Saturday, July 26, 2014

Scythian and Scythian-related Objects in the British Museum

I was quite happy with the British Museum (BM). They had many steppe nomad and steppe nomad-related artifacts on display. And, because they're an archeology museum, their labels were much more informative than the Louvre's. Also, there's so much I want to talk about that I've decided to split my visit there into two posts--this one focused on the Scythians and the next on the Sarmatians.

The Oxus Treasure
Scythian feline on a ring biting its tail.
Similar to the pommels at the Met.
The Oxus Treasure is a collection of Achaemenid-period metalwork and coins found in modern-day Tajikistan just across the border with Afghanistan. Much of it was unfortunately cut or melted down for bullion by the merchants the finders originally sold it to, so museums only contain part of the find now. The art styles in the hoard are highly variable, so one hypothesis is that the hoard was temple tribute, with individual pieces being of various ages and originating from various cultures. The BM dates the metalwork to the 5th or 4th century BC. Some of them are the steppe nomad's Animal Style. Others simply demonstrate interactions with them.

Scythian bracelet with two
interlocking monsters.
Luristan Bronzes
The most adorable little Scythian monster ever!
Originally, it would have had stone inlays
and may have been on a hat or hair accessory.
This Achaemenid piece shows a
Persian hero killing steppe nomads.
I finally found out what those deer-ibex motifs in the Louvre are--they're from a group of artifacts called the Luristan Bronzes. They're from the Early Iron Age of west-central modern-day Iran. Some pieces are ornamentative, some ceremonial, and others had more practical purposes (e.g., the weapons). The BM had more on display, including some that looked like humans shaped to be rather, uh...phallic. I haven't included any pictures of this collection.

Caucasian artifacts
There was an entire section on the early first millennium BC Caucasus as the "gateway to the north" for Iran. Some of the artifacts in this section were of Scythian style from northwest Iran, while others were Caucasian (Koban culture). Below are gold fragments from late 8th century belts from Ziwiye in north-east Iran, which would have been sewn onto cloth or leather backings and are daggers from Iran and Georgia.

Scythian-style feline motifs with missing stone inlays
Look familiar? The label here gave more information on this
artifact than the one in the Met, some of it conflicting. I'm
not sure if they're two pieces of the sameartifact with the
Met either getting the less battered piece or restoring their's
more nicely, or if they're two separate artifacts made by the
same person. There are two different styles here.
The stags and ibexes are done in Scythian style. The motif
encasing them is more along the lines of Near Eastern art.
I do wonder about its identification as apiece of a belt...that
would have to be a pretty wide belt...even wider for the Met's.

10th-9th century BC Iran
The style is similar to some found in both northwest Iran and Georgia.
The handle was covered in wood held attached with small cooper
rivets. The edges have been sharpened, so it has actually been used
as a weapon.
14th-9th centuries BC, Georgia
These are types of Caucasian daggers.
The left is of a style often found with
other weapons (swords, axes, spearheads)
 in graves in Armenia and Georgia. The
right is younger and of the Koban culture.
 The style with animals facing each other
on the handle may have influenced later
Scythian handles.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Maybe Scythian Stuff in the Louvre?

Apologies for the wait. Between collections work, sightseeing, some professional service work, keeping up another blog to meet one of the requirements for one of my fellowships,and resting from doing all that, I'm only now getting time to write stuff up here. But more will follow shortly. :)

It turns out the Louvre doesn't actually have any Sarmatian stuff. I wish I'd saved the link that pulled Sarmatian stuff up on a search because I have no idea why it told me they did. They have one thing in the collections which references the Sarmatians (a Roman relief commemorating some of Hadrian's victories over them), but no actual stuff of their's according to a search through their online database. I went through the Iranian area (Iranian meaning cultures-and-empires-based-in-Iran, not all Iranian ethnicities) just to see what was there.

The database mentions an Achaemenid bracelet that might have been made by the Scythians. I found some artifacts on display that look familiar after having looked at a lot of pictures of Scythian metalwork. But there's no way to be sure they actually made it because the Louvre is an art museum and art museums do this thing where they hardly give you any information on the labels. Just name, material, date, donator, and date of aquisition.

---Dear art museums,
I know you want us to spend our time looking at the art pieces, but I would be able to appreciate them more if you'd give me a contextual framework in which to appreciate them. I know I could have rented an audio guide, but I highly doubt you consider the pieces I'm interested in important enough to tell me about them in there. And I know you sometimes have guided tours, but same thing there. So....more informative labels, please?

So, given the lack of information (I only knew they were found within the boundaries of an Iranian empire because that's what the rooms' themes were.), there's no way for me to know if those pieces were: 1) made by the Scythians and traded to someone in an Iranian empire; 2) made by someone in an Iranian empire copying Scythian art style; or 3) representative of that Iranian empire's art style which happens to be similar to the Scythian's because they used to be the same people way, way back in the day. That being said, here are the artifacts I saw which might fall in one of the three categories above.

Colored relief of Assyrian griffins.
 Assyrian griffins look different from Scytho-Sarmatian griffins, but still quite fun. They have lion heads instead of eagle heads, horns instead of fin manes, and eagle back feet instead of lion back feet. But notice the colored blotches on their flanks? Look reminiscent of some Scythian style art you've seen before on this blog?

Bronze quiver plates (leather's rotted away) and arrows. 8th-7th centuries BC
The designs on the cases look nothing like Scythian cases (aside from griffins attacking a prey animal in the upper right being a familiar motif). But the cases themselves are the same type of design- bronze on leather with panels of scenes on them.

Bronze bracelets, 8th-7th centuries BC
Torses ending in animal heads were common in Scytho-Sarmatian jewelery, though these specific designs don't ring any bells for me.

Something made of bronze. That's all the label said.
 The label called these branches. They look vaguely reminiscent of the "Tree of Life" motif, but I don't know if it's an actual correlation or the human tendency to see patterns even when they aren't there.

Bronze plaque. Label says "Fin du Fer I"....End of the Iron Age?
There were several openwork plaques similar to the above. From far away they look like deer heads seen from the front. Close up, they're made of a pair of ibexes, sometimes with extra ibex or dragon heads popping out of strange places. They reminded me of Scythian art, though no particular pieces are coming to mind. And since I'm traveling, I don't have my books with me to search for them.

So that was the Louvre. Next up, the British Museum, where I had a bit more luck.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Nart Saga

The Nart sagas are a collection of tales from the Caucasus about a group of ancient heros running around doing epic things–epic here meaning both the original definition and also sometimes hilariously awesome. Both Caucasian people (sensu stricto) and Ossetians tell stories of the Narts to one another and scholars think parts of them preserve ancestral Indo-Iranian mythos.

They certainly do have a lot of parallels with other Indo-Iranian ethnicities. For instance, there's an trickster like Loki and a story very similar to the Greek story of how Prometheus brought fire to humans. One big difference is that the leader of the Narts is a matriarch, not a patriarch. The Ossetians call her Satana, but variations of her name in other cultures include Satanaya and Sela-Sata.

The general tone of the sagas is remarkably matter-of-fact. If a Nart has to do something extraordinary, the fact that it's unusual is oftentimes remarked upon. Then again, there are unusual things that are treated like normal, everyday the story of how Satana got her son. And is nothing like what you think. Very weird, though. I'm not going to go into that here because it's the sort of thing that should go behind an adult filter in our culture. I may still post some of the stories later, but with a specific warning that it's not my usual type of content.

I have John Colarusso's translations of the Caucasian versions into English (Circassian, Abkhazian, etc...), but at the time of printing he was only just starting to work on learning Ossetian. Which means I can't personally compare the Caucasian versions to the Ossetian to try to find bits that are uniquely Ossetian (and thus, Sarmatian in origin) and which bits are uniquely Caucasian. But fortunately, there's another Sarmatian in the SCA who knows Hungarian and there is a Hungarian translation of the Ossetian Nart Sagas. She's been reading through them recently and has posted some of her favorite excerpts here. I recommend taking a look. :)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oldest Pants

Eurasian steppe nomads--bringing you pants since at least 1000 BC.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gearing up for Europe

I'm heading to Europe this summer for paleo research, but I'll have downtime during evenings and weekends. I'd like to do some sightseeing. My interests are in pre-modern historical sites and the outdoors. For the outdoors, I'm specifically interested in places that are good for birding. For the historic sites, I'd be interested in a variety of things, but what I would most like to see is anything relating to Sarmato-Alan history. So far, I've found four of the latter type of places I'm interested in:

I'm going to visit the Louvre while in Paris and heading straight to their steppe nomad art. I'll just avoid the crowds around the Mona Lisa; she doesn't appeal to me anyways.

I'll also be going to the British Museum in London. They have items in their collection, but it doesn't look like anything's on display. Maybe they'll have something tangentially related, though. Even if they don't, they'll have other interesting exhibits.

I'm planning on taking a side trip to Ribchester in England to visit their Roman museum. Ribchester is one of the places Sarmatian auxiliary units were stationed. My trip lines up perfectly with a big celebration they're having with Roman re-enactors and a 3D recreation of what Ribchester looked like when it was a Roman fort.

I'd like to visit a museum or historic site on the Vandal-Alan coalition that invaded Gaul before heading into the Iberian peninsula. Anyone know of a place like that? Or a museum on a broader subject that displays their artifacts? I know there's the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon and I could stopover there for a few hours. But I can't tell from their website if they talk about the Vandals and Alans at all in the exhibits.

The places I'm going to are: Paris and Marseille in France; London, Isle of Wight, and Ribchester in Englad; Brussels, Belgium; Basel, Switzerland. I may also stopover in Luxembourg just to cross off another country.
In the fall, I'll be heading back and going to several places in Germany.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Extreme Schnoz: Saiga

Scientific name: Saiga tatarica
A higher clade it's part of: Antilopinae
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Current range: Patches in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, sometimes Turkmenistan, and Mongolia

  I'm ending the Extreme Animals series with one that the Sarmatians definitely encountered. We know this because it was important enough to be a subject of steppe nomad art. Also cool enough to be in two of my three forays into zoomorphic steppe art as illumination.

   The saiga is an antelope that's trying to be a tapir. They're only 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder. Adorable! Only the males have horns, but they all have giant noses. Their closest relative, another cold-adapted antelope called the Tibetan antelope, doesn't have this adaptation.
Tiny baby!
  Mammals are warm-blooded, which means we have to work to keep our body temperatures up. One of the easiest ways to mess with that is to breathe in air that's hotter or colder than our optimal body temperature...which is impossible not to do when you live in the cold steppes of Russia during the winter, like saigas, or the hot climate of the Sahara (like camels). There are two ways mammals work to counteract this with their nose: nasal turbinates and giant noses.
  Nasal turbinates are small, thin, mucosa-covered shelves of bone that stick out into the nasal passageway. They're called "concha" in humans, and,  having dissected one, I can tell you--ours are pretty pathetic. But as tiny and simple as ours are, you can still feel the effect that have on the temperature of the air we breathe. Go outside on a cold, cold day in winter. Breathe in through your nose. Then breathe in through your mouth. You will cool down much more quickly if you do the latter. Now imagine how much more effective that would be if you have turbinates like the seal below! Turbinates work this way because they're more surface area for the numerous blood vessels full of hot blood in their lining. This hot blood contacts the cold air and its temperature is evened out before it reaches your lungs.
A Hooded Seal at the Museum of Osteology in
Oklahoma showing nasal turbinates very well.
   Saiga have complex nasal turbinates like most mammals living in extreme climates, but they also add a giant fleshy nose. A saiga's turbinates don't stick out into the fleshy part of their nose--in fact the bony portion is quite far back in their head. But the fleshy part is still able to heat incoming air because it's bulbous (increased surface area) and has plenty of blood vessels running through it.
Their noses are mostly fleshy
  There are two subspecies: one in western Mongolia and one everywhere else. There range is extremely constricted compared to today. When the Sarmatians were around, they inhabited the steppes in an unbroken swath save for a small break between the ranges inhabited by each subspecies. Even farther back in time (into the Pleistocene), they were also found in North America. They're actually the only antelope that made it to the New World (Pronghorn aren't actually antelope; cattle are more closely related to saigas and gazelles than pronghorn are.).
Their population has been bouncing back and forth. They were almost driven extinct in the '20s, but were able to bounce back. Then the World Wildlife Fund got the bright idea to suggest people use their horns instead of rhino horns in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Because that makes so much more sense than telling people to just eat their own fingernails since it's made out of the same freakin' stuff and none of it does diddly-squat to help your cancer, virility, or anything else TCM practitioners claim...can you tell this subject makes me angry? I had to work not to violate my own no-cursing-on-the-blog policy. Surprise!--their populations dropped drastically. The timing of this suggestion unfortunately lined up very well with the fall of the Soviet Union. That meant economic troubles drove many of the now-poor people in these regions to turn to poaching saiga because their horns are easy cash and their meat fed their families. The fact that the males are larger and also the only ones to possess horns meant that they reached a point where there weren't enough males to mate with the females during rutting season, causing the population to crash even harder.
  Saigas have been protected in parts of their range since the '90s and were starting to recover, but their populations dropped again when a deadly, infectious disease started spreading through some of the herds, killing almost half of the population in the Kazakh Urals.
Graph produced by the Saiga Conservation Alliance
  But there's still hope. There's a captive breeding program at the Center for Wild Animals of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia. The Saiga Conservation Alliance actively works to save these animals through research and public awareness campaigns. This includes both study of the animals themselves as well as where they're being hunted, who's poaching them, and why.

  Lastly, here's a documentary for my Russian-speaking readers (sorry, the uploader isn't letting me embed it). The saiga show up at about 3:35. The first couple minutes look like they're about some sort of rodent. A birch mouse, maybe? Skip to 10:27 to see some cute jumping and trotting and 11:00 for headbutting. And here's a video of a baby saiga because why not?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Extreme Cuteness: Tadpole-gobies

Azov Tadpole-goby
Scientific name: Benthophilus (20 species)
A higher clade it's part of: Gobiidae (gobies)
Conservation status: 8 Least Concern, 12 not evaluated
Current range: Fresh and brackish water in Caspian and Black Sea basins

Black Sea Tadpole-goby
Don Tadpole-goby
Tadpole-gobies are just adorable. Especially Don Tadpole-gobies! These abundant little fish live in the Caspian and Black Sea basins. Most of them couldn't have been encountered by Sarmatians because they live in deep brackish water or because they only live in parts of the Caspian Sea not adjacent to Sarmatian lands. Three species- the Don, Black Sea, and Azov Tadpole-gobies could have been encountered by them. They probably wouldn't have taken much note of them, though, because they're so tiny (2.6-5.9 in [6.6-15 cm]). These three live on the bottoms of lakes, deltas, and rivers.
They're carnivorous, eating small molluscs, insect larvae, and crustaceans. The species mentioned above live on sandy or muddy bottoms (depending on the species) with scattered empty shells. They need the shells because they hide their eggs underneath or inside them. They only live a year or so and die after spawning.
Tadpole-gobies diverged from the tribe they're most closely related to (Neogobiini) about 9 million years ago. Benthophilus diverged from the only other genus in its tribe (Benthophilini), Caspiosoma, about 5 Million years ago, coincident with the separation of the Black and Caspian Sea basins as they dried out. Tadpole gobies (at least, the ones sampled in the phylogenetic analysis listed below) diverged from one another about 2 million years ago, near the onset of the Pleistocene ice ages.

Neilson, M. E., & Stepien, C. A. (2009). Escape from the Ponto-Caspian: evolution and biogeography of an endemic goby species flock (Benthophilinae: Gobiidae: Teleostei). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 52(1), 84-102.