The first U.S. exhibition devoted entirely to the nomadic culture of ancient Kazakhstan makes its Washington, D.C., debut yesterday at the Smithsonians Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
. Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view through Nov. 12, dispels the notion that nomadic societies were less developed than sedentary ones. More than 150 objects of gold, horn, precious gems, and organic materials, most excavated within the past 15 years, reveal a powerful and highly sophisticated culture with strategic migratory routes and active networks of communication and exchange.
The topic of nomads and networkers has special relevance to Washington, D.C., said Alexander Nagel, curator of Ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer|Sackler. Washingtonians are by nature nomads who are travelling through the city for a limited period of time, giving the exhibition a unique connection to D.C.
For more than three millennia, nomadic society shaped the cultural landscape of the Eurasian steppe. In southern and eastern Kazakhstan, carefully determined migratory routes traced paths between lowland pastures, used in the winter, and alpine highlands, occupied in the summer. Nomads and Networks explores a form of Eurasian nomadism centered around an elite culture of horseback warfare. While not fully developed until the Iron Age, this unique way of life spread quickly across the Eurasian steppe, yielding the magnificent objects on display in the exhibition. On loan from Kazakhstans four national museums, the exhibition offers insight into the lives of the people of the Altai and Tianshan Mountain regions in the eastern part of the country from roughly the eighth to the first centuries BCE.
The works on display represent the highlights and great achievements of Kazakh archaeology, said Nagel.The increasing frequency and sophistication of scientific excavations in the area allow archaeologists to reconstruct nomadic life in far greater detail than ever before. Still, we are only in the beginning to understand these fascinating and complex societies.
Nomads and Networks presents spectacular, superbly preserved finds from Berel, an elite burial site of the Pazyryk culture located near the border with Russia, Mongolia and China, where permafrost conditions enabled the preservation of rare organic materials. Set amidst vast green grasslands in a visually stunning landscape, the burial mounds (kurgan) yielded hundreds of finds and allow insights into a long-hidden culture. Each kurgan contained at least one horse, sometimes many more, and the exhibition illuminates the central role of the animal in Pazyryk culture. Through remarkable works of art, visitors encounter a people fascinated by their encounters with nature and animals.
Among the many spectacular objects are bronze stands, superbly decorated with horse and rider figures, carved stone stelai that marked important places in the landscape and dazzling gold adornments that signified the social status of those who wore them.
Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan has been organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University in collaboration with the Central State Museum in Almaty; the Presidential Center of Culture in Astana; the A. Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology in Almaty; the Museum of Archaeology in Almaty; and the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United States.