Create an Amazon Business Account

Join Amazon Prime - Watch Thousands of Movies & TV Shows Anytime - Start Free Trial Now

Tamara Talbot Rice
An extract from Chapter One, pp. 36-42

Siberian gold and bronze belt buckles & plaques

   Especially closely related to the metal objects belonging to the Scytho-Altaian schools are the Siberian gold and bronze belt buckles, plaques and articles of personal adornment acquired by Peter the Great. These objects first appeared on the market in about 1669, when Russian settlers in the Ob and Irtysh districts of Siberia started to burrow into the local burial mounds in the hope of finding valuable articles, which they could either sell or melt down. By the end of the century they had broken into so many tombs that the local markets were flooded with ancient metal objects. When Peter the Great was informed of this he instantly took stern measures to put an end to the looting, at the same time giving orders that as many of the stolen objects as possible were to be acquired on his behalf. The collection which he formed is now a treasured exhibition in the Hermitage Museum.
   The belt buckles are among the most interesting objects in the collection. The majority are B-shaped and cast in bronze, but quite a number are in gold. In both cases the clasps were made separately and soldered to the plaques, the moulded designs of the former being then finished off by hand. In some cases additional decorations were carried out in gold wire or else by means of granulations or repoussé work. Occasionally buckles were adorned with cloisonné enamel, paste inlays or cabochon jewels, turquoises being used more often than other stones. Though contemporary pieces of jewellery were generally decorated with geometric motifs the buckles usually display animal designs, which are often Scythian in character. Occasionally, however, human beings appear on them instead. The animals shown are invariably those which were at the time native to Siberia, but although various species of the stag family were to be found there in large numbers and although stags frequently figure in Scythian art, almost as often in that of the Altaians, yet they seldom appear in Siberian art. Their place is often taken by the wolf (Ill. 29). generally shown as a large-eyed, snarling beast, a form which Rudenko traces back to Achaemenid art and which is found closely paralleled in such Altaian burials as Shibe and Katanda.
   The people who appear on the Siberian plaques seem to belong to different racial groups for some have Mongoloid, others Aryan, features. However, all wear clothes of similar style and since these correspond to actual garments recovered in excellent condition from the frozen burials of Pazyryk and Katanda they must be accepted as the local form of dress. A belt buckle of outstanding importance was found in the eighteenth century somewhere between the Ob and Irtysh rivers. Made of gold enhanced with polychrome incrustations, it depicts a hunt in a wood (Ill. 27). Each section of the buckle is decorated with a different scene. One shows a rider abandoning his horse in order to escape from a wild boar by climbing a tree, whilst in the distance a goat wanders in a hilly landscape; the second portion of the buckle shows him shooting the boar. This buckle is dated to somewhere between the third and first centuries BC. Another gold buckle of even greater interest was found in the same district at much the same time (Ill. 28). In this case both sides of the buckle show the same scene, though they present it in reverse. The composition is an elaborate one. It centres on a man lying asleep in the shade of a tree with his head resting on a woman's lap whilst a groom stands at his feet holding his horse. The man's gorytus hangs from a branch, of Scythian shape, but unornamented. The woman's robe is very like a fur one which was found in 1953 in a mound at Katanda whilst her curious head-dress is, according to Rudenko, similar to the peculiar wooden crowns or hats which he found at Pazyryk. It also resembles the head-dress of the Great Goddess on the remarkable felt-hanging found at Pazyryk (Ill. 30). Griaznov noticed that the horses saddle and bridle, though devoid of decorations, are similar in shape to the real articles discovered at Pazyryk. This buckle dates from between the fifth and the third centuries BC. Its style recalls many aspects of the Pazyryk school, but the horse is rendered with greater naturalism and thus conforms more closely to the Siberian convention than the Altaian. Rudenko is of the opinion that none of the buckles in Peter the Great's collection is to be dated earlier than the sixth century or later than the second century BC. Thus they fall within the Scytho-Sakian period, yet some display an obvious relationship with certain objects in the Oxus Treasure. The similarity is, however, perhaps to be ascribed to the presence in both of Achaemenid elements which were probably transmitted in each case by nomads rather than obtained through direct contacts with Persia.
   Certain Soviet scholars, notably Griaznov, have come to feel that the plaques showing human beings probably illustrate incidents from local myths. He has aptly described the Scytho-Sarmatian period in Siberia as the heroic age of Kazakstan. for he thinks that the sudden ability to ride invested the nomad's life with a glamour and excitement new to it and never again quite equalled. Horsemanship not only made war economically profitable but also rendered it psychologically exhilarating, for his mount transformed every tribesman into a warrior capable of becoming a hero. This possibility led to the glorification of individual valour and eventually resulted in the most intrepid and successful warriors being acclaimed as heroes in epics, which may well have been as stirring and magnificent as Homer's, or as gallant and spirited as those written by Firdausi or Malory. Griaznov believes that these epics lived on until the Arab invasion of Central Asia in the seventh century AD, gaining fresh vigour from the exploits of Turkish warriors. He suggests that illustrations of incidents recounted in them figure on two silver vessels dating from the middle of the first millennium AD. The first of these appears on a silver dish from Kulagysh in the Ural foothills (Ill. 31). According to the best traditions of medieval romance the two combatants shown on it have already used and discarded a number of weapons which lie broken and abandoned at their feet. The second vessel is a kovsh, which was found in the Tumen district of Russia. Its rim is decorated with figures of a rider, several animals shown in single file and four tree-like designs. The handle shows two combatants who have dismounted from their horses to continue their fight on foot. Griaznov found the same scene paralleled on two Ordos bronzes dating from the third to the first century B C (Ill.32) and the discovery led him to think that the bronze plaques showing two horses locked in fight (Ill. 33), versions of which have been found not only in the Ordos but also in the Transbaikal and Minussinsk areas, present an elaboration of this theme, the chargers continuing the contest started by their riders. In Islamic times heroic incidents of this type were often described by writers of distinction the stories which inspired them having probably been kept alive during the intervening period in the Persian world by the Persians.

Illustrations from Tamara Talbot Rice, Ancient Arts of Central Asia, 1965

27B-shaped belt buckle: The Hunt. Gold, Sarmatian, first century BC-first century AD. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
28B-shaped belt buckle: man asleep beneath a tree with horses and two people. One of a pair. Gold. Sarmatian, first century BC-first century AD. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
29Belt buckle: wolf and serpent fighting. Gold, originally inlaid with stone and paste. Siberia, first-second century AD. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
30Wall-hanging (detail): the so-called Great Goddess being approached by a rider, Reconstruction. Felt appliqué. Pazyryk, Mound 5, fifth century BC. c. 10′x 6′ (3.05 x 1.83 m). Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
31Silver dish: warriors throwing down their arms. Kulagysh. Seventh-eighth century AD. Photo: State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad
32Plaque: two men fighting, and their horses. Bronze openwork. Ordos region, c. third century BC. H. 2½″ (6.5), L. 5″ (12.8). Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, crown copyright
33Harness plaque: fighting horses. Gilt bronze openwork. Ordos region, c. first century BC. W. 4¾″ (12.0). Photo: Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum