is a cylinder seal – an impression has been made of it so you can see the designs in flat form. It dates from about 2500 BCE.
As you can see, this piece seems to exhibit a more naturalistic sort of rendering than the painting on the cup. However, pay close attention and you’ll see it’s still quite stylized: the three dimensional nature of the design has given an IMPRESSION of naturalism – realism - yet the figures are still quite abstract.
Nevertheless, the piece shows that this artist, like the painter of the goat, was paying close attention to real people and real animals. These are no stick figures – rather, they appear to have been made following a period of close examination to nature, to the way creatures move, the way their bones and flesh are put together. The whole piece moves like a dance.
Here’s another, of particular interest I think to rug collectors. It’s Persian, from the 7th or 8th century BCE.
This bas-relief shows a woman spinning. She is seating on a chair with lion feet and before her is a plate – perhaps an offering, with a fish. Just visible in the lower right hand corner is a flounce – perhaps the bottom of a skirt of the type worn by deities. This may be a symbolic scene, a woman preparing an offering for a god or goddess; or it may be a domestic scene of a woman spinning. We just don’t know – but clearly, a woman spinning implies a woman weaving. Perhaps she was preparing to make a carpet?
Now that we’ve “set the stage”, showing a bit of the history and culture of the region to the west and south of the Scythians, let’s take a look a some of their art and that of their fellow artists in the “animal style”.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
First, a necklace graced with tigers:
Now a series of stags:
Finally, a winged snowleopard and a goat.
I think you’ll agree these represent art of great beauty and naturalism, while remaining decorative and abstract in some details, such as the wonderful horns of the deer. They capture the power and grace of the creatures who lived on the steppes and in the forests, creatures who would have been of great importance to these nomadic horsemen. So what happened to this style of art? Why has it apparently disappeared from the art of Central Asia and the Caucasus, at least in textiles?
First – check this out:
This is apparently a slit-tapestry flat weave showing a reindeer or a stag – very much in the style of the Scythian gold pieces. He’s from The Abegg-Stiftungs exhibit, “Fabulous Creatures of the Desert Sands” – and he was found in the Taklamakan Desert excavations in Northwest China. This exhibit & the picture were featured in Hali, July-August 2001.
So I think it’s possible that these animals did find their way into Central Asia, possibly even Caucasian-region art – but that they’re so old they’ve been lost to us – at least so far. And this picture illustrates something else as well: this type of curvilinear work is not natural to weaving. It can be done – but how much easier, how much more natural it is to render these creatures in molten gold or in paint on panel? Again, I want to stress that the geometric nature of the warp and weft, makes geometric expression vastly easier. The modernist esthetic would argue that it’s more pure, more appropriate to the medium. And again, I obviously do not feel that geometric art is necessarily less good than figurative art. It’s just different.
However – let’s get back to the animal style.
After that – the sheer difficulty of making these animals in carpet media - I think we have to consider the effect of the Mongols, as Chuck has suggested. A great deal of chaos was created by these invaders, and a lot of change. But even before them two other things happened to change the course of people’s lives: Islam, and what I suspect to have been the growing number of settled areas in the region of the Caspian Sea – since that’s the region we’re discussing, we’ll simply mention those.
Sometimes I want to laugh when I think about the “Islamic Prohibitions” of figurative art. So much beautiful, figurative work was, after all, created by them or by people working under their rule. And yet, we can’t ignore that factor, particularly among rural people who might not have had much of a background in making figurative art to begin with and who might, secondly, have taken their religion very seriously.
And, people who had practiced “pagan” or animistic – shamanistic – religions – religions in which animals and plants were each considered to have individual spirits – would have valued and prized animals very highly. They would have admired their beauty and their power and would naturally have created art based on this theme. Both wild and domestic animals would have been considered precious.
Also, to a nomadic, semi-pastoral, hunter-gatherer group – animals were life itself. The tigers of the Siberian forest, the deer, the snow-leopards – each was a spiritual creature, having metaphysical powers in the animist belief-system. And each animal was precious as well, for providing food and clothing to the people who lived in their midst.
As people became more agricultural and citified, as in the Caucasus, and as they converted to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam – they would have acquired a very different set of values concerning animals. Animals are not considered spiritual creatures and worshipping them or considering them equals is expressly forbidden. Perhaps symbolic, stick-figure animals were OK and “naturalistic” animals could have been considered IDOLS, and therefore forbidden.
But the simple fact of becoming villagers or city people would have played, I think, a greater role in people’s value systems. In a town or city one doesn’t see wild bears or stags; one would never encounter a real leopard. Even horses would be stabled or penned, they wouldn’t be running free, skimming the grass like birds. The essence of animals would be lost. It would be forgotten as people dealt with their day-to-day lives, in a world of buildings and tame dogs and other people. The glories of hunting would remain the province of rich people and kings, who would commission carpets reflecting beauty of animals and the glories of the wild garden.
People in cities and towns become specialists. We do this specialized task, we do that. Very few of us do our own food gathering, our own tent-making, our own animal husbandry, our own art. We wouldn’t have a clue how to care for a herd of sheep, or tame a young mare. We would gain comfort and security but we would lose too. We would lose a sense of fullness, a sense of being connected to nature and to other living beings.
People would be changed – fundamentally changed – when they became semi-nomadic or moved into towns and became “civilized”. And their art would change as well.
And yet, I would argue that some of the old animal style remains. Look at this embroidery. It’s full of life, full of organic vigor. It isn’t figurative, but it moves, it’s alive. This is one Christoph Huber featured in Hali, May-June 2001.
Again, we see another technical aspect of curvilinear art coming into play: it’s vastly easier to do in needlework than in a woven carpet.
Now look at this former “Orient Star”. This is dated to the 18th century. I’m sure we’ll get some disagreement from the Blossom Brigade, but to me this rug looks – feels – staglike. Look at the closeup:
Don’t these forms seem reminiscent of antlers?
And all was not forever lost – for the Celtic people, who lived in the region of Asia Minor, migrated to Ireland. And look what they made:
Gantzhorn says the Greek Chi and Ro forms, which are a symbol of Jesus, form a lion:
I can’t see him myself – perhaps he’s hiding. But the vigor, the curvilinear form, the power and sense of a growing thing – slipped out of Asia and into the West. The Scythian artists weren’t forgotten. The beauty they created flourished anew, in a faraway land, where the people loved poets and warriors, horses and ghosts.
And the Caucasians? Look at the splendid things they made, from their own minds, in their own style:
Sigh. I think their art is magnificent. But I feel a little sad, for all those magnificent creatures of the steppes and forests, for all those brave people, the things they made, the dreams they dreamed. And I feel a little sad for us, who live in cities, and have forgotten the taste of snow, the sense of kinship with a wild raven, the excitement of tracking a creature and finding where she made her kill, the warmth and solidity of a horse’s curving flank.
Time for a little Yeats – this, the final verse of The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 1939:
“Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
Love That Slitweave
Thanks for the effort you put into your post, I really enjoyed it.
The citification issue looms large on my list of things that caused the disappearance of widespread use of the Scythian style. I think it is as much a response to relentless invasions as anything else; eventually populations just give up and move somewhere else (i.e. Turkmenistan ---> Afghanistan ---> Pakistan). It's easy to believe that when they do finally flee, the opportunity to remain pastoral without more fighting over grazing rights, etc, presents itself infrequently. So, they settle in some village or city and adopt a new way of life.
Whether the Mongols wiped out the indigenous steppe cultures, assimilated them, or forced them to flee doesn't much matter. They had their negative impact. And I suppose the Islamic invasions cleared out a lot of the stragglers, though as you point out, much of the Islamic world of the time had no problem with images of people or animals.
As for Gantzhorn and his ideas, ...maybe. He's done the research so I won't throw rocks, but I don't think I buy the Armenian case. If it wasn't woven by the Scythians themselves, I think the next most likely source is the Persians. Gantzhorn makes a big thing out of the Armenians on the wall of the Apadana staircase. There were LOTS of other peoples "etched in stone" there, too. Those with similar poses, and with their horsies too, include:Thracians, Libyans, Indians, Sogdians, Sargatians, Cappadocians, Armenians, and guess who ???
And thumbnail, top row (note the horse)
But that's another salon (and probably not the first)...
I REALLY love seeing that flatweave. Now the mind goes to work: Scythians that leaked over the mountains into East Turkestan ? A war bride dragged back by the Mongols ? Evidence that the Mongol horde sacking procedure includes an option to KEEP some of the goods rather than just burning everything in sight ??
And the REALLY good eye for design that the weaver had.. wow!
Regarding what's OLD, have you seen the information coming out of the digs in the Czech Republic ? Impressions in clay of woven fibers, a mere 27,000 years old, the Paleolithic.
I've enjoyed this exercise; it looks like you have, too.
One last thing for this reply: Is it still a winged snow leopard if it's looking for a quick bite on the wall of a Persian emperor's palace ?
Sophia, this post is very neat indeed. Your best yet, in my
Hi Stephen! Thank you!
And Chuck - what an amazing post. Yo - who are the dudes in the KKK suits?! Etc.(!)
The information that people may have been weaving 27,000 years ago is astonishing, but in line with what I've been reading about an ancient European culture. I think we are going to have to revise our ideas about history, yes?
Also - I wanted to mention the Number 2 Stag in the pictures above: see, he is actually a composite animal. If you look closely you will see he's actually a cat, with a long tail and claws and the muscular structure of a feline. Yet he has those fabulous antlers.
So I think he's combining the features of predator and prey - as well as being beautiful he may be telling us something about the steppe/forest artist's conception of the nature, of the interdependability of her parts.
The mention of nets in the Czech post made me remember that the Anasazi women wove hunting nets from their own hair.