New York Times: Artifacts Show Sophistication of Ancient Nomads

The article below on “Artifacts Show Sophistication of Ancient Nomads” was first published in the New York Times in March 12, 2014. Kindly note that while the article is highly informative, it does make one misleading statement:

As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves

This leads the reader to the erroneous impression that the identity and language of the ancient Eurasian nomads are unknown. Linguists have long known of the identity and language of the Scythians and their Sarmatian-Alan successors. Below are a select number of quotes from prominent scholars in the field:

  • Channon & Hudson: “… Scythians and Sarmatians were of Iranian origin” (1995, p.18); Channon, J. & Hudson, R. (1995). The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia. London: Penguin Books.
  • Sulimirski identifies Scythians & Sarmatians “…akin to the ancient Medes, Parthians and Persians(1970, p.22); Sulimirski, T (1970), The Sarmatians. Thames & Hudson, London.
  • Cotterell: “…the close relations of the Scythians with the Persians is perhaps most illustrative…in the…fact that…Scythians and Persians spoke closely related languages and understood each other without translators” (2004, p.61); Cotterell, A. (2004). The Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. London, England: Pimlico.
  • Newark notes that the Scythians were: “…Indo-European in appearance and spoke an Iranian tongue which bought them more closely to the Medes and Persians” (Newark, 1998, p.6); Newark, T. (1998). Barbarians.
  • Mariusz & Mielczarek: “The Sarmatians…spoke an Iranian language similar to that of the Scythians and closely related to Persian” (2002, p.3); Mariusz, R. & Mielczarek,R. (2002).  The Sarmatians: 600 BC-450 AD. Osprey Publishing.


Ancient Greeks had a word for the people who lived on the wild, arid Eurasian steppes stretching from the Black Sea to the border of China. They were nomads, which meant “roaming about for pasture.” They were wanderers and, not infrequently, fierce mounted warriors. Essentially, they were “the other” to the agricultural and increasingly urban civilizations that emerged in the first millennium B.C.

Saka ParadrayaA reconstruction of the European Scythians (the Saka Paradraya) by the late Angus McBride. As noted by Cotterell “:..the close relations of the Scythians (Saka) with the Persians is perhaps most illustrative…in the … fact that the Scythians and Persians spoke closely related languages and understood each other without translators” (Cotterell, A. The Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. London, England: Pimlico, 2004, p.61).

As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves. To their literate neighbors, they were the ubiquitous and mysterious Scythians or the Saka, perhaps one and the same people. In any case, these nomads were looked down on — the other often is — as an intermediate or an arrested stage in cultural evolution. They had taken a step beyond hunter-gatherers but were well short of settling down to planting and reaping, or the more socially and economically complex life in town.

But archaeologists in recent years have moved beyond this mind-set by breaking through some of the vast silences of the Central Asian past.

Scythian Arts-1-teardrop-shaped gold plaqueA teardrop-shaped gold plaque is one of the objects that shows the strong social differentiation of nomad society (Source: New York Times).

These excavations dispel notions that nomadic societies were less developed than many sedentary ones. Grave goods from as early as the eighth century B.C. show that these people were prospering through a mobile pastoral strategy, maintaining networks of cultural exchange (not always peacefully) with powerful foreign neighbors like the Persians and later the Chinese.

Some of the most illuminating discoveries supporting this revised image are now coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders with Russia and China. From the quality and workmanship of the artifacts and the number of sacrificed horses, archaeologists have concluded that these were burials of the society’s elite in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. By gift, barter or theft, they had acquired prestige goods, and in time their artisans adapted them in their own impressive artistic repertory.

 Scythian Arts-2-Copper Alloy TrayA copper alloy tray on a conical stand with an archer at center (Source: New York Times).

Almost half of the 250 objects in a new exhibition, “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” are from these burials of a people known as the Pazyryk culture. The material, much of which is on public display for the first time, can be seen at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, on loan from Kazakhstan’s four national museums. Two quietly spectacular examples are 13 gold pieces of personal adornment, known as the Zhalauli treasure of fanciful animal figures; and the Wusun diadem, a gold openwork piece with inlaid semiprecious stones from a burial in the Kargaly Valley in southern Kazakhstan. The diadem blends nomad and Chinese characteristics, including composite animals in the Scytho-Siberian style and a horned dragon in an undulating cloudscape.

Artifacts from recent kurgan digs include gold pieces; carved wood and horn; a leather saddle; a leather pillow for the deceased’s head; and textiles, ceramics and bronzes. Archaeologists said the abundance of prestige goods in the burials showed the strong social differentiation of nomad society.

 Scythian Arts-3-An embroidery-winged bullAn embroidery of a winged bull (Source: New York Times).

Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s chief curator, writes in the exhibit’s catalog, published by Princeton University Press, that the collection portrays “a world of nomadic groups that, far from being underdeveloped, fused distinct patterns of mobility with apparently sophisticated ritual practices expressive of a close connection to the natural world, to complex burial practices and to established networks and contacts with the outside world.”

Walking through the exhibit, Dr. Chi pointed to nomad treasures, remarking:

The popular perception of these people as mere wanderers has not caught up with the new scholarship.”

Excavation at the Altai kurgans, near the village of Berel, was begun in 1998 by a team led by Zainolla S. Samashev, director of the Margulan Institute of Archaeology, on a natural terrace above the Bukhtarma River. Some work had been done there by Russians in the 19th century. But the four long lines of kurgans, at least 70 clearly visible, invited more systematic exploration.

Of the 24 Berel kurgans investigated so far, Dr. Samashev said in an interview, the two he started with were among the largest. The mounds, about 100 feet in diameter, rise about 10 to 15 feet above the surrounding surface. The pit itself is about 13 feet deep and lined with logs. At the base of Kurgan 11, he said, the arrangement of huge stones let the cold air in but not out.

This and other physical aspects of the pits created permafrost, which preserved much of the organic matter in the graves — though looting long ago disturbed permafrost conditions. Still, enough survived of bones, hair, nails and some flesh to tell that some of the bodies had tattoos and had been embalmed. Hair of the buried men had been cut short and covered with wigs.

 Scythians Arts-4-Kurgan ReconstructionA drawing showing the construction of a Kurgan (Source: New York Times).

The Kazakh conservator of the artifacts, Altynbekov Krym, said that remains in several kurgans were a challenge. As noted by Krym:

Everything was jumbled together, getting moldy almost immediately…took six years experimenting to create a new methodology to clean and preserve the material.”

Dr. Samashev said that his international crew, which is limited by climate to summer work, had excavated at least one kurgan a year. Several were burials of lesser figures. These were usually only a man and one horse. Kurgan 11 had a man who apparently met a violent death in his 30s; a woman who died later; and 13 horses, dressed in formal regalia before they were sacrificed.

So many horses, found in a separate section of the pit, affirmed the man’s lofty social status. Their leather saddles with embroidered cloth survived, as well as bridle and other tack decorated with plaques of real and mythical animals — like griffins, which had the body of a tiger or lion with wings and the head of a bird.

Scythians Arts-6-Feline

A feline face and stylized ornaments from horse tack, made of wood, tin and gold foil (Source: New York Times).

Soren Stark, an assistant professor of Central Asian art and archaeology at the N.Y.U. institute, said networks of contacts with the outside world were crucial to the political structure of the people throughout the Altai and Tianshan Mountains.

On the most basic level, they moved with the seasons by horse and camel, tending the flocks of sheep and goats that gave them the meat, milk, wool and hides of their pastoral economy. To make the most out of grasslands that were only seasonally productive, they went in small family groups into the highland meadows for summer grazing and returned to the lowlands in winter. They crossed broad plains to avoid overgrazing any one marginal pasture.

At their late autumn and winter campsites, herders assembled in large groups and engaged in tribal hunts and rituals. The exhibition includes bronze caldrons, presumably for preparing communal feasts, and several bronze stands, including one with a seated man holding a cup and facing a horse, that have the experts puzzled. Equally enigmatic are the symbols on rock faces that perhaps mark sacred places.

Saka Tigrakhauda at PersepolisSaka Tigra-khauda (Old Persian: pointed-hat Saka/Scythians) as depicted in the ancient Achaemenid city-palace of Persepolis. It was northern Iranian peoples such as the Sakas (Scythians) and their successors, the Sarmatians and Alans, who were to be the cultural link between Iran and ancient Europe  (Picture used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

From the camps, parties of mounted warriors set out to raid settlements, both to supplement their meager resources and to obtain luxury goods coveted by their leaders. Dr. Stark said the nomad elite considered such goods necessities to be displayed and distributed to key followers “to build up and sustain their political power.”

As their networks widened, foreign influences, notably Persian, began to appear in nomadic artifacts from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. The griffin, for example, originated in the West by way of the Persian Empire, centered in what is now Iran; the nomads modified it to have two heads of birds of prey topped by elk horns.

Scythians Arts-5-Snow LeopardA gold and turquoise plaque of a snow leopard mask consisting of two facing ibex heads and flying bird (8th to 7th centuries B.C.; Height 1.56 centimeters; width 2.48 centimeters; depth 0.2 centimeters) (Source: New York Times).

Beginning in the third century B.C., Chinese luxury items, like the Wusun diadem, appeared in nomad burials, mainly associated with Han dynasty. According to Chinese accounts, the Wusun nomads may have furthered contacts between Central Asian nomads and Han China, at the time expanding westward and in need of horses in its campaign against borderland rivals.

For all their networking, the nomads of the first millennium B.C. never failed to apply imaginative touches to the foreign artifacts they acquired. Dr. Chi, the curator, said the nomads transformed others’ fantastic animals into even more fantastic versions: boars curled in teardrop shapes and griffins that seemed to change their parts in a single image.

By these enigmatic symbols, a prewriting culture communicated its worldview from a vast and ungenerous land that it could never fully tame — any more than these people of the horse were ever ready to settle down.

A Short History of the Iranian Railway System

Perhaps one of Iran’s greatest achievements after the First World War was the construction of the 850-mile Trans-National railroad. This finally linked southern and northern Iran, a project that had been bitterly opposed by Imperial Russia in the early 20th century. For the first time the northern agricultural lands and the Caspian Sea ports were linked to ports and oilfields in the south. Construction of the Iranian railway had been an overwhelming task as it required the building of 4,100 bridges and 224 bored tunnels (64 miles in total). Iran’s economy after the First World had been in tatters, especially with increasing chaos due to British, Russian and Ottoman military incursions. Even more impressive was the way in the which the project had been funded: taxes on sugar and tea helped subsidize the project.

Opening ceremony Tehran masjid Suleiman LineUndated photo of the opening ceremony of the Tehran-Masjid Suleiman railway line (Source: Iranvij)

The buildup of the Iranian railway and road systems resulted in a dramatic improvement in the economic sector. Cost and time required for the transportation of goods across the country were now dramatically reduced. As noted by the British Central Office of Information:

“…the Persian people had every reason to be proud of it [the Iranian railway], for they themselves had supplied most of the labor for its construction and they, with a small population living in every circumstance in hardship, had found every Rial of the thirty million Pounds which it had cost” (British Central Office of Information, 1948, p.92 – Source: British Central Office of Information (1948). PAIFORCE: The Official Story of the Persia and Iraq Command 1941-1946. London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office).

Dorood_Train_StationThe Dorood train station in Luristan as painted by Richard H. Jansen (Source: US Army Center of Military History)

By 1933, the Iranian railway and road network system had reduced the cost of transportation to a third of what it had been in 1920. The time needed for transport in 1933 was now reduced to just one-tenth of what it had been in comparison to 1920. The efficiency of the Iranian railway and road networks was one of the primary factors that encouraged the Anglo-invasion of Iran in August 1941. The primary objective of that invasion was to use the Iranian network to supply the Red Army of the Soviet Union. This is because Nazi Germany had been engaged in a massive invasion of the Soviet Union since June 22, 1941 (known as Operation Barbarossa).

Iran station in LuristanAn Iranian railway engineer pauses for a cigarette break at Zagheh station along the Western Iranian mountains; photo dated to 1955 (Source: Avax News).

The Site of Taghe Bostan طاق بستان

Taqhe Bostan (Persian: طاق بستان‎) is a major heritage site in Western Iran (located approx. 5-6 km from the city of Kermanshah) dated to the Sassanian era (224-651 CE). The site is extremely valuable for the understanding of the Sassanian era, especially its rock-reliefs and fine carvings typical of the later Sassanian era. Taghe Bostan is one of thirty known Sassanian sites along the Zagros mountain chain.

Panoramic view-Tagh-BostanAn excellent panoramic view of Taghe Bostan (Photo Source: Graduate School of Razi University in Kermanshah).

 Taqhe Bostan’s artistic themes are essentially exhibit the following themes popular in Sassanian arts: martial ardor, strength, mythological themes, Farr (Divine Glory), the sense of honor, the Royal hunt, the Royal Feast, celebrations and joy, and the glories of the court.

1-Taghe Bostan-entrance-nightAnother excellent panoramic view of Taghe Bostan from the waterway ingress at night (Photo Source: Graduate School of Razi University in Kermanshah).

Panel with Ardashir II

The four-figure rock-relief panel featuring Ardashir II r. 379-383 CE) is probably the oldest at Taghe Bostan.

Ardashir II (standing in the middle) receives a large “Farr” ring (with ribbons – a commons Sassanian symbol of royalty) which is a symbol of regal investiture from a figure which believed to be either Ahura-Mazda or possibly Shapur II (r.309-379 AD) (figure to the right). Note that Shapur II was Ardashir II’s predecessor.

Ardashir II acted as the interim ruler for the actual heir of the throne Shapur III (383-388 CE), as the latter was still too young to rule.

1-Taq-Bostan [Click to Enlarge] The Rock-Relief panel of Mithra (left) Ardashir II (middle) and Ahura-Mazda or Shapur II (at right). Dimensions: width: 4 m and 7 cm- height: 3.9 meters. Note that Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of “knighting” of Ardahsir II as he receives the “Farr” (Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda (Photo Source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

The third figure (at left) is the god Mithra who holds a symbolic broadsword-like Barsum in his hands. Mithras is not only the guardian of contracts, he is also the god who provides the warrior with courage, endurance, resilience and martial ardor. It is also interesting that Mithra stands on a lotus flower.

Finally, one sees the prostrate figure of Roman emperor Julian the Apostate(r.361-363 CE). The figure of Julian symbolizes his defeat after his massive of invasion of Persia was defeated in 363 CE (Julian was also killed during the failed campaign).

 Taq-e Bostan[Click to Enlarge] The fallen figure of Julian the Apostate at the Ardashir II relief (Photo Source: Public Domain).

Panel with Shapur II and  Shapur III

Taghe Bostan has a smaller Iwan archway as well featuring the figures of Shapur II and III carved into the relief.

5-Taq-Bostan[Click to Enlarge] The figures of King Shapur II (right) facing his son Shapur III (left) standing at around 3 meters tall each. Note ceremonial stance of the warriors with palm of hand placed on top of sword hilt and left hand grasping hilt-handle (Photo Source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

This Iwan is interesting as it features two distinct inscriptions in Pahlavi of Shapur II and his son Shapur III. The translation of the Pahlavi inscription at Iwan pertaining to Shapur II is as follows:

This is the [form of] Mazda-worshiping Lord Shapur, Shahanshah [king of kings] of Eran [Iran] and An-Eran [non-Iran], whose race is from the Gods. Son of Mazda-worshiping Lord Hormizd, Shahanshah of Eran and An-Eran, whose race is from the Gods, grandson of Lord Narse, the Shahanshah.

TB-PahlaviA close-up view of a Pahlavi inscription at the Shapur II-Shapur III panel at Taghe Bostan (Photo Source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004). Note that the figure to the right of the photo is the partial view of Shapur III.

The translation of the Pahlavi inscription at the Iwan pertaining to Shapur III is as follows:

This is the [form of] Mazda-worshiping Lord Shapur, Shahanshah [king of kings] of Eran [Iran] and An-Eran [non-Iran], whose race is from the Gods. Son of Mazda-worshiping Lord Shapur, Shahanshah of Eran and An-Eran, whose race is from the Gods, grandson of Lord Hormizd, the the Shahanshah.

It must be noted that the date of this Iwan and its inscriptions are debated. There are also questions as to whether the inscriptions were added ‘after the fact” by Shapur III.

The Grand Iwan

The overall frontal archway of the Grand Iwan or archway of the Taghe Bostan is distinct and imposing. A discussion of this segment of Taghe Bostan is in essence a four-part discussion that focuses on:

  1. The overall Frontal View
  2. The investiture scene of Khosrow II
  3. The armored knight figure of Khosrow II and steed Sabdiz
  4. The Panels featuring the Royal Hunt

                (1) Overall Frontal View        

The grand Iwan or archway at Taghe Bostan is an impressive structure carved out of the solid rock. Distinctly visible are the arboreal patterns conveying the branches and segments of the sacred tree of life, a mythological pattern common to Iranian peoples since antiquity and especially among the Scythians and the Sarmatians-Alans.

2a-Taq-BostanThe great grotto of Khosrow II at Tagh-e-Bostan. Visible are the arch of the Iwan, the upper register on the back wall featuring the investiture of Khosrow II with the lower section clearly showing the armored knight figure of Khosrow II and his steed Sabdiz (Photo: Shahyar Mahabdi, 2004).

Especially impressive at the grand entrance way are the female angelic or Yazata figures, one at each side of the archway. Much of the artwork for the angel at the left side has collapsed (or suffered damaged) but her head and outstretched right hand holding the “Farr” [Divine Glory] are still intact.

8-Taq-Bostan[Click to Enlarge] The Yazata or Angel at the upper left side of the archway of the Grand Iwan at Taghe Bostan (Photo courtesy of S. Amiri-Parian). Note the fluttering ribbons, a consistent Sassanian theme of regal splendor.

The angel on the right side is considerably more intact : her wings and attire are clearly visible and like her left counterpart, she too holds the “Farr” [Divine Glory] with an outstretched right hand. The right hand angel also holds what appears to be a cup filled with roundels (grapes?) with her left hand.

Tagh-e-Bostan-Amiriparian2[Click to Enlarge] The Yazata or Angel at the upper right side of the archway of the Grand Iwan at Taghe Bostan (Photo courtesy of S. Amiri-Parian).

                (2) Investiture of Khosrow II

The investiture of Khosrow II (r. 590-628 CE) is depicted in the upper panel of the interior of the Grand Iwan at Taghe Bostan.  There are three figures in this scene with Khosrow II seen in the middle clasping a ceremonial and highly decorated broadsword with his left hand. Khosrow II is seen receiving a regal Farr diadem with ribbons from Ahura-Mazda (other researchers however, suggest that this is a Zoroastrian priest). To the left of Khosrow II stands Goddess Anahita who is holding a regal Farr diadem as well; again some researchers have suggested that this figure is not Goddess Anahita and simply depicts a priestess instead.

3-Taq-Bostan[Click to Enlarge] Investiture scene above the late Sassanian armored knight at the vault at Tagh-e Bostan. To the left stands Goddess Anahita with her right hand raised, holding a diadem of glory or “Farr” towards Khosrow II at center who receives a diadem with his right hand from Ahura-Mazda or the chief Magus. Anahita was a revered goddess of war among Sassanian warriors (Source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

                (3) Khosrow II as Armored Knight

 The lower section of the Grand Iwan features a highly detailed statue of a late Sassanian armored knight. The figure, generally identified as Khosrow II (r. 590-628 CE) and his steed Sabdiz, provides valuable information on late Sassanian helmet featuring “eyebrow” view slits, Bargostvan (horse armor), mail, attire and the lappet suspension system.

2c-Taq-BostanThe Late Sassanian knight believed to be Khosrow II and his steed Sabdiz at the great vault or Iwan at Taghe Bostan (Photo: Kamran Sheybanipour).

As the feet of the statue are broken off, it is not clear if the knight was using stirrups. The Sassanians most likely deployed stirrups given the important but little known discovery of a pair of iron stirrups dated to the late Sassanian era or the 6th – 7th centuries CE in Iran’s Marlik region.

Kaveh Farrokh-Elite Sassanina CavalryRecreation of the Taghe Bostan among the Sassanian Elite cavalry (top photo – middle figure with hypothetical Panjgan arrow firing device (Historical artist the late Angus Mcbride; Farrokh, K. Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-, 2005, Osprey Publishing).

                (4) Panels featuring the Royal Hunt

At the ingress into the Grand Iwan stand two panels depicting the Royal Hunt. The panel at left side of the grand Iwan depicts the hunting of boars. The panel also shows elephants and mahouts.

7-Taq-Bostan [Click to Enlarge] The left panel of the Royal Hunt scene at Taghe Bostan (Photo: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004). Note that just above the left boar hunt panel can be seen the post-Islamic era relief of the Fathali Shah (1772-1834) of the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925), which suggests that the Iranians were cognizant of the military exploits of ancient pre-Islamic Persia before the advent of Western academic studies into this domain.

Notable in the left panel is the portrayal of Khosrow II in a boat shooting a boar – there are two distinct “frames” of this: first the boars is shown leaping towards the king and in the next “panel” the boar is killed. Khosrow is seen accompanied by musicians in a second boat.

 8-Taq-Bostan-Chamanara[Click to Enlarge] Close-up of the king engaged in archery in the left (boar hunt) panel (Photo: Javad Chamanara, 2004).

The right panel at the ingress into the Taghe Bostan archway depicts another Royal Hunt. This scene is that of a great deer hunt which takes place within an enclosure or “Pardis”.

4-Taq-Bostan [Click to Enlarge] The right panel of the Royal Hunt scene at Taghe Bostan (Photo: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

In one depiction at the right panel shown above, Khosrow II is provided shade with an umbrella handled by a courtier while he rests his hand on the sword handle. Another depiction is that of rider (possibly again Khosrow II or one of the Savaran knights) about to shoot an arrow downwards towards prey; the sword is suspended at an angle consistent with the lappet-suspension method of Central Asia. Herrmann has argued that the level platform of the rider’s feet suggest that he was probably using stirrups. Musicians are again present in the right panel as well, on the upper left hand side of the picture.

Epilogue: Old Photos of Taghe Bostan

Below are old photos of Taghe Bostan.

Tagh_Bostan-QajarOld photo of the late Sassanian knight at Taghe Bostan during the Qajar era (likely late 19th century) (Forwarded to by Shahyar Mahabadi).

1-Taghe Bostan-1932Old photo of the late Sassanian knight at Taghe Bostan dated to 1932 (courtesy of: Cyrus Ashayeri).