Arctic Mummy from Civilization with Links to Persia

The article below by Richard Grey entitled Riddle of the medieval ‘mummy’ discovered in Siberia: Child from unknown Arctic civilization found wrapped in birch barkoriginally appeared in the Daily Mail on July 6, 2015.

The article is of interest as it pertains to the remains of a child or teenager from the 12th or 13th centuries CE. The Body was discovered at the medieval site near Salekhard in Russia, near Arctic Circle.

Five other bodies found previously at the site were covered in copper plates.These are thought to have been part of a civilization with links to Persia.


The remains of a medieval ‘mummy’ wrapped in a cocoon of birch bark has been discovered at the site of a village that belonged to a mysterious arctic civilization.

Archaeologists discovered the remains, which they believe may be a child or teenager from the 12th or 13th century, while excavating near the town of Salekhard in Tyumen Oblast, Russia.

The site, which is 18 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is thought to be a medieval necropolis where several bodies have been buried in ways unlike anything else found in the region.

The Zeleny Yar necropolis was found just outside Salekhard in Russia, just 18 miles from the Arctic Circle (Source: Daily Mail Online).

Experts say bodies found at the site appear to have been naturally mummified in the permafrost as a result of being buried with sheets of copper in their shrouds and frozen conditions.

Archaeologists have now removed the latest body to be discovered from the sandy soil, which is now only frozen for part of the year – it is the first human remains to be found since 2002.

The remains, which are being kept in a special freezer in the Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, are due to be examined next week.

The birth bark cocoon is around 1.3 metres (4 feet) long and 30cm (12 inches) wide and initial examination has revealed there is metal beneath the birch bark.

The human remains, which were found wrapped in a birch bark ‘cocoon’ shown above, are thought to have been mummified by a combination of copper buried with the body and the freezing permafrost (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times). Archaeologists have removed the body in its wrappings from the sandy soil so it can be examined at in Salekhard, Russia.

Experts say it is likely the body inside has been mummified much like others found at the site.

Alexander Gusev, a fellow of the Research Centre for the Study of the Arctic in Russia who led the excavation, told the Siberian Times the birch bark cocoon appeared to have been wrapped around the body. He said:

“It follows the contours of the human body. If there is really a mummy, the head and skull are likely to be in good condition. We think it is a child, maybe a teenager. The find is now in Salekhard, in the Shemanovsky Museum, in special freezer. We plan to return to Salekhard on 15 July and immediately start the opening of the ‘cocoon’ “.

The mummified remains are the first to be uncovered at the site since 2002 and were carefully removed so they could be preserved, as shown above. Scientists hope to open the bark cocoon soon (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

The mummy was discovered at the site of a medieval necropolis called Zeleny Yar, which has baffled some archaeologists due to its closeness to the Arctic Circle.

These images captured by local television crews from broadcaster Vesti Yamal show archaeologists studying the bark wrapped remains before removing them so they can be preserved and examined in more detail (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

Previously they found 34 shallow graves at the site and 11 bodies with shattered or missing skulls.

Five mummies were found to be shrouded in copper and elaborately covered in reindeer, beaver, wolverine or bear fur. Among them was a female child whose face was masked by copper plates.

The bark cocoon (above) appears to have been wrapped around the body of a child or teenager. Experts also used metal detectors and found there is metal – possibly copper – inside covering the well preserved body (Photo source: Vesti Yamal, The Siberian Times).

Three male infants, also shrouded in copper masks, were also found nearby. They were also bound in four or five copper hoops.

A red-haired man, protected from chest to foot with copper plating and buried with an iron hatchet, furs and a bronze head buckle depicting a bear was also found at the site.

Five other mummified bodies have been found at the mysterious Zeleny Yar site, including the red headed man above who was found covered in copper plating and buried with an iron hatchet and covered in furs (Photo source: The Siberian Times).

Geneticists who have used DNA from the bodies recovered from the site recently revealed that their mitochondrial DNA appeared to match those of modern populations living in West Siberia.

Natalia Fyodorova, from the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences said previously about the discoveries:

“Nowhere in the world are there so many mummified remains found outside the permafrost or the marshes. It is a unique archaeological site. We are pioneers in everything from taking away the object of sandy soil (which has not been done previously) and ending with the possibility of further research.”

This copper facial mask was found on one of five other mummified bodies discovered at the Zeleny Yar site (Photo source: Natalya Fyodorova, The Siberian Times).

Artifacts found at the site, including bronze bowls, have led experts to conclude the people had links to Persia, some 3,700 miles to the south-west.

Iranian Elements in Kaśmīr and Tibet

The article below Iranian Elements in Kaśmīr and Tibet: Sasanian and Sogdian Borrowings in Kashmiri and Tibetan Art” by Matteo Compareti was originally posted in


The territory of modern Kaśmīr was the homeland of famous Buddhist monks who had very important roles in the buddhization of the Himalayan region and Chinese Turkestan. The Kashimro-Kuchean monk Kumarajiva (344-413) was so famous that the Chinese Emperor Yao Xing (393-415) wanted him at Chang’an, while Padmasambhava was expressly invited sometime between 770-780 by Khri srong lde btsan (756-797) from Uḍḍiyāna (a region bordering Kaśmīr) in order to win over the last resistance to the adoption of Buddhism in Tibet. Later, Rin chen bzang po (958-1055) studied in India and Kaśmīr before the foundation of his famous Buddhist school in Tibet. However, the relations between Kaśmīr and Tibet were not always friendly especially during the rule of the Kārkoṭa (c. 622-855) and Utpala (c. 855-1003) dynasties.

1.1. Kaśmīr under the Kārkoṭas and Utpalas

During the reign of Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya (c.725-760/61)1, Kaśmīr experienced an exceptional period of cultural and artistic flourishing. Despite the Kārkoṭa adhesion to Hinduism, Buddhists did not suffer much under Lalitāditya who apparently even protected the followers of the Dharma. The monuments dated to his reign, which are still visible, reveal clear signs of contact between Kaśmīr and the Classical and the Iranian world possibly due to the actual presence of architects and artists originally from these distant regions (Goetz, 1969.b) although it is not possible to exclude that such Hellenistic elements were just borrowings from the art of Gandhāra (Siudmak, 2007: 45).

The extension of Lalitāditya’s domains into parts of North-Western India and Bactria-Tokharistān and the submission of the Turki Śahī (c. 665-843, but in Zabul until 870) as it was presented by Hermann Goetz several years ago have been reconsidered in the light of recent re-examination of Chinese written sources and local coinage. The background of the “golden age” of Kaśmīr presents difficulties especially for the relations with neighboring kingdoms: Bactria-Tokharistān was under Arab rule, while Kapiśa and Zabul were governed by Turkish dynasties (the Turki Śahī) who were friendly with the Kārkoṭas (Sen, 2004: 152-154).

Very soon Lalitāditya entered into conflict with the Tibetans who – during the period of the sPu rgyal (or Yarlung) Dynasty (649-850 c.) – wanted to expand their domains into the Southern Hindukush. For this reason, he was considered a good ally of the Tang Empire (618-906) (Wink, 1990: 243-244; Sen, 2004). Chinese chronicles and other literary sources of the Heavenly Empire recently collected in a very interesting study by Tansen Sen, give quite a clear image of the geopolitical situation in the Southern Hindukush region around 700 (Sen, 2004). The position of the Arabs in Bactria-Tokharistān and the Turki Śahī in the area between modern Eastern Afghanistan and North-Western Pakistan has already been considered above. Kaśmīr (Gushimi or Jiashimiluo according to Chinese sources) formed an alliance with the Tang in order to contain the advance of the Tibetans into India. The Chinese army was headed by Gao Xianzhi, a general of Korean origins who, later, was defeated in 751 at the famous battle of Talas (South-Eastern Kazakhstan) by a Turco-Arab coalition.

It does not seem that Muktāpīḍa (Muduobi in Chinese sources) fought alone as in Goetz’s reconstruction although the expansionist intentions of the Tibetans should have certainly alarmed him. During the war against Khri lde gtsug brtsan (commonly known as Mes ag tshoms, 712-755) and Khri srong lde brtsan, the figure of Lalitāditya assumed legendary proportions and for this reason it should be considered more cautiously (Wink, 1990: 243-254; Sen, 2004).

The main direct literary source about the life of Muktāpīḍa Lalitāditya and other Kashmiri sovereigns is the Rājataraṅgiṇī. This work was composed by Kalhaṇa in 12th century and it represents the first example of a “chronicle” ever written in India. Interesting information can be obtained in the same source such as regarding the history of Kaśmīr in relation to Iranian-culture. In the Rājataraṅgiṇī, the Kuṣāṇ annexation of Kaśmīr under Huviṣka and Kaniṣka (2nd century) is mentioned together with the coming of the Kidarites and, possibly, the Hephtalites in the 4th-6th centuries (Rosenfield, 1967: 49-50; Dani, 1996: 167-172)2. Both these peoples, in fact, adopted the culture of Bactriana but their ethnic affiliation still remains a mystery. However, there are no Kashmiri monuments to be safely attributed to the Kuṣāṇas or other Iranian-culture peoples although, as we shall consider below, some doubts arise about the Harwan complex.

In a passage of the Rājataraṅgiṇī (in book VI, 192), we read about an interesting association between the Sun (Sūrya) Temple at Mārtand and a city not far away whose main activity was the cultivation of the grape (Stein, 1906: 141). As P. Pal argued, the city was possibly populated by a colony of Persians who had escaped during the Arab invasion (Pal, 1975: 42). His hypothesis is based both on the presence of grapes such as on the Indian cult dedicated to the sun by the Maga Brāhmaṇa (Wink, 1990: 252; Panaino, 1996), a sect settled in this part of India long before the fall of the Sasanians (224-642) who could have given refuge to the exiled Persians.

However, as already observed by this author (Compareti, 2000: 338), an identification of the people of the grape-city with the Sogdians seems more likely. As in Chinese sources, Sogdians are described as people fond of wine (Chavannes, 1903: 134; Trombert, 2005). According to one Chinese literary source, then, around the city of Shanshan (Xinjiang Province) there was a settlement called the City of the Grape (Putao Cheng) because of the plantations of grapevines there by Sogdians (Giles, 1930-1932: 829-830; de La Vaissière, Trombert, 2004: 950). Moreover, Mithra was a god venerated in Sogdiana itself as well (Grenet, 2001) and, according to the Muslim author al-Idrīsī, some parts of Kaśmīr were “inhabited by people and merchants from all parts of the world” (Wink, 1990: 247). Since al-Idrīsī was writing in 12th century, it is hard to imagine that he was not referring to Sogdians too. In any case, it is not possible to state for certain if the construction of the Sūrya Temple at Mārtand had some connection with the Iranians living in Kaśmīr since this god had many followers in medieval India as well. Moreover, the grape could have been introduced into Kaśmīr much earlier, even during the Indo-Greek or Kuṣāṇa period (Pal, 2007: 23).

1.2. Iranian elements in Kaśmīr

Some specimens of Kashmiri art display very clear Iranian borrowings. The much discussed terracotta tiles from the Buddhist complex of Harwan (not far from Śrinagar) have always attracted the attention of students of Iranian art for decorative elements such as pearl roundels containing single flowers (fig. 1) or birds (fig. 2), and archers hunting animals according to the so-called “flying gallop” style while ribbons attached to the body are floating in the air (fig. 3). These elements, in fact, call to mind a typical Sasanian decoration which, however, obliges us to revise the chronology proposed for the site (Paul, 1986: 53-62).

Fig. 1. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XL fig. 43.

A date as late as possible would fit better for Harwan, as, in the past, a chronology was proposed that was obviously too early, thus rendering impossible the presence of the (Iranian) pearl roundels pattern (Kak, 1933: pls. XX, XXII.1, XXII.3, XXX.22, XXXIV.31, XL.42-43; Fisher, 1987.a). In the most recent study dedicated to Kashmiri art, a date to 5th century is proposed (Paul, 1986: 44), although even the 6th century could also be considered likely: this was the period of invasions from the north-west which have been attributed to the Huṇas by Indian sources.

Fig. 2. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XXX fig. 22.

Of the Huṇas much needs to be discovered (Parlato, 1990; De La Vaissière, 2003) but it is not possible to deny that the invaders of North-Western India could have brought Iranian elements although their affiliation was to a different ethnic group (for example, even Altaic). In any case, it is worth remembering that pearl roundels containing single lotus flowers appeared around 1st century in Indian art at Bharut (?) and Sañci (Bénisti, 1952). So, a pure Indian component should be taken into consideration when studying the Harwan tiles.

Fig. 3. After: Kak, 1933: pl. XXXIII fig. 3 (detail).

On the other hand, the pearl roundels reproduced on the pillows on which two bronze statuettes of Buddha are sitting in maradhāsanamudrā and dharmacakramudrā can not be considered proper Sasanian despite the hypotheses expressed by some scholars who consider such an element indisputably Sasanian (Tucci, 1974: 300). The statuettes are kept respectively in the Norton Simon Museum (fig. 4) and the Lahore Museum (fig. 5) and they can be dated quite precisely to 8th century Kaśmīr (Pal, 1975: cat. 22.a-b; Catalogue Naples, 1964: cat. 329).

Fig. 4. After: Pal, 1975: cat. 22.a.

The vegetal elements represented inside the pearl roundels have a very precise parallel in the figurative textiles found around Turfan (Gao, 1986: 129, fig. 91 and 161, fig. 76). Although it is not clear if these textiles were actually produced in the area of Turfan or in the region of Shu (modern Sichuan Province), the presence of Sogdians at both Chinese sites represents an historical fact (Compareti, 2006). A third 8th century metal statuette recently showed on the occasion of an exhibition in Germany could be included in this group: it is possible to observe a Buddha in dharmacakramudrā sitting on a pillow on a high pedestal wonderfully embellished (Catalogue Berlin, 2006: cat. 11). It was kept in the Potala in Lhasa and its state of preservation is excellent: traces of color can be clearly observed on the whole statue especially on the face and hair of Buddha and on the pillow embellished with pearl roundels of the same kind of the two other metal statuette in the Norton Simon Museum and the Lahore Museum.

Fig. 5. After: Catalogue Naples, 1964: cat. 329.

One last 8th century Kashmiri bronze with silver and copper inlay, now part of a private collection, presents interesting decorations too (Heller, 2006: figs. 125-129). The sitting Buddha in dharmacakramudrā is curiously dressed with precious clothes, a pointed crown and ribbons while at his sides stand two bodhisattvas and, below, three smaller donors. Pearl roundels embellish the frontal side of the pillow on which the Buddha is sitting and the garments of one donor, although the latter is only partially visible (fig. 6). A very important detail of this statue is the three-pointed camail on Buddha’s shoulders. In fact, usually, just bodhisattvas and minor Buddhist deities have such precious garments since they are not supposed to have done any renunciation. This kind of small cloak reflects the fashion of the people living in the North-Western Indian regions and in the territory of modern Afghanistan and, sometimes, it can be observed worn by Buddha himself according to the typology called “Buddha parée” (Compareti, 2007).

Fig. 6. After: Heller, 2006: fig. 126 (detail).

A typical Iranian dress, the camail, can be observed often in Kashmiri statues of Sūrya as, for example, at Martand, in the Lahore Museum (fig. 7), in the Srinagar Museum and in several bronze statues kept in museums and private collections (Goetz, 1969: pl. XXI; Fisher, 1987.b: fig. 7; Siudmak, 1987: 51; Harle, 1987; Pal, 1992: figs. 3, 6-7). The camail is a three-pointed poncho-like cloak worn over the other clothes. Figures of donors wearing the camail can be observed in Gandhāran statues but also, later, in Sogdian paintings from Panjakand (Marshak, 2002: fig. 60). According to J. Siudmak, the camail would have been introduced into Kaśmīr during the Kārkoṭa Dynasty, possibly, by the Buddhist communities protected by Lalitāditya (Siudmak, 1987: 51). One of Lalitāditya’s ministers, in fact, was a Tokharian and a patron of Buddhist works too. His name was Cankuna, possibly a corruption of the Chinese title jiangjun (general), and, most likely, he was a follower of the Dharma (Goetz, 1969.a: 11-12). This figure as well has been critically reconsidered by Tansen Sen and, if his suggestions (as it seems likely) are to be considered correct, then Cankuna should be considered to have come from Bactria-Tokharistān and not from the region of the Tarim Basin as supposed by H. Goetz (Sen, 2004: 151-152). Since in all the territories just mentioned the pearl roundels pattern was very well-known and appreciated, it was proposed to attribute to Cankuna its introduction into Kaśmīr (von Schroeder, 1981: 107). The hypothesis seems to be likely but it is not clear if Cankuna himself adopted particular decorations directly from Sasanian or Sogdian traditions. The second hypothesis would seem more convincing since, in the 8th century, the Sasanians did not exist anymore.

Fig. 7. After: Pal, 1992: fig. 6.

Architectonic decoration under the Kārkoṭas show Iranian elements as well. The Śiva stone temple at Pandrethan has the ceiling embellished by large pearl roundels containing lotus flowers of the same kind of the Harwan ones (Brown, 1955: 48; Fisher, 1987.b: fig. 9, 14). The same shape of the ceiling has a clear parallel in the so-called “lantern” typology which was very widespread in Central Asia such as at Varakhša and Qal‘a-e Qahqaha (but also in the Caucasus). Strangely enough, pearl roundels do not appear at Mārtand.

After the death of Lalitāditya, the Kārkoṭa Dynasty lasted one century more although the territorial boundaries and the splendor of the court were not the same. The Utpalas did not favor Buddhism as their predecessors. Such a situation mirrors a general trend of the whole of India with the exception of the Bengala region. In the Utpala tributary territory of the Hindū Śahī (c. 843-1026)3, between modern South-Western Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, Hinduism was the main religion too, as the same dynastic name of those sovereigns points out. Hindu sovereigns were not always tolerant with other religions spread in India which, during some periods, suffered persecutions (Verardi, 2002; Verardi, 2003; Verardi, Paparatti, 2004: 97-102). Among the few protectors of Buddhism in Central Asia there was Tang China that was present in the area until 750. This is considered to be the main reason for the sinicized features of the face of Buddhist statues on a great area extended from the borders with China to Margiana (Rhie, 1988; Verardi, Visconti, forthcoming). Kaśmīr does not seem to constitute an exception and, in fact, the famous Kashmiri Buddhist bronzes display very strong mongolic traits such as almond eyes (Goetz, 1955: 72; Heller, 2008: 30).

The Rājataraṅgiṇī is not too explicit about the material presence of Iranians in the territory of Kaśmīr although the decoration of some temples in the area of Śrinagar shows evident signs of Iranian borrowings. The temple of Avantisvāmi (or Avantiśvāra) in Vantipur has columns embellished with vertical pearl roundels containing animal, vegetal and geometric elements. The repertoire at Avantisvāmi is very rich: here, in fact, all the typology of pearl roundels just described can be observed (fig. 8). The roundels at Avantisvāmi also present square elements in the points where they should have been tangent to another roundel. This is a typical solution observed in Sasanian stuccoes and, occasionally, textiles, while in Sogdian textile art it is much more widespread (Compareti, 2004.a). Certainly, many Persians escaped from the Arabs who invaded the Sasanian Empire and it is also probable that they settled in some parts of India and Central Asia4. As it is well-known, typical Sasanian motifs were accepted by the Omayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1268) but it is very strange to observe them in Kaśmīr during the Utpala period, that is to say, approximately two centuries after the end of the Sasanians. Moreover, the decorations of the Avantisvāmi temple comprehend images of facing animals also which were not appreciated at the Sasanian court (Compareti, 2000: 338-339)5. On the contrary, facing animals represent the main subject inside the pearl roundels of the textiles improperly called zandaniji, which were woven in a non-determined region of Central Asia after the Arab conquest (Marshak, 2006.a; Raspopova, 2006). So, it seems more probable that the Iranian motifs adopted in the decoration of the Utpala temples were coming from Central Asia and not from Sasanian Persia.

Fig. 8. After: Kak, 1933: LXXXII.

At the time of the Kārkoṭas and the Utpalas and even later, at least until 12th-13th centuries, Kashmiri art deeply influenced the entire Himalayan region (Pal, 1987; Siudmak, 2000; Henss, 2002; Béguin, 2002: 246-247; Heller, 2008: 28-30). Most likely, Iranian elements observed in the artistic production of Tibet arrived there through Kashmiri artists. Not only central Tibet but also Ladakh and Guge – that is to say, the western outskirts of the Tibetan Empire – accepted many Iranian elements especially in the decoration of the garments of Bodhisattvas and, quite strangely, Buddha too. The main Buddhist centers of Ladakh are represented by the monasteries of Mangyu and Alchi, dated to 12th-13th century (Pal, 1988; Linrothe, 1994; Goepper, 1996). The latter site is particularly interesting for the presence of pearl roundels reproduced on the ceiling of the Sumtsek (gSum-brtsegs), a three-storied temple built in early 13th century (fig. 9). Many patterns of pearl roundels can be observed and scholars agree in recognizing not only Iranian motifs but also painted imitations of textiles (Flood, 1991; Goepper, 1993; Goepper, 1996: 225-264). The same decorations which embellish the garments of important people in the paintings at Alchi display clear Iranian borrowings: and also for them a Sogdian origin can be argued (Singh, 1991: 517; Sims, 2002: 23-24; Pal, 2007: 147-149). Very recently, new Tibetan paintings have been discovered in the region of the ancient kingdom of Guge which is nowadays under Chinese administration too. According to the preliminary investigations, there are clear Kashmiri borrowings in those paintings which could be dated between 11th-15th/16th century (The Institute of Chinese Tibetan Learning of Sichuan University, 2007: figs. 10-13, 21-24; Pritzker, 2008).

Fig. 9. After: Flood, 1991: fig. 3.

Something more could be added about the paintings on the dhotī of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara on the ground floor of the Sumtsek at Alchi. Approximately in its center, slightly above the knees of the statue, two scenes attracted the attention of scholars for two reasons: they are the only ones not to be interpreted as religious scenes and “clearly reflect stylistic elements that are different from the earlier Buddhist paintings of the eleventh-century monuments. They evoke a cultural milieu that was both sophisticated and cosmopolitan” (Pal, 2007: 147). On the right leg a royal couple sits in a palace while musicians and attendants can be observed outside on both sides. On the left leg there is the representation of a parade of horsemen and the king appears too holding clear royal symbols like the axe (fig. 10). Not only some of the textile decorations could be associated to the Iranian world but the royal scene itself calls to mind similar Islamic book illustrations which could be contemporary with the paintings in Alchi.

Fig. 10. After: Pal, 2007: fig. 157.a-b.

Many specimens of Islamic book illustration could be mentioned in order to find a parallel with the Alchi paintings under exam but there is a frontispiece in the Topkapı Saray (Istanbul) known as Hazine 2125 which resembles surviving parts of an important 7th century cycle of Sogdian paintings at Afrāsyāb (ancient Samarkand) whose origins are definitely rooted in pre-Islamic traditions of Central Asian art (Esin, 1977; Pugačenkova, 1987). As I attempted to prove in another paper, at least at Afrāsyāb there is the representation of the local Nawrūz (the most important Iranian festival) while in the Topkapı and in many other Islamic book illustrations it is not possible to be that specific: what is really important to remark is the common origins of such a stereotyped scene despite its meaning which could be different according to the cultural milieu where it is found (Compareti, forthcoming 2009). Musicians appear always in this group of images together with dancers and attendants offering a flower (or a plant), a bow with arrows, and also horses and other animals used for hunting (dogs and falcons) to the king or the royal couple (fig. 11)6. Something similar could be guessed for Alchi itself. In fact, even if we do not know the exact meaning of that royal scene it is interesting to note that the Kashmiri artists who executed it chose an Iranian model which was spread for a very long time and accepted also by other Central Asian peoples like Turks and Mongols.

Fig. 11. After: Compareti, forthcoming 2009: figs. 4-5.

In Ladakh some Sogdian inscriptions have been discovered too. They cannot be dated precisely but, while the 4th-6th century inscriptions do not represent an unicum since there are other contemporary ones in the Hindus Valley (Sims-Williams, 1989-1992), the 9th century inscription, on the contrary, is among the latest evidence concerning the presence of Sogdians along the Himalyan trade routes (Sims-Williams, 1993; Vohra, 1994).

The main monuments in the territory of Guge (which is nowadays divided between India and China) are: the monastery of Tabo and the grottoes of Dung dkar, both dated to the 11th century (Wandl, 1999; Neumann, 2000). The paintings from Tabo are definitely the most interesting and they were rightly associated with the paintings at Bāmyān for their numerous Iranian decorative elements (Klimburg-Salter, 1996). A unique group of manuscript covers from the area of Gilgit possibly dated to 7th-8th century constitutes another parallel with paintings produced in the areas of modern Afghanistan where Iranian Buddhism was spread. Not only are the figures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas on these covers extremely similar to the models at Bāmyān, Kakrak and Fondukistān but the features of the donors represented kneeling besides them also have clearly common roots (Klimburg-Salter, 1990; Klimburg-Salter, 1991).

2.1. Tibet under the Yarlung

During the period of the Yarlung Dynasty, Tibet was one of the main powers in Central Asia and the contacts with the Sogdians are attested in several sources. The Tibetans extended their conquests on the Tarim Basin between 666-692 and, more firmly, between 760-850. They also conquered some parts of Gansu (Haarh, 1969; Beckwith, 1987; Hoffmann, 1990). Until a first attempt of establishing good relationships with the Omayyads and, later, the Abbasids (Dunlop, 1973), the btsanpo Khri lde gtsug brtsan (712-755) – one of whose wives was a princess from Samarkand (Twitchett, 1979: 432) – fought against the Arabs together with his Turkic allies in order to expel them from Sogdiana (Beckwith, 1987: 108-110). It is not completely clear what was the reason for such an intervention. Possibly the Sogdian traders represented a good source of gain for the Tibetans who controlled the access to some vital routes in Central Asia. The relationships between Sogdiana and Tibet were in general friendly (Li, 1957-58; Hoffman, 1971; Uray, 1979: 282-283; De La Vaissière, 2002: 152-153), even though it is reported that there was at least one episode of an incident when a Tibetan official was captured by some Sogdians in 694 (Li, 1957-58; Hoffman, 1971: 443-446; Beckwith, 1987: 56).

The Yarlung conquest of Khotan – an Iranian Buddhist kingdom in strict relations with Kaśmīr and Sogdiana (Bailey, 1982: 4, 9, 57: Kumamoto, 1996: 84-86; Mu, Wang, 1996) – heralded the immigration of many Khotanese monks, craftsmen and merchants into Tibet (Hofmann, 1971: 451-453; Gropp, 1974: 36-37). A Kashmiri bronze statue is said to have been found at the site of Domoko, in the Khotan Oasis (Heller, 2006: 185, n. 25; Heller, 2008: fig. 11). The word for merchant in Khotanese was sūlī (plural sūlya, sūlīya) and, although it is probably connected with an Iranian root sau– (to earn), most likely, it is also associated to the ethnonym sūlya: Sogdian. This is probably due to the fact that the Sogdians were considered the merchants par excellence in Central Asia (Bailey, 1982: 23; De La Vaissière, 2002: 64, 130).

The Sogdians had trade relationships with Tibet (Beckwith, 1965: 100-103: De La Vaissière, 2002: 303). Since the main items traded by Sogdians were luxury goods, it is possible to consider that they imported into Tibet precious silks and metalwork. The court of Lhasa, on the other hand, provided the Sogdians with the famous perfumed musk which was very much requested by the Muslim courts. According to Mas’udi (10th century), some merchants that he met in Eastern Persia arrived there “from Sogdiana through […] the mountains of Tibet and China” (Shboul, 1979: 162, n. 80). Furthermore, the Tibetans were aware of the religions professed by the Sogdians as it is clearly reported in their literary sources (Uray, 1983). According to Klimkeit, there were several Manichaean elements in the paintings at Alchi but, more recently, such a hypothesis has been rejected by Lieu (Klimkeit, 1979; Klimkeit, 1982; Lieu, 1998: 54-56).

2.2. Iranian elements in Tibet

The archaeological investigation confirmed the reciprocal knowledge of the Sogdians and the Tibetans7. Several textiles and metalwork embellished with motifs, very common in Sogdian art, have been recovered from the cemetery of Dulan, not far from Reshui in Qinghai Province, which can be dated to 8th-9th century (Heller, 1998.a; Heller, 1999; Heller, 2003.a; Heller, 2006). This region was known as Amdo and, in that period, it was part of the Tibetan Empire. Also the funerary habits of the princely tombs at Dulan reveal connections with Tibet.

Other textiles from Tibet appeared in the antiquary market and form important collections in museums around the world. A child’s jacket embellished with pearl roundels containing confronted ducks (fig. 12) constitutes an exact parallel with the so-called zandaniji textiles and with some silk fragments from Dulan (Catalogue New York, 1997: 34-37; Heller, 1998.b).

Fig. 12. After: Catalogue New York, 1997: cat. 5.

A unique silk fragment from Dulan presents a very interesting inscription in Pahlavi, the language used by the Sasanians for their official inscriptions. This fragment represents the only unquestionable evidence of the relationships between Persia and Tibet although the possibility can not be ruled out that it was written by a person who was not a Persian but knew Pahlavi. For example, Manichaeans who lived in the territory around Turfan (for long periods even under Tibetan control) continued to use Pahlavi after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (Tremblay, 2001: 220-238). Also Sasanian silver coins have been found in the cemetery of Dulan (Heller, 2008: 16-18) although they could have been imported by Sogdians who, very often, used Persian coins of the reign of Peroz (459-484) after countermarking them even with typical Sasanian symbols (Nikitin, Roth, 1995).

As it is well-known, many Persians escaped from the Arab conquest of the Sasanian Empire and epigraphic traces of their presence are found in Sogdiana at Panjakand and Paykand (Raspopova, 1990: fig. 26; Semenov, Mirzaahmedov, 2001: 9), in China at Chang’an on a 9th century funerary stele which belonged to Māhšī Sūrēn (Harmatta, 1971) and, more recently, at Dulan8. For this reason, A. Nikitin proposed a very interesting hypothesis about the rise of Tibet as a “world power” during 7th century. According to him, the arrival of Iranians at Lhasa gave a great impulse to the development and organization of the Tibetan military power which in a few years constituted a menace for China, the Uighurs and the Arabs9. One of the main technological resources of the Tibetans, in fact, was the production of chain mail for armor. At least one Chinese source describes Tibetan warriors and horses as completely clad in armor, so that only the eyes were not protected (Beckwith, 1987: 110). This description, actually, calls to mind the (late) Sasanian relief of one equestrian knight completely clad in armor in the bigger grotto at Ṭāq-e Bostān which represents, however, a unique and enigmatic specimen of sculpture in the whole of pre-Islamic Persian art (Fukai, Horiuchi, 1972).

Even if the interesting suggestion by Nikitin is accepted, there are only the Pahlavi inscription from Dulan and few coins to support a conspicuous presence of Persians at the court of Lhasa so, for the moment, it is not possible to be more specific. Little other evidence could be enlisted about the Tibetan-Persian relationships. According to a stone tablet inscribed in Chinese and said to be kept in Tokyo, a Christian official of Persian origin called Aluohan was at the head of some Tibetan tribes that he tried to convert between 656 and 661 (Dauvillier, 1950: 218). It is not clear if this is the same Aluohan who was in the service of the Tang Dynasty in 7th century and who was possibly one of the sons of the last Sasanian king Yazdigard III (632-651) (Forte, 1996.a)10. In late Sasanian Persia, Christians had very important positions and it is not excluded that Yazdigard III and Peroz (another of his sons) had many connections with them (Compareti, 2003: 207-208). Other Chinese literary sources state that in 677 Peroz requested the Chinese Emperor for permission to build a “Persian temple” in Chang’an which was, most likely, a Christian and not a Mazdean building (Forte, 1996.b: 355, 364).

However, Zoroastrianism continued to be the creed of the Iranians and especially the Persians. Common elements in Zoroastrian literature and in Tantric religion have been considered to be a trait borrowed by Tibetans from Iranian lands (Templeman, 2002).

The tombs belonged to people who were in very strict contact with Tibet like those under excavation in Guolimu, Haixi (Qinghai) revealed also 9th century painted coffins embellished with very interesting scenes (Luo, 2006). The main subject is the hunt which is represented according to formulae very spread on a very big area, practically in the whole Eurasian continent. In the case of the Guolimu coffin it is possible to observe at least one hunter shooting a couple of running yaks in the position of the so-called “Parthian shot” (fig. 13). In the same painting there is also a deer hunt and a scene which could be interpreted as a banquet in front of a tent.

Fig. 13. After: Luo, 2006: 1 (detail).

According to B. Maršak, a silver gilt dish kept in the Miho Museum (Shigaraki, Japan) embellished with fantastic creatures should be attributed to 8th-9th century Tibet (Catalogue Wien, 1999: cat. 49; Heller, 2003.b: 228-229). Very strong Iranian elements can be observed on the body of the central centaur and on the bodies of the winged couples of animals along the external rim of the dish (fig. 14). These elements reproduce vegetal or geometric motifs typical of Sogdian textiles and metalwork (Compareti, 2004.b: 874-882). Mushroom-like horns can be observed on the head of some of the winged deer, according to a scheme similarly developed in Sogdian metalwork (Maršak, 1971: T29, T 37). Iranian traditions seem to be evident in Himalayan metalwork production just because importations from Sasanian Persia were very common throughout the Eurasian continent. As recent investigations would support, it is very likely that Sasanian sovereigns used luxury objects like textiles and metalwork as the main goods to be exchanged with neighboring kingdoms. Persian metalwork and textiles have been found in the tombs of important people from the Urals to Japan, and it is highly probable that the same Tang emperors adopted the habit to present diplomatic gifts according to the “Western” iconography because of the contacts with Sasanians and Sogdians (Compareti, 2000). A silver bowl embellished with Greek themes found in Tibet which has been considered to be Persian (Denwood, 1973) could be easily a metalwork produced in Bactria-Tokharistan where Hellenistic borrowings have been always stronger than in Iran and in other regions of Central Asia.

Fig. 14. After: Catalogue Wien, 1999: cat. 49 (detail).

An 8th century silver jar kept in Lhasa depicts the head of a mushroom-like-antler deer on its top, while the body of the jar is embellished with representations of Iranian people, most likely Sogdians dancing and drinking (Heller, 2003.b). Sogdian metalwork would have been highly esteemed in Tibet and, in fact, evidence of such an influence can be noted in several Tibetan specimens found at different archaeological sites (Heller, 2003.a; Heller, 2003.b).

The most important evidence of the real use (or, at least, of the knowledge) of garments embellished with Iranian motifs by the Tibetan high classes is preserved in Chinese art. A scroll representing the Chinese Emperors painted by the famous artist Yan Liben (c. 600-674) shows also a Tibetan envoy wearing a caftan embellished with single birds within pearl roundels (fig. 15). The scene possibly refers to an episode which actually happened in 640, when the Tibetan minister mGar sTon btsan yul zun arrived in Chang’an in order to escort to Lhasa the Chinese princess Wencheng Gongzhu who was promised to his king, Srong btsan sgam po (c. 610-649) (Karmay, 1975; Karmay, 1977). The detailed rendering of the “barbaric” garments of mGar evidently attracted the attention of Yan Liben who probably saw with his own eyes the Tibetan embassy. However, Chinese literary sources say that silk started to be adopted by Tibetans only after the wedding of Srong btsan sgam po with Wencheng Gongzhu (Richardson, 1975). So, the caftan worn by mGar could have been a gift of the Tang Emperor although the possibility that Tibetans already knew precious textiles cannot be ruled out. A different interpretation could be given in order to identify that person. Recently, it was proposed to recognize him as a foreigner, specifically a Sogdian, who worked for the Tibetans due to his physical features and caftan (Heller, 2003.b: 223, 231). Sogdians from different social classes and, particularly, merchants worked at the Chinese courts between 4th-9th century as translators as well.

Fig. 15. After: 5000 ans d’art chinois. Peinture 2. La peinture sous les Sui, les Tang et les Cinq Dynasties, ed. Jin Weinuo, Beijing, Bruxelles, 1988: fig. 2a, p. 232.

Possibly, the Sogdian traders brought silk into Tibet. The pearl roundels on the garment of Yan Liben’s “Tibetan” envoy, in fact, present single birds of the same kind observed in Sogdian paintings at Afrāsyāb, Panjakand and Varakhša. The hypotheses expressed about the painting by Yan Liben consider the caftan worn by the envoy as a silk product as a matter of fact although it could have been, for example, also a woolen garment, or another warm textile more attuned to the weather of Tibet.

The sources and the archaeological evidence considered above point out at a situation just partially investigated11. Nevertheless, it is possible to state that the Sogdians were much more present in Kaśmīr and Tibet than the Persians unless the first studies dedicated to the Iranian elements in the Himalayan regions favored the Sasanians.

Further investigations could shed light on the hypothesis about a strong Iranian presence in Tibet after the unification of the country in the middle of 7th century and an improving of technical and military knowledge, something which would require an approach from the point of view of specialists not only in the field of Iranian studies but Tibetan too.


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U. von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1981.

E. Wandl, “Painted Textiles in a Buddhist Temple”, Textile History, 30, 1, 1999: 16-28.

A. Wink, Al-Hind. The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Vol. I. Early Medieval India and the Expansion of Islam 7th-11th Centuries, Leiden, New York, København, Köln, 1990.

Zhao Feng, “Weaving Methods for Western-Style Samit from the Silk Road in Northwestern China”, in: Central Asian Textiles and Their Contexts in the Early Middle Ages, Riggisberger Berichte, 9, 2006: 189-210.


1 There is no unanimity about the chronology of Lalitāditya’s reign. His period of reign has been recently discussed in: Sen, 2004: 151. For a date between 724 and 761: Siudmak, 2000: 38.

2 On the problems concerning the identification of the Huṇas of the Indian sources with the Hephtalites, see: Parlato, 1990; De La Vaissière, 2003; De La Vaissière, 2005: 7-10.

3 Under the first three Utpala sovereigns – Avantivarman (855-883), Śamkaravarman (883-902) and queen Sughanda (902-906) – the Hindū Śahī were tributaries of Kaśmīr but, later, they conquered independence and even became more powerful than their old lords. The new situation was possible also because the Ṣaffārids (c. 845-913) did not constitute a problem for them anymore. During the period of the Lohara dynasty (c. 1003-1101), Kaśmīr experienced some of its ancient splendor before loosing its importance as a regional power: Goetz, 1969.c: 68-69; Rehman, 1979: 97-118.

4 The last Sasanian representatives lived exiled at the Tang court and, at least in a first moment, they were not sinicized: Compareti, 2003.

5 There is only one single silver jar considered to be a true Sasanian production which present two lions in a very similar position of some of the decorations at Avantisvāmi: Ghirshman, 1962: fig. 404.

6 The list of things to be presented to the sovereign during the celebration of the Nawrūz is mentioned more or less explicitly in many Islamic written sources (Arabic and Persian). One of the most important sources is represented by the Nawrūz-namāhThe book of the New Year” in Persian which has been recently investigated by Simone Cristoforetti and will be soon published in the journal “Eurasian Studies“. I wish to thank S. Cristoforetti who allow me to read his forthcoming article.

7 It was recently proposed to recognize (cautiously) a delegation of Tibetans also among the 7th century Sogdian paintings on the western wall of the so-called “Hall of the Ambassadors” at Afrāsyāb: Grenet, 2006: 48-49.

8 The translation of the embroidered inscription is “king of kings, the great and glorious” but the name of the possible Sasanian king mentioned there was not preserved: Catalogue New York 2004: cat. 244; Zhao, 2006: fig. 142.

9 Alexander Nikitin kindly exposed to me his ideas during a conference held in St.Petersburg between November 2nd-5th 2004. The Russian scholar was called to give a first reading and translation of the Pahlavi inscription on the textile fragment from Dulan. The idea by Nikitin calls to mind a study by H. Goetz where he expressed about the growth of Kaśmīr as one of the main powers in the region because of the technologies imported by the Chinese and the Sasanian immigrants: Goetz, 1969.a: 21. Very similar ideas have been formulated also in : Wink, 1990: 239, 243, 250-251.

10 To say the truth, it is not really clear if this stone tablet should be considered a reliable source. In his short article, Dauvillier just writes about the scholar who would have studied it: Y. Saeki, a Japanese Christian priest who wrote extendedly about “Nestorianism” in Far East in the beginning of the last century.

11 A fragmentary painting considered to be Kušān has been recently found in Tibet through antiquaries from Thailand: Marshak, 2006.b. This would be a further evidence of the contacts between the Himalayan Region and Iranian-culture peoples in Late Antiquity.

UNESCO: Recognition of Polo (Chogan) as a Sport Originating In Iran

The report “UNESCO lists polo as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage” was announced in the Mehr News Agency (December, 7, 2017) and has been also reported on (December 7, 2017) and PressTV (December 11, 2017).


As noted on December 7, 2017 in Mehr News: UNESCO has recognized the team sport of polo, played on horseback, as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage during a session held in South Korea on December 7.

After three years of extensive efforts, international negotiations, and close cooperation between Iran’s sports ministry and Cultural Heritage Organization, the team sport of polo (known as ‘chogan’ in Persian) has been added as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage to UNESCO list during the 12th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, taking place from December 4 to December 8 in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

Iran submitted a proposal for the inclusion of polo in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage to UNESCO on 30 March 2016. The dossier was reviewed and shortlisted for inclusion under the 2003 Convention on Nov. 7, 2017.

The polo dossier is the second of thirteen documented Iranian intangible cultural heritages that is related to the country’s traditional sports and ritual games.

The dossier was recognized as a masterpiece of heritage of humanity and inscribed in UNESCO’s list without any objections or provisions.

A Persian miniature made in 1546, during the reign of the Safavid dynasty of Iran (1501-1722). This artwork is of the Persian poem Guy-o Chawgân (“Ball and Polo-mallet”) depicting Iranian nobles engaged in the game of polo, which has been played in Iran for thousands of years (Picture Source: Public Domain).

The first recorded game of polo, in which players on horseback score by driving a small ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled wooden mallet, reportedly took place in 600 BC in ancient Persia.

As noted further in (December 7, 2017):

Farhad Nazari who is the head of the Iranian Office for Registration of Historical Monuments confirmed the approval, which will officially be registered next month at the 12th meeting of the UNESCO committee in South Korea. Nazari added that the case titled “The art of making and playing the kamancheh” will also be reviewed and registered by UNESCO at next month’s meeting. Four days after the Mehr News report on December 11, 2017, PressTV announced the following:

“The Kamancheh and Polo and have been officially registered as an Iranian sport and a traditional Persian musical instrument on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.”

Polo was invented and reportedly first played in 600 BC in ancient Persia. The original name of polo is “Chogan” and in Iran the game is still referred to as “Chogan”. Throughout history, the game has been popular among warriors, generals, princes, and kings as a means of training cavalry for warfare. As noted by Hossein Jafari, head of Isfahan’s Chogan Office:

Chogan is our national sport and has its roots in ancient Iranian traditions…”

Sportsmen in Iran engage in a game of polo (Source:


Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

The article below is the Introduction section of the textbook “Warriors of Ancient Siberia” (edited by St John Simpson of the British Museum and Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum) written for the BP Exhibition organized with the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, the British Museum and Thames & Hudson. The Introduction is also available for download at … For more information on this book consult: and Thames & Hudson.


The Scythian nomads controlled a vast area stretching from the edge of northern China to the northern Black Sea region. Originating in southern Siberia, they dominated the Eurasian steppe for centuries until they were displaced by other Eurasian nomad tribes at the beginning of the second century bc. Although the Greeks referred to them as ‘barbarians’, this term was applied to all non-Greeks, and the nomads developed a rich material culture with a strong visual language involving fierce contorted animal designs known as ‘Animal Style’ art. This is found on the decorated ends of torcs, bangles and dagger pommels, gold and bronze belt buckles, saddle covers and even body tattoos. The Scythians were skilled at working metals and softer materials such as bone, horn and wood, which were sometimes highlighted with paint, appliqués or colourful sheet-metal overlays; this allowed sparing use of precious metal yet the appearance was spectacularly like solid metal. As pastoral nomads they kept large herds and had plentiful supplies of leather, wool and hair, which not only provided the basis for clothing and soft furnishings but were also easily traded resources in constant demand from their sedentary neighbours. There was regular contact with these: the fifth-century bc historian Herodotus met Scythians in Greek colonies on the northern Black Sea coast; Greek and Assyrian histories record that they fought their way into Anatolia; and they proved a constant threat to the Achaemenid Persian Empire on its eastern frontier in Central Asia. These contacts, whether through conflict, trade or marriage, explain why Achaemenid silver, gold and even carpets ended up in nomad tombs, how Scythian-related goldwork forms part of the Oxus Treasure found near the river Amu darya (Oxus) in its eastern province of Bactria, and why many design motifs are shared by both the Scythian and Achaemenid worlds.

Ancient authors described these peoples where they encountered them at the fringes, but one of the regions where this early nomadic lifestyle first developed was Tuva (fig. 1), at the junction of the Siberian taiga and the Altai-Sayan mountains. It is here that the earliest manifestations of the so-called ‘Scythian triad’ of weapons, horse harness and Animal Style art emerges in the ninth and eighth centuries bc, and archaeological excavations at Arzhan reveal burials of elite individuals interred with their wives or concubines, attendants, and horses. This area is at the heart of southern Siberia and connected by a continuous corridor of grassy pasture to northern China and the Black Sea region. This biome (ecological area) is wider than the vast empire of the Achaemenids, which united the Near East between the sixth and fourth centuries bc, and the Scythians outlasted them, as they had their Late Assyrian and Median predecessors. The Scythians were finally overwhelmed and dissipated by later tribal groups. Roman and Byzantine authors continued to refer to their nomad successors in the Black Sea region and Central Asia as Scythians, but the cultures were changing, and Iranian was replaced by Turkic languages. China was now the dominant political power and there were stronger links with that culture than previously. Deep in the resource-rich but isolated Minusinsk basin, the so-called Tashtyk culture developed during the early centuries ad; this is the focus of the conclusion to the exhibition.

The story behind the objects presented here begins with chance finds made deep in southern Siberia during the eighteenth century. The Russian conquest of Siberia had begun in 1581/82 during the reign of Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’ (1530–1584), with the defeat of the Tatar khan, Khimchum, by the Cossack commander Yermak. The numerous local tribes were required to pay heavy tribute in furs, a process known as the yassak.

Fig. 1: Landscape view showing Scythian burial mounds in Tuva, southern Siberia.

Tsar Peter I, ‘the Great’ (1672–1725), began sending scientific expeditions to the region; it was during one of these that the strait separating Siberia from Alaska was discovered in 1728 and named after its finder, Vitus Bering (1681–1741). The exploration of Siberia was marked by amazing antiquarian discoveries as large burial mounds (kurgans) attracted the attention of engineers and grave robbers (bugrovshchiki). News of the discovery of fantastic gold ornaments in completely unfamiliar styles soon reached St Petersburg as a collection formed by one Demidov was presented to Peter in 1715. The Tsar issued an edict that any such finds, especially those ‘that are very old and uncommon’, should be sent to St Petersburg, and ordered that drawings be made ‘of everything that is found’. After his death they were transferred to the Kunstkamera (‘Cabinet of Curiosities’), which he had founded in 1714, the first museum in the country. In 1690 the Dutchman Nicolaas Witsen published the first map of Siberia, and two years later the first edition of his account entitled Noord en Oost Tartarye. In the same year one Andrei Lyzlov, said to be either a priest from Smolensk or a courtier from Moscow, wrote an account entitled History of the Scythians, and there was considerable academic interest in Russia into how these finds connected with the ancestral origins of the Slavs and other peoples, and therefore with the early formation of Russia itself (fig. 2).

Fig.2: Frontispiece of the History of the Scythians by A. Lyzlov. London Library.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, in the reign of Catherine II, ‘the Great’ (1729–1796), Russia occupied the northern coast of the Black Sea from the mouth of the river Dniester to the area around Kuban, and achieved its aim of obtaining a warm-water port with access to the Mediterranean (fig. 3).

Fig.3: Print showing the advance of Russia towards the Black Sea during the reign of Catherine II.
Simon François Ravenet I after Nicholas Blakey, 1753 (H. 22.4, W. 17.1 cm, British Museum, London, 1978, U.1663).

As part of its so-called Greek Project – according to which Russia intended to oust the Turks from Europe and as self-styled heirs of the Byzantine Empire found an Empire of Constantinople – cities were given Greek names. In 1787 Catherine visited the area, and antiquarian travellers began to record sites and note the presence of ancient Greek inscriptions. The first kurgan was excavated in 1763 by General Alexey Melgunov (1722–1788), the governor of the Novorossiisk province. It was found to be a seventh- century bc Scythian tomb and proved accounts that the Scythians were active in this region from this early date. Within a year Herodotus’ Histories were translated into Russian for the first time, and a copy of a gold scabbard found by Melgunov was presented to the British Museum (fig. 4).

Fig.4: The Scythian gold scabbard known as the Melgunov scabbard. Seventh century BC (L. 60 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Dn 1763 1-19, 20).

Other generals excavated a burial mound near the Black Sea port of Phanagoria, and initiated excavations at Olbia and Kerch at the eastern end of the Crimean peninsula. In 1830 a large kurgan at Kul’ Oba, near Kerch, began to be quarried for construction. Excavations immediately followed under the direction of Paul Du Brux, a French antiquarian who owned a private museum and was the chief customs officer in Kerch, and Ivan Stempkovsky, the governor of Kerch. An intact stone tomb measuring 20 sq. m was found to contain the bodies of what are believed to be a Scythian king and queen with numerous gold objects, a groom with a horse, armour, cauldrons, amphorae and drinking vessels. These objects were immediately acquired by the Imperial Hermitage and formed the beginning of the museum’s archaeological collection. On 3 June 1837 an imperial decree stated that the Ministry of Internal Affairs be informed with ‘the appropriate accuracy and detail’ of all architectural finds, and the minister of internal affairs, Count Lev Perovsky, directed the first excavations of royal Scythian burial mounds in this region during the early 1850s. Further excavations, mainly on the Kerch and Taman peninsulas, were generously funded by the Ministry of the Imperial Court, and the finds inspired arts and crafts (fig. 5) and even the interior decor of the New Hermitage, which was intended as a museum and completed in 1851. The collection from the Kunstkamera was transferred to the Hermitage, where it was, and still is, known as ‘Peter I’s Siberian Collection’. In 1854 an album was published containing the most important finds and an Archaeological Commission was founded in 1859 with the following remit:

(1) the search for antiquities, primarily those relating to Russian history and the life of the peoples who once inhabited the territory that is now occupied by Russia; (2) the collection of information on national and other antiquities located within the state; (3) the scientific study and evaluation of the antiquities discovered.1

Fig.5: A gold Scythian bracelet found in 1869 in the fourth-century bc burial mound of Temir-Gora, near Kerch in the northern Black Sea region. Bracelets like this inspired Russian jewelers to make and exhibit copies, and these were copied again by continental European and English firms (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, TG-6).

Royal burial mounds and major sites continued to be the focus in the northern Black Sea region, and large numbers were explored (figs 6–7). The 20-m-high Alexandropol burial mound (also known as the Meadow Grave) was the first to be completely excavated, though most of the finds were lost during bombing in 1941. Other mounds were excavated between 1859 and 1863 by the historian Ivan Zabelin (1820–1908), including the Great Twin Barrow on the Taman peninsula and the famous burial mound of Chertomlyk. The latter stood 20 m high and up to 120 m across, with a massive outer stone wall and a complex tomb with side chambers at the centre: although the central chamber had been robbed in antiquity, valuable finds had been overlooked, and the side rooms still contained the remains of female and warrior burials with rich grave goods.

Fig.6: The interior of a large burial mound known as the ‘Tomb of Mithridates’ near the Lazaretto of Kerch;  Edmund Walker in 1856, after a view by Carlo Bossoli, H. 18.4, W. 28.5 cm; British Museum, London, 1982,U.687 Donated by Westminster City Council)

The exact find-spots of the earliest discoveries made during Peter’s reign remain unclear but are known to have been at different sites between the Ural and Altai mountain ranges in southern Siberia; this was supported by the discovery of typical Scythian objects during excavations in 1865 by academician V. V. Radlov at two large burial mounds (Berel, Katanda) in the Altai region. In 1889 the Archaeological Commission was given exclusive excavation rights and it was agreed that, while the most important finds should be sent to the Hermitage, other pieces could be distributed to local museums. The academician and professor at St Petersburg University Nikolai Veselovsky (1848–1918) led a series of highly successful expeditions to the northern Caucasus and Black Sea region, where he excavated the major burial mounds Oguz (1891–4), Kostromskaya (1897), Kelermes (1904, 1908), Ulsky (1908–10) and Solokha (1912–13); it was in this last mound that he found some of the most spectacular examples of Greco-Scythian goldworking, including a comb topped with a battle scene, a golden phiale (a shallow drinking vessel) with animal designs, an overlay for a bow case with a scene from a Scythian epic and a silver cup depicting a Scythian hunting scene (see Chapter 1).2

Fig.7: Ruins of ancient Chersonesos. Jonathan Needham in 1856, after a view by Carlo Bossoli H. 18.8, W. 28.3 cm (British Museum, London, 1982,U.699 Donated by Westminster City Council).

In October 1917 Russia was convulsed by revolution and the Hermitage was stormed. Huge social changes began to be implemented, and in the first few months the Soviet authorities established a Committee of

the North in order to protect twenty-six ethnic groups in Siberia who were considered at greatest risk: they were exempted from military conscription and taxation, offered basic social amenities, and an attempt was made to teach in native tongues, acknowledging their nomadic existence by schooling in tents. There was also a huge increase in the number of local history societies and museums across the country. However, these measures were short-lived and the individuals concerned were soon accused of supporting local patriotism over national interests.3 In 1929/30 communist collectivization of food production began to be imposed across Russia, nomads were settled, owners of large herds were deported, shamans were outlawed and children were put into Russian boarding schools. It was immediately afterwards, in 1931,

that a detailed census was carried out, which formed the basis for a landmark study by S. Vainshtein of the disappearing nomad economy of the Tuva region.4 During the 1960s local collective farms reorganized into larger enterprises, and the integration of local and Russian populations increased.

In the meantime, on 18 April 1919 the Imperial Archaeological Commission had been dissolved and replaced by the Institute for the History of Material Culture (Lenin personally added the word ‘history’ to its founding edict), and money poured into archaeological projects from the 1930s onwards.5

The Hermitage created three new departments – one that became the Oriental Department in 1920, the Department of Prehistoric Societies (now the Department of the Archaeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia) in 1931, and the Department of the History of Russian Culture in 1941 – and it enjoyed an almost unbroken sequence of directors who were themselves archaeologists. During this period archaeology became politicized and seen as an opportunity for the Soviet authorities to find evidence for Marx’s classification of society into developmental stages, beginning from a pre-class stage through stages of slave-owning, feudalism and capitalism before attaining a classless society with communism as its climax. The superiority of Slavs over Germanic peoples was emphasized while Russia and Germany were at war; cases of ethnogenesis, or the emergence of ethnic groups, were sought within the Soviet Union, and the definition of archaeological cultures and their relationship to linguistic boundaries and peoples were debated.

The origins of the Scythians continued to attract different views. Some Russian scholars saw them as originating in the northern Black Sea region, in the area where they were described by Herodotus. Academician Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1870–1952) interpreted them as a feudal military power, and was the first to begin defining them as an archaeological culture on the grounds of the standard appearance of their burial mounds and other features.6 The Moscow professor Boris Grakov (1899–1970) was the first to excavate large numbers of simple burial mounds belonging to ‘the common people’, in contrast with the previous focus on ‘royal’ mounds; he also thoroughly explored a hill fort at Kamenka, interpreted the Scythians’ social development in Marxist terms as a stage of transition from military democracy to a slave-owning society, and saw the spread of the so-called ‘Scythian triad’ as evidence for the Scythianization of the indigenous forest-steppe population.7 The coexistence of two different Scythian cultures, on the steppe and in the forest-steppe, was instead advocated by Mikhail Artamonov (1898–1972), who later became director of the Hermitage. He wrote extensively on how much Scythian art showed Near Eastern inspiration and emphasized that the Scythians were Iranians rather than Slavs.8 His successor, B. B. Piotrovsky (1908–1990), went on to find dramatic evidence for Scythian military activity in the Caucasus during his excavations of an Urartian fortress at Karmir Blur in Armenia, which had been violently sacked, but distinguishing between objects made by Scythians and the Cimmerians, their early northern rivals in the northern Black Sea region, proved to be a long-running issue.

These and other debates rumbled on for decades, and as late as 1979 the head of Soviet archaeology for thirty years, Boris Rybakov (1908–2001), stated in a book entitled The Scythians of Herodotus that the land- tilling Scythian tribes in the northern Black Sea region were the possible ancestors of later Slav tribes, making a tenuous philological link between the Skolotoi (a name given by Herodotus for other Scythian tribes) and the Sklavins (the Greek for Slavs). However, during the 1920s an ethnological expedition began work in Altai and had already challenged the idea that Scythians originated in the Black Sea region. In 1927 the Russian Museum in Leningrad excavated another burial mound in the central Altai region at Shibe and found it to be very similar to those previously excavated by Radlov. Three years earlier Sergey Rudenko (1885–1969), head of the ethnography section of the Russian Museum in Leningrad, had discovered a group of burial mounds at Pazyryk, and he excavated the first in 1929 with his Siberian-born student Mikhail Gryaznov (1902–1984). Conditions were tough. There were no roads or nearby food supplies, the team had to employ children as labourers, horses were used to drag away the heaviest boulders and water had to be boiled by the side of the trench to melt the permafrost (pp. 98–99; fig. 8).

Fig 8: Excavations in progress at the burial mound of Pazyryk-2 in 1948 (Archive of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg, I-32719).

In the meantime there were serious political problems in Leningrad as Stalin began the ‘Great Terror’ in 1934 with a purge of the intelligentsia as well as the political and military command. A witch-hunt was instigated against individuals who had used ‘bourgeois’ classifications, such as Bronze or Iron Age; ‘archaeology’ was replaced by ‘Marxist history of material culture’; over fifty curators at the Hermitage were deported or executed; and the leading Leningrad archaeologist Aleksandr Miller (1875–1935) was sent to Siberia for ‘writing long drawn-out reports on things he had excavated’, as this was condemned as ‘empiricism’.9 Moreover, collaboration with Russians working abroad, particularly in Germany, was banned and scholars were arrested as spies. Rudenko himself was arrested in 1933, accused of pointless investigations and ethnographic idealism, and spent years working in the northern labour camps (although ironically he was promoted because of his knowledge of hydrology and proved invaluable for his ‘ice forecasts’ during the Soviet supply of the besieged city of Leningrad across the frozen Lake Ladoga in the Second World War). His colleague Gryaznov was also charged with being an underground fascist working with Ukrainian and Russian nationalists, and was exiled internally for three years. In 1941 the Pazyryk collection was transferred from the Russian Museum to the Hermitage, but from September that year until January 1944 Leningrad was besieged by the German army, and it was not until 1947 that Rudenko and Gryaznov returned to Pazyryk, where over three more seasons they excavated the four remaining mounds under the auspices of the Institute of the History of Material Culture, which retains the archives, and the Hermitage, where the finds were deposited.

Although all the tombs had been robbed and there was therefore virtually nothing of intrinsic value remaining, the frozen conditions stemming from the percolation of water into the tomb promoted exceptional preservation of the organic remains, which revolutionized the appreciation of Scythian everyday life.10

Rudenko and Gryaznov shared the same building but parted academic ways and never spoke to each other again. Rudenko established a laboratory of archaeological technology in his institute and championed the application of natural sciences in archaeology. Gryaznov went on to head the Central Asia and Caucasus section: he maintained that archaeological cultures were stages or phases in local development rather than evidence of separate cultures, but his excavations at the early Scythian burial mound at Arzhan-1 overturned earlier views and showed that what was now known as the ‘Scythian triad’ already existed in the Tuva region by the late ninth or early eighth century bc, and that this was not a development of the Black Sea or Iran.11 Although there are similarities in the material culture and pastoral economy, there are also differences in detail of dress, burial customs, pottery and other aspects of lifestyle, and it is better to regard these as evidence for a shifting confederation of powerful tribes united within a Scythian cultural world.

Archaeological research on Scythians is continuing, with excavations each year across the Eurasian steppe, extending from Mongolia through Kazakhstan and Russia to Ukraine. A Ukrainian–German expedition returned to Chertomlyk between 1979 and 1986 and added considerable new evidence for how the mound was built.12 Between 2001 and 2004 a Russian– German expedition directed by K. Chugunov, H. Parzinger and A. Nagler fully excavated another burial mound at Arzhan in Tuva, and proved that the Black Sea tradition of interring large quantities of gold did extend to this region.13 During the 1990s archaeologists from Novosibirsk excavated more ‘frozen mummies’ at unrobbed burial mounds on the Ukok plateau, next to the Chinese border (fig. 9), and in neighbouring Kazakhstan the burial mound of Berel-11 was explored by a Kazakh–French expedition and shown to belong to the same culture as Pazyryk (see pp. 100–103). Concerns that global warming will lead to the melting of the permafrost, which has been the sole reason why these tombs have yielded such exceptional finds, means that these excavations are as much rescue as research.14 Other expeditions are recording the rich rock art traditions, and large areas that include later period sites such as Oglakhty have been designated nature reserves (see p. 342).

Collaborative research and the use of scientific techniques are now common: dendrochronological and radiocarbon dates are refining the dating of sites,15 advances in bioarchaeology are adding information on the genetics, diet and health of both horse and human populations,16 and detailed analyses of metalwork and textiles are throwing new light on technologies.17 This book of the exhibition is intended to show some of these results and how far we have progressed beyond the writings of Herodotus and the first antiquarian discoveries during the reign of Peter the Great.18

Fig.9: Excavations of a ‘frozen mummy’ at Ak-Alakha-3 on the Ukok plateau.

Impact of Iranian Culture On East Asia

The article below “Impact of Iranian Culture on East Asia” published in The Iranian (Sept 10, 2017) is by Dr. Mohammad Ala, the recipient of the 2013 Grand Prix Film Italia Award for his documentary Immortality.


There are many examples of Iranian cultural influence on East Asia. In this article, several examples of this influence in Japan and China will be listed.

Iran is located in West Asia (wrongly known as the Middle East, even among Iranians). It has influenced many cultures throughout its rich history from music to food preparation, and even some imperial traditions were borrowed from the Iranian system of government.

According to the “Shiji”, a historical book written by Sima Qian, Iranians were known in China as An-XiAn-Xi means Arsak/Ashkanian and the Parthian Empire extended into to the Chinese language, including Pacoros and Emperor Zhangs letters. An-Xi (Parthia/Iran) Gao means high (i.e., from a noble background). Thus An-Xi Gao refers to a Parthian with noble background. Sima Qian and his associate An Xuan wrote about Wudi and Mihrdat and how they knew each other. Qian was the first person to translate Buddhist texts into Mandarin which had a major impact on Chinese history.

In countries across East Asia (not just China!), including Korea, Vietnam and Japan, these two individuals are considered holy. They were instrumental in Buddhism gaining popularity.

History teaches us that the Chinese were well informed about Iran. For example, after the overthrow of the Parthian Empire, they stopped calling Iran An-Xi and they started to call it Po-ssi or Bo-ssi which means Parsi in Chinese.

The Tang-Dynasty were close allies with the Sasanids. Some historians believe China tried to free Iran from the Arabs and some Iranians left to live in East Asia by way of the silk road.

An interesting story is that of An-Lu Shan a Sogdian-Iranian who became the Emperor of China. Iran was a part of the Chinese history, and later during the Islamic Period, many Hui-Chinese like Zheng He were of Iranian-Khwarezmian ancestry. Also the Barmakiyan-Family, a mixed Zoroastrian-Buddhist Iranian family, had important positions in India and East Asia.

The first mention of Iranians (Persians) coming to Japan can be found in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). One of the earliest Japanese historical sources, completed in 720 C.E. It records that in 654 C.E. several people arrived in Japan from Tokhārā (Aston, pp. 246, 251, 259). Though there is some controversy about the location of Tokhārā, some scholars have claimed the name to be a shortened version of Toḵārestān, which was part of the territory of Sasanian Persia (Itō, 1980, pp. 5-10).

Iranian people of Central Asia were the link between West and East Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, it is mentioned that in 660, when an Iranian (Persian), whose name was Dārā, returned to his country. He left his wife in Japan and promised the Emperor that he would come back and work for him again (Aston, p. 266; Imoto, 2002, pp. 58-60).

In the 7th to the 9th centuries, foreigners—then known in Japanese as toraijin—were coming to Japan mainly from Korea and China, bringing with them technology, culture, religion (Buddhism), and ideas. Eastern Asia, especially the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), had socio-economic networks with many regions of the world, including southern and western Asia.

Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international city with people from various countries, including Iranians (Persians). It should be noted that some even traveled further to Japan. Iranian names are to be met with in historical documents, and one can find some influence of Persian culture in the architecture, sculptures, and also in the customs and old East Asian rituals at that time. For example, some scholars have claimed that there is some influence of Persian culture in the Omizutori ritual held every February at Tōdaiji temple in Nara (Itō, 1980, pp. 125-33).

The oldest document in Parsi, which is preserved in Japan, was procured by the Japanese priest named Kyōsei (1189-1268) from Iranians (Persians) during his trip to southern Asia in 1217. Thinking they were Indians, the priest asked them to write something for him as a keepsake. However, after his return to Japan he found out that they were not Indians, because no one could understand what the writing meant. This document was discovered in the late 20th century, when it was established that it is written in Parsi and contains a line from Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (qq.v.), a line from Faḵr-al-Din Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (qq.v.), and a quatrain of unknown authorship (Okada, 1989).

Music has no boundaries, words from one language can be combined with musical tradition of another. The following is a beautiful singing.


In addition to public domain sources, the data were obtained from, Japan and Ancient Iran” , Christopher I. Beckwith: Empires of the Silk Road” and Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at USC and UBC were reviewed.

Mazda = Ahoora Mazda (God of light), the name Mazda came into being with the production of the company’s first trucks.

Nissan Qashqai: This name came from Qashqai tribe who live mostly in mountainous Southwestern region of Iran.  (Qashqai means “a horse with a white forehead”)