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. :)