Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Steppe Nomads at the Met

I was recently in NYC for mundane research. Given that three of my books surveying Sarmatian and co. goldwork were published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was on my list of things to do when I'm not working in the collections of the natural history museum.
I wasn't expecting a lot to be displayed- they aren't exactly popular with the general public- and there wasn't. Iranian steppe nomads are confined to a corner in a small gallery devoted to Near East Asian art. This includes other groups such as the people of the Caucasus, Sassanian Persians, and Mesopotamians. I was actually surprised at how little work was being displayed from "the cradle of civilization". The one thing that I was disappointed about, even with my low expectations, is that none of the golden deer were displayed. I think the Golden Deer of Eurasia was written as a companion to a special exhibition (how I wish I could have seen it!), but I was hoping at least one of the many they have would still be viewable by the general public. Oh well. I still highly recommend going if you're in town. The museum has a dearth of other things displayed. I took pictures of Renaissance string instruments for a friend, saw Henry VIII's last set of field armor (how sad that his "grossly overweight" is "normal" for much of the US today...), and a really awesome ceramic dish. It was made at the end of period using actual animals to make casts. Check out their annex, The Cloisters, as well!

Below are pictures of what they did have in the Caucasian peoples (sensu stricto) and Iranian nomads corner.
Disc with running dogs surrounding a mountain goat
Caucasus region, 1st-3rd centuries AD

Clasp with an eagle and its prey
Gold with turquoise inlays
Iran? Parthian, 1st cent BC-1st cent AD

Roundel with horned animal, lions, and griffins
Gilded silver inlaid with stones, iron backing
Central Asia, Sarmatian, 3rd-2nd century BC

Roundels with griffin heads
Gilded silver with stone inlays
Western Asia, late 1st millennium BC

Axe head
Silver and iron
Western Asia, Scythians, 6th-5th century BC

Dress ornaments
Northern Black Sea region (Maikop?)
Scythian, 5th century BC

Fragment of a plaque
Northwestern Iran, possibly Ziwiye, 7th century BC

Teeny tiny ibex figure (an inch long at most)
Same info as above plaque fragment

Finial and pommel with coiled animal forms
Gold and gold with turquoise inlays
Western Asia, possible Black Sea area
Scythian, 6th century BC

Belt buckle, felines attacking ibexes
Mongolia or southern Siberia, Xiongnu period, 3rd-2nd century BC

In addition to the relevant corner, I also found these gems in the Chinese exhibits (which are extensive!). Look familiar to anyone?
Belt buckles
North China, 3rd-2nd century BC
This shape of belt buckle is also present in the form of several Saka (i.e., Asian Scythians) artifacts figured in the Golden Deer book, including the one I used to make the bottom right scene in my '8 of 8' scroll.

Belt plaque
Gilded silver
North China, 3rd century BC
Another belt buckle plaque, this time rectangular. There's that Sarmatian theme of twisting the hindquarters around 180 degrees. It also has the Iranian nomad modifications of taking a horse (it has one hoof per foot), giving it a bird beak, deer antlers, drawing the antlers in that very stylized way, and terminating the tines in griffin heads to boot. The griffin heads aren't quite as noticeable as they typically are, but if you've seen it before you can easily recognize it as such.

There are multiple records of Iranian steppe nomads getting a hold of Chinese artifacts and vice-versa (trade-and-raid routes and all that). There's also the pan-steppe themes that extend all the way east into Mongolia, which borders China. Mallory and Mair discuss the introduction and adoption of Scythian-style art in China. Lebedensky (the same guy who wrote the tamga book) mentions in another book that some Scythians may have migrated into China (must get a hold of all his books!) I didn't notice anything steppe-related in the Greek or Roman rooms (though I could have missed something; they are rather extensive), so I was extremely excited to find these steppe-type artifacts in the Chinese area. There were a few more relevant artifacts in the China section, but these were the best examples of steppe-type art there.

The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
Iaroslav Lebedynsky, Les Saces, p.73
Mallory and Mair, 2000, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West


  1. Glad you got to see those in person! The pictures are nice. I'm surprised they let you take them inside, though! That's pretty awesome. Too bad they don't have a bigger selection out for display, though.

  2. Pictures are allowed; flash is not. Thankfully, I've fiddled enough with my camera's settings to be able to get decent pictures in that lighting without it. Flash would've make glass glare anyways.