DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nomads and Networks

Horse adornments from a nomad burial site
For the ancient nomads of what is now present-day Kazakhstan, the horse was vital. In early post-prehistoric times the people of this central Asia region drank mares' milk and used the horse for food. But then they found out the animals could be domesticated, giving the nomads the ability to range widely over the steppes of their harsh land. But nowhere was the importance of the horse more clearly demonstrated than in the burial customs of the time. Horses wearing masks, horns, and other adornments that transformed them into formidable other-worldly creatures of mythology were buried along with their owners. In fact, in one burial site of a powerful nomad leader, the remains of 13 fully ornamented horses have been discovered.

Therefore, it wasn't surprising that replicas and items relating to horses made up a large section of the display in the Sackler Gallery's recent exhibition entitled Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan.
A nomad burial site which were called kurgans

Since the Kazakhstan nomad culture had no writing, little is actually known about life there. However, scholars, working from artifacts discovered in giant burial mounds, have been able to speculate about aspects of nomad life in the centuries before the date attributed to the birth of Christ.  The burial mounds, called kurgans, were large, some more than 100 feet in diameter and standing as high as 15 feet tall. They were constructed with sand and stone. Experts estimated that the stones from 1 of the largest discovered kurgans weighed 15 tons. The use of stone allowed cold air to penetrate the graves which were then chilled year-round. The permafrost conditions kept the items buried in the sites well preserved.

Tomb item
The items uncovered show that movement which was so much a part of nomad experience was expected to be part of the after-life as well. Transport through the nomad netherworld could be accomplished on the horse. But since the nomads weren't exactly sure what other type of terrain they might encounter, they also included replicas of made-up beasts with wings and fish fins.

The word nomad itself comes from a Greek word meaning "roaming for pasture." And that roaming is exactly what the nomads did, spending cold weather on the plains-like steppes and then moving to the mountain foothills for the warmer season.

That constant movement provided an ideal way to transport goods between disparate cultures. Kazakhstan, which as 4 times the size of Texas is the largest landlocked country in the world, served as natural bridge between Iran (then Persia) and China. During their travels, the nomads would trade furs for textiles, ceramics and metal works, thus setting up a cultural exchange network which provided for cross-pollination of artisan ideas among highly scattered groups of people.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The Nomads and Networks exhibition is now closed, but you can learn more about this period of Kazakhstan history by accessing the special Smithsonian website on the exhibit. Just click here.

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