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 . [   ] : . 1996. [ ]


/ : . 1996. 228 . ISBN 5-7754-0001-1


B. Marshak.

Treasures from the Ob basin

(Summary of the Introductory Article)


Our exhibition would be, I hope, a great event for scholars and artists because it demonstrates several unknown ancient and mediaeval masterpieces recently found in Northern Siberia and collected by the Yamalo-Nenetz District Museum in Salekhard, an arctic Russian town, and by the Muzhi Regional Museum, a branch of the District Museum. The Hermitage Museum adds its own works of art to their loan exhibits, which include several already famous pieces. All these objects, however, must be reconsidered in the light of new finds.


The exhibits from the three museums were found in the forests and tundra zone of the Ob basin. Northern natives who were hunters and trappers sold their furs, walrus and birds of prey to Muslim merchants until the mid- fourteenth century. Earlier, from the beginning of the Christian era, several Oriental silver objects penetrated into the region ( cat. nos. 1, 2). In the 7th-9th century Central Asian traders were quite familiar with the Kama valley which was closely connected with the Lower Ob basin.


Among their goods there were works of art from Mesopotamia (cat. no. 25) and Sogdia, their native land (cat. no. 26). May be, they could reach trans-Urals territories too, but regular exchange between the Siberians and their Muslim counterparts began in the 10th century when the state of the Volga Bulgars was established near the confluence of the Kama and the Volga. Turkic tribes of the Bulgars came there from the South Russian steppes after the expansion of the Khazars, another warlike Turkic people. Another group of the Bulgars moved to the Balkans and gave their name to modern Bulgaria. Among our exhibits there is a large group of local cast bronzes, ritual and magic images (nos. 3-24, 28), made between the 1st and 12th centuries. They represent the original culture of the Ugrian peoples the ancestors of the Mansi and Khanty and to some extent of the Hungarians. There are some silver cast plaques which show the influence of Central Asian models, but made by the northerners too (nos. 29-31). Highly symbolic Arctic art provokes almost surrealistic effects.


Iranian and Central Asian bronze or brass bowls and spoons were exported via the Volga-Bulgaria in 10th (or even late 9th) 11th century after the Bulgars conversion into Islam (nos. 56-58). They belong to mass production but were perfectly executed.


Iranian and Central Asian silver vessels (many of them with Arabic inscriptions) were made in the 11th century (nos. 59-64). The owners of these were sometimes very important persons, among them the ruler of Chorasmia (1030s., no. 60) or the vazir of Balkh (1050s., no. 61).


Under Central Asian impact the Hungarians (who have been moving through Eastern Europe to the region of modern Hungary during the 9th c.) developed their own metalwork (nos. 53-55). Bowls with mounted warriors betray their warlike nature (nos. 53-54). Their artistic traits lie between the almost purely ornamental art of the heathen Hungarians of the next century (known after the finds in the Danube valley) and the art of Eastern Iran and Central Asia of the early Islamic period with its royal imagery. The Hungarians were relatives of the Ob Ugrians, but their art was quite different. It reflects cultural and, may be, political interests of Hungarian nobles of the period of transition from nomadic tribal life to a state formation.


The art of the Khazars: who were enemies of the Bulgars, is represented by the 9th century ladle with a scene of a ritual duel (no. 27). Its floral motives are rather far from Hungarian ones but both ornamental styles derive from their Central Asian prototypes. Inside the ladle its later Siberian owners engraved several dancing figures. Their war dance with two sabres demonstrates the militant rituals of the natives developed under the influence of their trade relations with civilized countries, as well as their love for foreign silver vessels and jewellery. Native engravings are seen on many imported vessels which have been found in the Kama and the Ob basins (see also no. 34).


The metalwork of medieval Iran, Central Asia, Khazaria and the early Hungarians East European dominions could not be studied without the Ob valley finds. Instead of currency (useless in their tribal economy), the Ob Ugrians received from the merchants silver objects, some of which they hid in Siberian forests.


In civilized countries almost all secular silver vessels were destroyed in order to mint coins. From the 10th to mid 13th century Western European sailors probably used the way around


Scandinavia to the mouth of the Ob bringing with them various metal objects (nos. 71-75).


The craftsmen from the cities of the Volga Bulgaria, a civilized state nearest to Siberia, produced many silver ornaments not only for the women of their land, but also for their barbaric northern neighbours. The Bulgars tried to study needs and tastes of their counterparts and made stylized objects with a few northern barbaric traits sometimes mixed with Scandinavian features and, last, but not least, rather debased Islamic (Iranian and Central Asian) patterns (nos. 32, 33, 34(?), 35(?), 36-38, 39, 40(?), 41, 42, 44-46, may be, no. 50, partly no. 43).


Our exhibition provides an unique possibility to compare works of art from the Islamic world with objects, produced by several more or less developed civilizations of Eastern Europe connected with Muslim countries.


In the late 11th century the import of silver vessels from Iran and Central Asia stopped completely. From that time, however, appear silver vessels from Byzantine provinces (nos. 67, 68), Crusader Syria (no. 70) and, perhaps, from some neighbouring Near Eastern Christian (no. 66) and Muslim (no. 65) centers. All these art objects demonstrate close ties between Eastern and Western worlds in the period of the Crusades.


Very few traces of Russian presence were discovered in the Ob basin although we know from the written sources about military expeditions from Novgorod to this region in 11th 12th century The Russians took tribute from the native principalities and finally in the 2d half of the 13th century included them into their sphere of influence. A Russian inscription is visible on the bottom of one bowl of Byzantine origin (no. 67). The date of this owners inscription is the 12th century. The Novgorodians came to Siberia as warriors and later masters, but not merchants.


However, the Russians themselves were obliged to pay tribute after the 1240s when they became vassals of the Golden Horde, a Tataro-Mongol state in Eastern Europe, including the land of the Volga Bulgars.


A new style of metalwork with great many elements borrowed from the art of the empires, ruled by two nomadic dynasties in Northern China in the 10th early 13th century, became widespread in all the lands ruled by the Mongol conquerors in 13th c. A good example of this early Mongol style is the silver ladle (no. 77) with comlicated ornaments. The later art of the Golden Horde (13th 14th century) shows some Islamic influence too (nos. 76, 78).


Probably the most interesting group of exhibits is the hoard found in Muzhi, a small town near the mouth of the Ob river. It includes four silver objects. Two of these are lids of Western European Romanesque covered stem-cups, datable not later than A.D. 1200s (nos. 72, 74). The third object is a late 12th century bowl (no. 73). This bowl was a part of a stem-cup as well, but its conical support and lid are not preserved. The shape of these vessels is similar to our no. 66 and to a famous group of Romanesque ciboria, but all three are rare richly adorned samples of mediaeval secular toreutics.


The fourth object is a large plate with a repousse central roundel and side-engravings (no. 69). The celestial journey of Alexander the Great in the center is surrounded by ten sections with figures. Personifications of the sun, the moon and Jupiter (or the personal star of Alexander) are in three upper sections, and of the ocean and the earth in two lower ones. These images are closely associated with the main subject. Bellerophon seated on Pegasus and King David playing his harp, are placed between the moon and the ocean. Bellerophon was a precursor of Alexander, and King David was not only the ancestor of Christ and a great prophet, but a model monarch for all the mediaeval rulers as well. Opposite Bellerophon and David is a battle scene with three participants: a mounted archer, attacking a horseman with a spear in his drooped hand, and another horseman with raised sword, rushing to rescue the spear bearer. This battle scene probably illustrates a narrative about deeds of a certain contemporary ruler who is compared with Alexander, Bellerophon and King David.


The style and iconography of this plate betray, first of all, Byzantine tradition including some Oriental borrowings, but there are some Western elements too. Its Byzantine analogs date mostly to the 12th century but its Western parallels are slightly later. It is quite possible that it was made by a Greek master for a local vassal of Henry of Flanders, the second crusader emperor of Constantinople (1206-1216). In A.D. 1208 he being alone and with no armour on, heroically rescued one of his knights from the Bulgars and the Cumans who were excellent archers. He was the only Latin emperor whose relations with his Greek subjects were good. A Greek historian called him the second Ares, Henry became a hero of a Greek epic poem. (M. Kramarovsky suggests that the plate was made later, in the 2nd half of the 13th century.)


All exhibits mentioned in this article were found in the Siberian soil but they were produced in many centers, including famous English, Mosan, Byzantine, Syrian, Iranian and Central Asian cities; in settlements more or less urbanized, even in chieftains camps, of the Volga Bulgars, the Khazars, the nomadic Hungarians and the Tataro-Mongols, who were mighty (though temporary) masters of the East European steppes and forests, and in fortified villages of the North Uralian and Siberian tribesmen. Visitors to this Exhibition and the readers of our Catalogue can see that each of the ancient and mediaeval peoples whose works of art are represented here had their own original and artistically valuable metalwork.




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