If you fly nonstop from New York to Tokyo, you fly over the Arctic Circle. The view from the plane at -59 degrees is raw and beautiful – huge moving masses of white and gray clouds, water, ice and snow. It is hard to believe that there is or was human habitation in this area. And yet the steppes of Kazakhstan – the taigas, rock-canyons, hills, deltas, mountains, snow-capped mountains, and deserts – lie not so very far beneath. It is a vast wild landscape.
And when you step into the exhibition areas of this new exhibit, “Nomads and Networks,” the first in North America to display objects from the nomadic cultures of Eastern Kazakhstan’s Altai and Tianshan regions, from roughly the Eighth to First Century’s B.C., the objects still retain that quality of wildness. A signature piece on exhibit of brilliant metal, gold and bronze is the enigmatic cat face over what the catalog calls the “stylized ornament” connected to horse tack. It is small but shines brilliantly in the compact museum exhibit rooms. The eye is drawn to it and stays there. Somehow not what one would expect of a wild nomad far from civilization.
The exhibit features over 250 items, most of which are small, even tiny figurines furiously ornate, carefully worked, and require the viewer to pay close attention in order to see. Objects which one might think of as workaday cooking pots are decorated with the delicately realized legs of horned sheep. The exactly named “round tray on conical stand” is embellished with the minute figures of two wolves and two ravens around an ibex with sixteen snow leopards around the rim. No doubt it is functional; it is also airy and delicate.
An object which appears to be strictly ornamental but which also resembles its working cousin with the leopards around the rim is a tray on a conical stand with a mounted archer in the center and fifteen horned animals around the rim. The mounted archer with a conical cap and drawn bow, luxuriously garbed, very tiny, is also exquisitely worked as is his horse. I stayed by that piece for a long time—it was worth the attention.
So, the objects on display are functional; decorative; and one in particular below seems to have the sense of the numinous. These petroglyph- stylized images of masked people, carved on rocks, are reminiscent of the caves at Lascaux. They also make it clear that this was a society “with a sense of beauty and complexity and one which might have depicted the sacred as well as the mundane.”
I would be remiss if I failed to note objects which may provide another form of the numinous: a pipe for smoking hemp, with eight pebbles. Religious? Recreation? Hallucination? Both? “Nomads and Networks” has been installed according to the narrative themes of the Environment, Society and Ritual, Networks, and the Site of Berel. I am indebted to the catalog for the very precise description of the qualities of the objects on display.
The first section explores landscape and presents petroglyphs, or images carved on rock, that might once have demarcated and decorated “sacred places.” Absent the written record- nomads left none- it is speculated that “a group of massive bronze cauldrons and a series of bronze stands featured here may have been placed at locations considered sacred.” The nomads of the Tianshan and Altai regions acquired luxury goods of great value from abroad that became the means of trade. “The remarkable Zhalauli hoard and the Kargaly diadem, are on display in the United States for the very first time.” A focus of the exhibition is a display of objects from Berel. Berel, in the Altai mountains near the Russian and Chinese borders, was the burial site of the elite within the nomadic society.
Like all the exhibits at ISAW, this exhibit is informative without being ponderous. It is small enough to provide an hour’s leisured viewing. It is impeccably documented. The exhibition has been organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University in collaboration with the Central State Museum, the Presidential Center of Culture, the A. Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology, the Museum of Archaeology, and the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United States.