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New York Discovers Complexities Of Kazakhstan's Ancient Nomadic Culture

There are more than 250 ancient artifacts on display at the exhibition.
There are more than 250 ancient artifacts on display at the exhibition.
NEW YORK -- Intricate gold jewelry and adornments, massive cauldrons designed to feed scores of people, and giant burial mounds where the ancient elite and their horses lie are proving just how sophisticated Kazakhstan's nomadic groups were.

An installation at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), titled "Nomads and Networks," features more than 250 Kazakh cultural objects from the first millennium B.C.

The pieces range from horse adornments excavated from burial sites to gold pieces discovered in a tomb robber's lost bag.

Karen Rubinson, one of the curators, suggests these artifacts debunk the false impression some have that nomadic societies were less advanced than their sedentary neighbors:

"We wanted to make clear that this nomadic pastoral way of life was a very sophisticated way of life," she says. "[It had] a very complex culture, with very sophisticated and beautiful material, a very complex social organization, [and] a very intelligent relationship with the landscape. And it gives an idea of the lifestyle of these people, who continued in Kazakhstan until relatively recently and is part of their proud heritage."

Unprecedented Collaboration

The pieces are on loan from four Kazakh national museums -- a collaborative effort between Kazakhstan and the U.S. that chief curator Jennifer Chi says is unprecedented in scale.

Many of the items come from Kazakhstan's nomadic "Pazyryk" culture, which consisted of tribes that moved from the lowlands in the winter to the highlands for the warm summer months.

PHOTO GALLERY: Some of the ancient artifacts on display in New York

During the winter they gathered in larger groups. This explains the giant feasting cauldrons, according to Rubinson.

She points out how each object reveals the nomads' sophistication. Many were significant on both utilitarian and social levels: the bronze casting required a deep understanding of metalworking, but the size of the cooking pots also shows the nomads celebrated with community-building feasts.

In the burial mounds, elite Pazyryk individuals were laid to rest with horses, with 13 in one of the larger mounds.

The horses were buried adorned with ornate accessories, and two were affixed with giant, wooden horns.

Rubinson says archeologists were able to determine that the buried Pazyryks often died -- and several were mummified -- before the horses were killed, suggesting that they practiced complex burial rituals for the leaders of their groups.

Many of the pieces also show strong influences from the Persian Empire to the west and Han China to the east as a result of extensive trade networks.

Advanced Scientific Understanding

The idea for the exhibition was born two years ago when Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov approached the ISAW about the possibility of cooperating on the installation, which is now on display at the institute's gallery on Manhattan's "Museum Mile."

Idrissov maintains that the exhibition's 200-page catalogue, which explores the significance of the objects, was nearly as important as the physical pieces themselves.

"Another aspect of the exhibition was to make a very vivid and clear presentation of the value of things to [the] American public, because not very many people here know about the history of Eurasia and nomads," he says. "There were preconceptions and stereotypes, so the textual material -- the presentation material -- was very important."

Jorge Garcia, 30, was at the exhibit last week marveling over the bronze cooking pots. He recalls studying Babylonian history in college, and came to ISAW because he was interested in comparing cultures from the same time period.

He styles himself an "amateur bronze historian" he says with a laugh but, on a more serious note, he stresses that the bronze casting on display would have required an advanced scientific understanding of metalwork.

"To anybody that knows anything about metallurgy, [this display] shows you a level of sophistication that they probably don't get the credit for, or the praise for," he says.

"Nomads and Networks" is on display through June 3. Idrissov says there is a possibility that it will then move to Washington, D.C.

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