Ancient Near East, Exhibitions

Nomads and Networks in the Field: At a Galloping Pace

Horses in paddock at Panfilova horse farm.

Horses held great importance in steppe culture. At our dig site, the majority of the animal bone remains have been identified as sheep and goats, followed by cattle and then horses. Yet we know from the spectacular protomes on the Issyk Golden Warrior’s headdress and the splendid belt plaques that horses played an important symbolic role, and may have been the most prevalent of the domesticated species at Tuzusai.

When Kyra Lyublanovics, a PhD candidate from Central European University (Budapest, Hungary), arrived on Saturday to spend a month with us as our resident zooarchaeologist, she asked if there were any horses in Poselok Alatau. I am sure that in our fast-growing village there are still one or two people living on the outskirts who might own a horse. Then I remembered the Panfilova Hippodrome, where the president’s horses are kept, located in the collective just 4 km (2.5 miles) north of Alatau. On Sunday we took a ride in Kolya’s old orange Moskvich car to the hippodrome. Sure enough, there were beautiful horses in the stables and grazing in the vast pasturelands.

If there is a single idea that has dominated steppe culture from the Eneolithic period (4000 BCE) onward, it has been the hunting, herding, and eventually the riding of horses. In the late 1990s, when archaeologists David Anthony and Dorcas Brown examined the molars of horse teeth from the steppe sites, they saw microscopic evidence of bit wear, suggesting the presence of horseback riding more than six thousand years ago on the northern steppes of Kazakhstan. A recent article stated that DNA studies of horse populations now corroborate the archaeological evidence showing that horses were first domesticated in the steppe areas of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Whether horses were first used for riding or as traction animals remains to be proven.

Kyra riding one of the original Turkoman horses known as Alytn teke at the Panfilova Hippodrome.
These horses are the Central Asian version of Arabian horses: fast, light, and strong.
This particular horse is carmello, a truly beautiful riding horse that is white with blue and white eyes.

Yet there is no doubt in my mind that horses, whether or not they were dominant in people’s diets during the first millennia BCE, certainly had a major symbolic importance. For example, some of the sacrified horses found in Berel Mound No. 11 are splendidly clothed in leather masks with ibex horns, suggesting their mythical nature.

We are very excited to have Kyra here to analyze the animal bones. Her work will provide data that can be compared to the glorious and splendid depictions of the role that horses played in steppe society.

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan remains on view at the Sackler Gallery through November 12, 2012.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>