History Mystery: Pazyryk The frozen tombs of Altai -2
The people of the Altai were nomads, driving their animals wherever good pasture was to be found. Animal herds were the lifeblood of the community. As long as the herds were fed and watered, the people had enough meat and milk, wool and leather. As soon as a pasture was exhausted the people had to move on. The whole tribe stacked their goods on horses and wagons in the same way as modern Asian nomads such as the Iranian Kashgai and the central Asian Kazakhs.
But the wanderings of the tribe did not follow a wholly random pattern. In the Altai, they were linked to seasonal change and to the ruggedness of the mountain terrain. In spring, the tribe sought grass along the river valleys. Summer was dry and cool- the mountain slopes were alive with plant life, and wild grains made delicious fodder for the herd.
But season was short. As the weather grew colder, the tribe went into hibernation, living a semi-settled existence. They spent most of their time in circular tents made of felt, stretched over a framework of wooden slats. Dwellings like these, known as Yurts, can still be seen throughout central Asia. They also made conical huts of felt and bark stretched over a light framework, which could be construct against a tree.
The nomads had little use for bulky furniture, favouring carpets and hides with cushions of felt, leather, or fur, stuffed with animal hair or grass. Carpets and hangings insulated against the cold, and offered ideal surfaces for decoration.
The Kurgans of Pazyryk yielded striking examples of native craftsmanship, including immense panels of felt decorated with coloured appliqué work.
Two outstanding furnishings indicate contact with distant civilizations. The first is a carpet of knotted wool, some 2m (6½ ft) square with a red background around the edges are geometrical motifs and griffins, a jungle of images through which pass several seer grazing in single file, and a procession of horsemen. The craftsmanship and decorative style suggest that the carpet had been imported from Iran.
The second item is a saddlecloth edged with red and blue felt and inlaid with leather studded with gold and tin. Six great lumps of yak hair hand from it, but the cloth itself is of delicate Chinese silk, with pheasants embroidered amid a swirling mass of multicolored arabesques. Even in China, silk fabric of this quality was exceptional and found only in the trousseaux of court ladies. It is not impossible that this was the dowry of a Chinese princess. Perhaps she had been married off by a Chinese lord to one of the ‘barbarians from the north’ in an attempt to stem the raids of the warriors who threatened the peace of his realm – it was against their incursions that the Great Wall was built in the 3rd century BC.
These two pieces demonstrate that the people of the Altai were in some sort of contract with the great civilizations to the east and west of their mountain homeland. A trans-Asian route, a precursor of the Great Silk Road of the Middle Ages, was already being traveled by nomadic merchants. It spanned the vast distance between Persia and China, and the nomadic profited from it.
The few pieces of furniture discovered at Pazyryk are ingeniously adapted to the nomadic existence. There are several small, collapsible wooden tables, consisting of detachable trays resting on four legs, elaborately carved in the shape of cat-like creatures standing on their hind legs. When dismantled, the trays and legs could be stacked for easy transportation. The trays themselves are oval with a rim, and could be used as plates. Vessels such as clay pitchers and wooden bowls were also unearthed, along with a large number of leather containers.
Many of these leather pouches, bags, flasks, bottles and boxes are decorated with superb fur or leather appliqué work.
The men of the Altai spent most of their time on horseback, either supervising the herds of hunting. Riding with bow and arrow, they would defend their animals against attack by predators. The furs of wild animals were useful to the tribe, and could be traded with neighboring peoples. Sable was the most highly prized fur, but squirrel, otter, panther, wild cat and ermine were also greatly valued. Swans, wild geese, and grouse provided feathers and down.
Men more trousers of hide squeezed into felt leggings of tucked into boots made of soft leather. Shirts were made of raw hemp fringed with a braid of bright red wool. A kaftan, often made from a hide turned inside out, was worn on top.
Some kaftans were extremely luxurious. One garment found at Pazyryk was made of a velvety sable hide and decorated with finely stitched embroidery of the type seen on Afghan coats today. It was embellished with leather appliqué depicting a stag. The heads of griffins swarmed around the antlers, and the eyes were minuscule beads of gold.
Hats provided vital protection against the icy winds of the steppes. They were made of fur or felt, with ear flaps which could be worn raised or lowered, ‘terminating in a point, and standing straight and stiff’ in the words of Herodotus. Hats in this style are still worn by Asian nomads.
The exalted female occupants of the tombs were decked out as richly as the men. One women’s kaften was made of squirrel fur turned inside out, hemmed at the bottom with a wide band of pony skin and edged with otter fur. The sleeves were narrow and purely decorative. The kaftan was worn with a bodice of otter, squirrel, and sable, two pairs of fine felt stockings, and boots of red leather, elaborately patterned – even on the soles.