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N.Fedorova. Treasures of the Ob in the history of the West-Siberian Middle Ages. Introduction to the exhibition catalogue. 2003.



«There is no other source so obviously demonstrating an amazing integrity, and even
compactness of the Middle Age universe from Western Europe to China and from
the Kama region to India» (B. I. Marshak on artistic metal, 1980, p. 3)

What honor can be higher than the possibility to add a new line to the history of the Northern Seaway? What can be more interesting than to trace step by step the ways of the Middle Age caravans? More important than giving back to a whole region its history that seemed to be lost forever? A source that gives us means to do this and a lot more - is the artistic metal - the precious plates and decorations imported to the North from various countries of Europe and Asia. Like waves coming from the remote events of the past - the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Arabs, the Crusades and the geographic discoveries, they were changing the shape of the distant shores, bringing ideas and images, helping us to see and understand them in a new light, bringing to life economic innovations and social change. They reflected the ambitions of the local nobility and military chieftains, served as an essential accessory in any diplomatic mission, they were given to gods, sung about in legends. Unlike the Kama region, in the north of Western Siberia they went underground and came back again starting a new life as the ritual attributes of contemporary Khanty, Mansi and Nenets.

It would be appropriate to make a small digression here. There are only two regions in the whole of Eurasia, where dozens of hidden treasures with plates and decorations are found: the Kama region and the north of Western Siberia. And not even the whole of the Kama region, but only its northern part - the territory of the former Perm and Vyatka provinces. More than 30 treasures of silverware are known in that area today, mostly dated from the 8th to the 12th centuries AD. In Western Siberia the number of the finds is not as great yet, but the prospects are very favorable: in the Kama region the last find was made in the 1950s, while in the Ob region their number keeps growing. The mention of the «two regions» is quite conventional, the Russian administrative division has destroyed the concept of the ancient regionality. Migrations across the Urals and along the Ural rivers already in the ancient times tied the upper Kama region and the northern part of the Ob region into a single system in which people, goods, folklore stories, technical innovations, artistic ideas met and were exchanged - whereas we tend to forget about it now hypnotized with the magic of contemporary geographic and political realities.

The first finds of the Middle Age toreutics (precious metals plates and decorations) from Western Siberia became widely known already in the 18th century as a result of the academic expeditions. The author of the first «History of Siberia» academician H. F. Miller brought with him from the Ob region several bronze West European water tanks, two of which, unfortunately, were destroyed during the fire in the Kunstkamera museum at the end of the 18th century. In later times they were collected by members of the Royal Archeological Society and private collectors, some items from private collections also found their way into museums through auctions and donations. By the end of the 19th century the Hermitage had a huge collection of the Middle Age silver found in various regions of the Russian Empire, including Western Siberia. Research on oriental silver was published by academician Ya. I. Smirnov in 1909 in his atlas «Oriental Silver», which later became a hand book for many generations of Middle Age art students. The next stage in the study of both published and the new found items was their introduction into the realm of sources on the history of culture of the Orient and Byzantium as a result of which, in the words of Ì. B. Piotrovsky, we saw a new pattern of this culture. The Siberian and the Kama collections were the basis for the works of I. À. Orbely and Ê. V. Trever on the Greek-Bactrian and the Sassanide art, the studies of V. G. Lukonin on the art of Iran, of À. V. Bank on artistic metal of Byzantium and B. I. Marshak on Sogdian silver, a series of papers by À. À. Ivanov on Islamic bronzes, books on Byzantium cups from the Ural area and Western Siberia and the comprehensive review of the oriental toreutics of the 8th -13th centuries by V. P. Darkevich. The West Siberian and the Ural finds became the key items for Ì. G. Kramarovsky in his studies of the artistic metal of the Golden Horde.

A new stage in the understanding of toreutics as a source on the history of the Middle Age culture stems from the works by B. I. Marshak: a series of his publications of the late 1970-80s, and later his doctoral thesis and a book published in 1986 in Germany. B. I. Marshak understood toreutics not as a combination of the works of craftsmen of one country or region, but as the product of a complex process of interrelation of the European and the Asian cultures (Marshak, 1980, p. 4). It was to a large extent owing to his works that this category of the Middle Age art began to be perceived as a source on the history of cultural interaction along the trade and war paths of the time. He was also the first to identify the problems of the formation of artistic metal production centers in the young states of Eastern Europe and Asia.

Prior to the early 1970s the Kama region was undoubtedly unsurpassed in the number and quality of silver artifacts, however, with the beginning of industrial development of Western Siberia and the archeological survey of the territory that was undertaken at the same time, the collection of the Ob region finds grew significantly (today the ratio is approximately 100:50). The catalogue «Treasures of the Ob» published in 1996 by the Hermitage for the opening of the exhibition of the same name was in a way the summing up of this process. It became obvious first, that the Ob finds would soon become equal in number to the Kama ones; second, that they are sufficiently different in their composition, which allowed to close the gaps in the artistic metal collections of the Kama region.

Seven more years have passed. The new exhibition will take place in Salekhard - the capital of the region of the most significant finds of the Middle Age silver not only from the centers of the Middle Age civilizations of the East and the West, but also, which is not less if not more important, from the young states and pre-state formations of the North-East of Europe. To represent the wealth and variety of masterpieces of the Middle Age silver-working found within the territory of the West Siberian North is one of the goals of this exhibition. Another, to a certain extent innovative goal is to demonstrate on the material of these items, that the history of the Ob region is not the history of a backward isolated area cutoff within a territory hardly accessible from outside, but the history of a society open to international trade and cultural ties, dynamic and following the same route of development as its neighbors in the east and west of Europe.

The exhibition consists of 50 exhibits, 22 of which were donated for the exhibition by the Hermitage, 24 were taken from the collections of the Yamal-Nenets regional Shemanovsky museum and exhibition complex, 4 were donated to the collection of the museum exhibition complex by the district museum of the town of Muzhy. The silverware represents a wide range of artistic schools and centers of the Middle Age: among the exhibits is the silver from Central Asia, Iran, Byzantium empire and its provinces, countries of the north-west of Europe, Volga Bulgaria, Ural-Hungarian center, Khazaria. Beautiful works of the West Siberian casters complement the imported masterpieces.

All artifacts originate from the territory of the contemporary Yamal-Nenets autonomous Okrug, at the same time there is a clear localization of the finds by different districts - the river basins.

The Iran and the Central Asian silver form a relatively large group (today 21 piece is known, it is obvious, however, that in reality there is a lot more), locations of the finds tend to concentrate around the upper flow of the r. Sev. Sosva and the basin of the r. Synya. Some artifacts, the location of the find of which was only vaguely marked: «Berjozovo region» or «donated from Ostyak-Vogulsk museum» – do not change the general picture, on the contrary, they can with a certain degree of probability be localized within the same area. The earliest items of the «remote» import found in the Lower Ob region also belong to the Iran-Central Asian group: silver gilded monster head attributed by B. I. Marshak as part of a Sogdian goddess throne made either in Sogdiana or the region of Sogdian colonization and dated as the 8th c. (TO, p. 71).

One of the most mysterious things - cast silver figure of an elephant - is dated by the same period. With the exception of the owners it was seen by several people at the end of the 19th century, the picture of the elephant was sent to a well-known scholar of archeology and ethnography of the Finnish and Ugrian peoples D. N. Anuchin by a mining engineer Lebedzinsky, who worked on the r. Sev. Sosva on a road building project (Baulo, 2002, p. 13). This picture was published with D. N. Anuchin's paper and later in Ya. I. Smirnov's atlas «Oriental Silver». It seems that the second European who could see the silver elephant was S. N. Chernetsov. He wrote in the field diary of his expedition on the r. Sev. Sosva (1933-34): «He (eagle-owl, the totem Khal-paul - N.F.) is guarded by Yapping ui, the silver figure of an elephant described by Anuchin. ….The elephant is so heavy, that it takes four strong men to lift it» (Sources, p. 191). And he wrote further: «When I opened the labaz taking out the front wall, I saw in front of me the famous elephant. It was covered with numerous kerchiefs, 3 or 4 of which were tied under his belly , and 5-6 under the neck. On the tusks there were silver and copper rings (8). On his back in two places were two holes of 1(?) in diameter, around these holes - the traces of soldering to the depth of 10mm. The trunk was raised, the elephant was blaring, the legs were in a straight position, the hind legs were covered with bronze or low grade silver. The front legs were hollow. In the left side - a hole, the elephant was hollow inside (wall thickness around 1-3 mm) with hatching on the sides and the legs». (Sources, p. 205). By the way, he wrote before: «Yanykh-paul has a silver plate with the images of seven men. This plate is covered with cloth and he (the owner of the paul - N.F.) does not show it to anyone, not even to his son, who will be able to see this plate only after his death» (op.cit. p. 200). As far as I know, no one has ever seen that plate since then. Unfortunately, the silver elephant also disappeared, in any case I. N. Gemuev and À. V. Baulo, who surveyed these places in 1989 could not find either the plate or any information about it (Baulo, 2002, p. 14).

However, À.V.Baulo found among the ritual articles of the Synya Khanty another unique item: a silver rhyton in the form of a girl-acrobat figure made in the Central Asia in the 8th -early 9th century (Baulo, Marshak, 2001). À. V. Baulo described the circumstances of this find in the following words: «According to the family legend the grandfather of today's owner of the figurine some time in the late 1930s, when he was hunting in the taiga stumbled on a trunk cover hidden in the grass. Inside the trunk there were fetishes - a girl's figurine holding an antelope head in her hands, small silver figures of animals and birds (most likely cast zoomorphic images from silver or white bronze characteristic of the products of the West Siberian casters of the Middle Ages - N.F.), as well as animal skins and kerchiefs - gifts to the spirits-protectors. Since any unusual thing is believed by the Ob Ugrians to be sent from heaven, … the hunter brought the contents of the trunk home. In the later years the figurine was the family spirit-protector» (Baulo, 2002, p. 15).

The central Asian silver dish with a picture of a fortress seizure, has its own history of the «second birth». The story was told to V. N. Chernetsov in the polar Ural. Told in a nutshell it was as follows. The dish was found a «long time ago» on the coast of Khe nuiko at the time of net fishing. Together with the fish the seven dishes came up and all looked the same. Right after this all kinds of misfortunes started, like the absence of fish and the like, and the shaman after performing some rites declared that the dishes were to be given to «the first who comes». The people did not listen to the shaman and then the real disasters began, several people died, the relatives of the one who took one of the dishes to his chum (the others, according to legend were wrapped in kerchiefs and hung on a birch tree). Another woman shaman looked into the matter and said that the dish had to be sent immediately to Sosva (!) - the river with the dark water. They did accordingly. The teller saw the dish in one of the sacred places in the upper flow of the r. Sev. Sosva during the sacrifice rite – the dish, after being unwrapped from the kerchiefs was hung on a tree. In 1985 I. N. Gemuev and À. V. Baulo managed to discover this dish in a ritual place not far from the village Verkhne-Nildino on the r. Sev. Sosva (Baulo, 2002, p. 16). The dish was published (Gemuev, 1988) and became known to the researchers as the Nildin dish. It is interesting to note, that this dish has a pair - a treasure that was found in 1909 not far from the village Bolshe-Anikovskaya of the Cherdyn district, in the Perm province contained three silver grivnas, two silver ingots and three silver vessels, one of which exactly matched the Nildin dish (Darkevich, 1976, p.28; Marshak, 1971, p. 11, 61). The Cherdyn district was located in the territory of the north-western Ural area, in the ancient culture of this area there were numerous characteristics similar to the ones found on the eastern side of the Urals, e.g. only in Western Siberia and the north-western Ural the bronze and silver pieces were covered with «engravings» - the drawings depicting some mythological or legendary personages scratched with a knife. An interesting question arises: why did the shaman sent this particular dish to the river Sev. Sosva? Couldn't we assume that it was from there that it got somehow to the lower Ob, where it was eventually caught in the fishermen's net? Especially since the other silver articles found either in the ground or water were not in the least as harmful and did nit mind becoming the spirit-protectors of single families and even the whole groups (e.g. the silver girl-rhyton). The dish from Verkhne-Nildino now belongs to the collections of museum of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, it was exhibited in numerous exhibitions in Russia and abroad. It does not cause any trouble any more…

The dish with the image of a man sitting on a throne, and a man and a woman standing on both sides of him, which, possibly, is a reproduction of the story about king David, his wife Bathsheba and their son Solomon, made in Central Asia in the 8-9th centuries, was found in a sacred place of one of the villages on the Malaya Ob by A. S. Baulo (Baulo, 2002). According to rumors it was brought from some place in the wild taiga, from the sacred places (Baulo, 2002, p. 19). À. V. Baulo wrote that it was kept in a trunk together with the figure of the spirit-protector and was used in a sacrificial ceremony in his honor - it was used to place biscuits, sweets and bread on (op.cit. p. 18).

But probably the most striking piece was found by him in 2001 during the works on the r. Synya – a silver dish with a scene of the Iranian Shah from the Sassanide dynasty Yazdegerd I hunting a bull (Baulo, 2002, p. 20). Until then not a single Sassanide dish was found to the east of the Urals. As in all cases when it was possible to trace it, the «appearance» of the dish among the family's ritual articles had its history. It happened in the middle of the 19t century. The great-grandmother of the present owner of the dish and her husband went in a boat along the river Synya and in one place went ashore to take some rest. A woman saw something glistening in the grass. They started digging in that place and found a treasure: in several copper cauldrons there were the dish, as well as silver and bronze cast zoomorphic figures of the Middle Age period of local make. The new owners made the finds part of their ritual attributes (Baulo, 2002, p. 20). While the keeper of the sacred attributes was alive no one, not even his son, could see the dish, though it was used during the ritual ceremonies as a receptacle of bread, biscuits and sweets.

It is possible to note some common features in all these stories: the things found incidentally in the ground became family sacred objects, they could be seen only by the keeper of the sacred objects (cf. a story about a mysterious dish with the images of the seven people, taken down by V. N. Chernetsov), during the ritual ceremonies it was used to put bread, sweets and biscuits, sometimes meat and fish on. The stories about the finds of treasures of the Middle Age silver in the ground could be taken as a kind of a «literary» template, if it were not for the author's personal presence at three similar finds in Surgut region, and repeated stories of similar events told by professional archeologists and trustworthy amateurs.

Two Iranian silver vessels - a bottle and a cup with kufic inscriptions were found at rather mysterious circumstances on the r. Synya in 1994. Ye. I. Tylikova, who was then a school teacher in the village Ovgort told the author how she withdrew them from the tourists coming down the river. The bottle was acquired by the Hermitage, it looks similar to another, also silver, bottle found in the middle of the 19th century in the «Sosva Settlement» (TO, p. 132-133). B. I. Marshak attributed the Sosva bottle as the work by the craftsmen of Iran (Tokharistan) or eastern Khorassan and dated it as the 11th c. (op.cit.). The bottle from Ovgort is not yet published. The second vessel from Ovgort - a cup - has a close analogue - the so called cup with the lute player from the collections of the Berlin museum, also dated as the 11th century. The cup with the lute player was acquired in 1902 by a well known Swedish traveler F. Martin in Moscow. We can not exclude the possibility that the cup came from Western Siberia, especially if we remember his trip to the Ob region and the excavations of the burial site Barsov Gorodok near Surgut at that time.

Several other silver vessels also originate from the r. Synya, the area around the village Yamgort. A saucer with the image of a tsar on the throne dated B. I. Marshak as the 11th c. and believed to be eastern Iranian. The saucer, most likely, belonged to the complex of the so called Yamgort treasure found in two cauldrons in the forest somewhere between the villages Yamgort and Ovgort on the r. Synya. Within the composition of this complex there were at least two more silver dishes, silver Bulgarian decorations and bronze zoomorphic castings. Part of the treasure found its way to the Hermitage already in the 1950s (Darkevich, 1976, p.45), another part in the late 1970s was acquired by the Yamal-Nenets regional museum. According to the legend the things were kept in the attic of the house, which is a direct indication of their sacral meaning. The rectangular dish with the name of Khorezmshah Abu Ibrahim (the reading of the inscription and the attribution by B. I. Marshak, TO, p. 126) was found on the r. Synya before 1896, and acquired for the Hermitage in 1897 in the village Muzhy (Darkevich, 1976, p. 47).

A unique silver chest cover was found by the people of the village Shuryshkary and given over together with other artistic silver pieces to a researcher from the Tobolsk museum I. A. Syrkina, who was excavating the Lor-vozh settlement in the area. They were published under the name «Lor-vozh settlement treasure» (Syrkina, 1983). However, these things were hardly related to the settlement complex, which was a rather commonplace settlement of the late Middle Ages. In 2002-2003 the author was told several stories about the finds of silver things in the waters of the Shuryshkar lake: in addition to the cover there were silver protective hand shields, a cast silver plaque and several other things. Part of them now belongs to the collection of the Yamal-Nenets regional Shemanovsky museum and exhibition complex, the rest is scattered among different collections. Unfortunately, it was not possible to see all of them. However, those things that became known were in a surprisingly good condition, which gave rise to certain doubts as to the accurateness of the stories told ourselves and our predecessors. The chest cover is dated as the 10th century, a similar jug from the Upper Kama region was defined by B. I. Marshak as Iranian of the Samanides period (Marshak, 1976).

Finally, two more vessels, acquired in 1776 for Kunstkamera and in 1889 for the Hermitage, namely the silver bottle and the little jug, both dated as the 11th c. (TO, p. 128, 134) also belong to the work of the Iranian toreutics. Unfortunately, neither the location of the find, nor the associated legends are known.

Apart from the silver Iranian (Central Asian) things in Western Siberia, including the northern regions, among the relatively frequent finds are the bronze spherical cups either decorated with circular ornament or smooth. Two of such cups from the collection donated to the Yamal-Nenets regional museum by doctor B. I. Vasilenko originated from the Yamal peninsula, according to A.G. Brusnitsyna they were found in the complex of destroyed burials of the burial site Kheto-se. In 2002 during the excavations of the burial site Zeleny Yar on the r. Polui two more of these cups were found - one whole and another one in fragments. Cups of this type are found across the whole territory of the taiga and the tundra zones of Western Siberia: not less than two dozen of them are known, both whole and fragmented, sometimes to the minute pieces with the area of around 1 sq. cm. and less.

To sum up the analysis of the locations of the finds of the Iranian and Central Asian toreutics in the Ob region we can say the following: first, two groups of vessels of the 8-9th and the 10-11th centuries can be singled out; second, the more or less accurately localized finds are concentrated in the basins of the rivers Sev. Sosva - Synya, only one chest cover was found on the shore of the lake Shuryshkar. There are no other registered finds of the Iranian silver with the exception of the silver censer leg of the 11th century in the form of half figure of a sphinx found in a treasure of later period things discovered in 1977 on Barsova Gora not far from Surgut (TO, p. 136). Third, majority of these things belong or belonged to the groups of ritual attributes of Khanty or Mansi groups or families and were associated with the legends about finding them incidentally in the forest or on a river bank. Fourth, in certain instances there were similarities or close analogies with the vessels found on the western slopes of the northern Ural. All this can have several explanations. Only some of them can be assumed. First: the trade routes from the west (the Kama region) to the east (the Ob region) went along the rivers Sev. Sosva and Synya, and consequently most of the imported goods stayed there. Second: the forests of the eastern slopes of the Urals were rich with sable, which was the major attraction for the international merchants. Third: this area was the concentration of some Middle Age formations, that kept the trade with the «west» in their hands and did not let the goods go further. Fourth: the silver could have been brought there not by the merchants, but by the migrants from the western slopes of the Urals, who were running to the east and north as a result of some historical events, including the Bulgarian, and later Russian colonization of the Kama region, and settled mostly in the territory of these rivers basins. In the latter case the clearly marked sacral nature of these things becomes understandable, and the two temporal groups of them could be correlated with the two waves of migrations.

Among the silverware finds in the Ob region and the north-west Ural is the unique collection of silverware made in the late 12th - early 13th centuries within the boundaries of Byzantium empire and its Asia Minor provinces. It was unique because outside the territory of the region only two cups of this origin are known - a treasure found in the area of Tartu and the so-called Chernigov cup found during construction works on the site of a wealthy Middle Age estate in Chernigov. Four vessels: the cup cover from the r. Taz, the cup from Berjozovo, the Vilgort cup, the cup with the cover from Surgut are now in the Hermitage collections; one, found in 1982 in the village Lopkhari and left at the time in the local museum of Muzhy village, is now also being donated to the Hermitage by the joint decision of the administration of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous Okrug and the Yamal-Nenets regional Shemanovsky museum and exhibition complex. These vessels are quite important for the understanding of the complex historical processes of the age of the Crusades, the interaction between the West and the East, formation of the new understanding of the culture of as complicated a phenomenon as Byzantium, which was already discussed in the works of À. V. Bank, B. I. Marshak, V. P. Darkevich (Bank, 1978, Darkevich, 1975, TO - introduction by B.I.Marshak). But for the study of the history, ethnic and cultural genesis of the West-Siberian North they open quite new and unexpected perspectives. Especially if we consider together the context of these finds and the things belonging to another group, but made at approximately the same time - the silver cups of the West European make. Of the latter at least 6 pieces are known (without including the bronze water tanks found by H. F. Miller): three of them come from the undocumented finds of the 19th century «from the Ob region», three were found in the Lopkhary village together with the Byzantium cup. M. Kryzhanovskaya who published the three latter finds made an important remark: «This technique (vessel ornamentation - N.F.) was not found in the jewelers' art of the main schools of Western Europe, and its presence on all the monuments related to the trade routes «Northern Europe - Siberia» (italics N. F.) is an indication that they were all made somewhere in one place» (TO, p. 182). In fact, B. I. Marshak in his introduction to the catalogue «Treasures of the Ob» wrote about the same: «It is possible, that in the late 12th century… and the first half of the 13th century there was a seaway around Norway» (TO, p. 25).

All the Byzantium and West European vessels, apart from the cup from Surgut, were found incidentally and do not have any associated legends similar to those that tell of the finds of the Iranian and the Central Asian things. The cup from Surgut was found during the stationary excavations of the Middle Age settlement on Barsova Gora (Fedorova, 1982) within the composition of a purposefully hidden personal treasure, as it contained a set of silver decorations interspersed with wood dust, after which the cup was wrapped in birch bark; the cover from the river Taz, known in literature under the name of the cover from the Yamal-Nenets Okrug, was found by geologists on the r. Khoduta in the Tazov peninsula, it is said that it was used to feed the chicken in the village; the cup from Berjozovo does not have a legend, it was bought from a local villager; the cup from Vilgort was found in the pond. The complex from three West European vessels and a Byzantium cup found in the Lopkhary village was discovered in the river bank landslide. To be fair, it should be noted, that there was a legend about a sacred place that used to be there in the old times, but we could not find any confirmation of this during the survey of the location of the find in 2002. Unfortunately, we do not know either the exact places of the find, nor the context of the three West European vessels from the Hermitage.

Let me emphasize again an important for the history of the West Siberian Middle Ages fact: about 11 silver pieces of a very high class and immensely expensive in the eyes of the contemporaries, that were made during the same period in the territory of Byzantium and North-Western Europe, were found in approximately the same region of the north of Western Siberia. Review of the possible means and ways by which they could get to Western Siberia led the author to the idea, that this could be a trace of the operation of the Northern Seaway. The following arguments were used to support this hypothesis: the land routes were too dangerous and the risk to lose the goods or a part thereof was too high, which, apropos, was reflected in the Russian annals; the «closely grouped» nature of the treasure finds could best of all be explained with the assumption of their delivery by sea. The finds of the West European silver vessel similar to the ones found in the Ob region on the Gotland island in the Baltic Sea (TO, p. 165), Byzantium type cups in the area of Tartu, Scandinavian fibula somewhere in the Yamal-Nenets Okrug - all these are a kind of the dotted line along the route developed already by the Vikings during the favorable for coasting in the Barents and the Kara Sea climatic period of the 10-12th centuries. Apparently it functioned as the international route also in the 13th century, it is known that in the 14-16th centuries the Northern Seaway was used intensively by the Russian seafarers.

The silverware of the centers of the Middle Age civilizations formed a kind of a cultural warp, on which as if with the thread of the weft a picture of trade, migrations and interactions in the north of Western Siberia in the beginning of the II millenium AD was woven with the silver works of the young states of the North - East of Europe and the pre-state formations of this area. In the exhibition they are represented with the works from Khazaria, Volga Bulgaria, Ural-Hungarian Center. However, only one Khazarian piece was found here: the ladle from the «Kots settlement» published in the atlas «Oriental Silver». None of the burial complexes studied in last 30 years contained a single belt set of a Khazarian make, that were so bright and numerous in the monuments of the west Ural, the Volga and the Don steppe. We can definitely conclude that the Khazarian import for some reasons did not find its way into the Ob region.

The fact that from the 10th to the 15th centuries Volga Bulgaria, that emerged in the 9th century at the confluence of the rivers Volga and Kama, and its successor - the Kazan kingdom - were one of the most developed states of the Eastern Europe is not so widely known. The trade routes from the north to the south and from the west to the east crossed in this territory; the craftsmen and the merchants from different countries met in its cities. It were the Bulgarian tradesmen that knew the ways into the «country of darkness», as the northern regions, the source of valuable furs were called. In the 10th century the Volga Bulgaria accepted Islam as the state religion, its ties with the countries of the Islamic East became even stronger. The works of the Arabic language writers, travelers and diplomats of the time contained not less information about the country than about Russia of that time.

Artistic metal of the Volga Bulgaria is one of the brightest phenomena of the Middle Age European culture. It represents an organic combination of the Turkic traditions, artistic techniques and motifs of the urban culture of Central Asia and the imagery peculiar to the heathen population of the Ural and Western Siberia. Bulgarian jewelry decorated with niello and filigree: bracelets, pendants, temple decorations, face bands, hand protection shields were widely spread across the whole territory of the taiga and the forest-tundra zones of Western Siberia from the Middle to the Lower Ob regions. They can be found in the treasures and sacred places, in the burials and in the composition of the memorial complexes, on the contemporary female purses tutchan and in the form of belt pendants and braid decorations. Having first appeared as a mass product in the early 12th century the Bulgarian pieces gave rise to a series of local imitations and facilitated a complete change of the traditional mix of decorations that formerly consisted of zoomorphic pendants, buckles, bracelets and arms decorations (Fedorova, 2002b).

The silverware of the Volga Bulgaria of the 10-11th centuries and the so called Ural-Hungarian center of the 9-10th century (Fedorova, 2003) is less known. The assumption of the Bulgarian make of several massive dishes and cups was made by B. I. Marshak (Marshak, 1976). He based his hypothesis on several elements of the dishes decoration, which in general were a «combination of imitation of the Arabic inscriptions, typical for the Islamic countries ornaments of niello stripes and amalgam gilding with traces of barbarian art, e.g. demonstration of internal organs of animals or humans» (TO, p. 13). Two relatively recently found dishes not only complemented this group of toreutics, but also allowed to speak of the links between the Bulgarian and Ural-Hungarian silver.

The issue of attribution of the group of artifacts that had certain similarities with the classical toreutics of Hungarian craftsmen known through the monuments of Pannonia was raised repeatedly (Darkevich, 1976; Marshak – TO; Fedorova, 2003). The point of the argument is the following. From the time of the publication of the more than once mentioned here atlas «Oriental Silver» several dishes became known, in the decor of which it was possible to trace similarities to the items found in the territory of Hungary, mostly the bag plates and harness decorations, less often the silverware. A characteristic feature of the style of decoration of these items was a complex and quite specific, easily recognizable floristic ornament. The so called Utemil dish found in the former Vyatka province, in the center of which was the image of a horseman holding a bird on his hand, was attributed by D. Laslo, one of the most renowned archeologists of Hungary, judging by the style of the quiver and harness ornamentation as Hungarian, with the assumption that it could have been made for a noble Hungarian (V. P. Darkevich, 1976, p. 170). V. P. Darkevich without any additional argumentation attributed to the same group the dish with a horsemen from Muzhy and the cup with lion from the find near the village Kudeseva. For him this subject apparently was not of any particular importance, it was as quietly received by the colleagues, including the Hungarian ones. In 1990 at the Seventh international Finnish-Ugrian congress in Debrecen (Hungary) the author had a chance to discuss this problem with I. Fodor and other Hungarian archeologists - specialists in the Middle Ages. They agreed, that despite certain similarities with the Hungarian silver a group of the silver dishes, of which by that time there were already five - adding to the group a cup and the cut dish from the B. I. Vasilenko collection - both in the subject matter, the decor composition, and the artistic features was still significantly different from the «Hungarian classics (Fedorova, 1991). B. I. Marshak assumed that these things were made by the Hungarians during the period of their stay in the steppes of eastern Europe, in the so called «Atelkuse» (a country somewhere between the Don and the Danube) (TO, ñ. 17), since though the craftsmen of this center were also «connected to the traditions of Central Asia, but they did not imitate in anything the things of the northern people» (op. cit., p. 16). Until recently this statement was absolutely correct - unlike the early Bulgarian dishes there were no «northern motifs» on the series of the «Hungarian» dishes. It was only the so called «Dish with the eagle owl» found by À. V. Baulo within the composition of the ritual attributes of the Voikar Khanty that had literally overturned all the previous ideas about this group of toreutics, because its main personage - the eagle owl - was not just an «imitation» of the northern things, but had an almost exact copy in the bronze casting of the West Siberian craftsmen (Baulo, 2002).

At present seven early Bulgarian dishes are known, of this number for only two reliable information or at least legends about the circumstances of their find are available - these are the dish from the Yamgort treasure and the dish with two lions from the village Zeleny Yar (TO, p. 82-84; Fedorova, 2002à); and eight «Ural-Hungarian» ones, two of which were found in the Upper Kama region. The circumstances of the find are known more or less accurately for the four dishes from the Ob region. All vessels «with a legend» originate practically from the same region as the Central Asian and Iranian silver: from the basins of the r. Synya; lower flow of the r. Polui (Zeleny Yar dish) and the south of the Yamal peninsula (two dishes from the B. I. Vasilenko collection, probably found by him in the burial site Kheto-se). Practically all were found in the ritual attributes complexes (Zeleny Yar dish) or within the composition of a treasure together with the Iranian artifacts (Yamgort treasure).

Thus we can identify several chronological groups of imported silver in the Ob region: the Iranian silver of the 8-9th centuries and the Ural-Hungarian of the 9-10th centuries form the first group; the early Bulgarian and Iranian artifacts of the 10-11th c. - the second; the Byzantium and West European silver of the second half of the 12-13th centuries - the third. The fourth group is represented with the Bulgarian jewelry and the silver niello hand protection shields, of which more than 10 are known at present. To the same period - second half of the 13-14th centuries - belongs the Golden Horde silverware found in the Middle Ob region, not a single piece of which was as yet found in the north of the region. Distribution of the artifacts by the area districts looks as follows: localization of the first and the second group in general coincides - it is the upper flow of the river Sev. Sosva and the basin of the river Synya including the southern part of the Yamal peninsular and the river Polui. It is an established fact, that the things as a rule were found within the composition of the ritual attributes of the contemporary Khanty, only once - in the Yamal peninsular -they were found in a burial. The legends about their «secondary» appearance seem to be similar: all described events occurred in the late 19th century and the 1930s, all things were found in the treasures of metal utensils of different periods, sometimes in trunks in the forest or on a river bank (lake shore) and were included into the composition of the family or group spirits-protectors. That is, their sacral meaning is unquestionable. The third group of toreutics is related to the Crusades age events and, possibly, was brought to the Ob region via the North Seaway. Finally, the fourth group of artistic metal falls onto the Golden Horde period, its distribution across the territory of the Middle and the Lower Ob regions appears to be relatively even, which in all probability was related to the trade activities of the Bulgarian and the Upper Kama merchants. The interpretation of historical environment related to the penetration to the Ob region of the first two groups of silver is the most hypothetical one. As was mentioned before, at least four possible hypotheses can be suggested: the proximity of the trade routes, concentration of the most attractive game - the sable; existence in the area of powerful formations (principalities of the Russian sources), and, finally, a wave of migrations from across the Urals. Analysis of the combination of facts, including the aforementioned sacral importance of the artifacts, makes the latter hypothesis most probable, which, however does not exclude the influence of the other factors.

Finally, we can ask the question: what did the study of imported toreutics found in the north of Western Siberia, which is presented in the exhibition «Treasures of the Ob: north of Western Siberia in the trade routes of the Middle Ages» contribute to the understanding of historical processes, that took place in the Ob region in the Middle Ages from the end of the I millenium and to the time of its accession to Russ?

First, far from all the imported vessels in Western Siberia were the reflection of the trade activities on the «fur route» as it was believed previously.

Second, the trade along the route «from Bulgarians to Siberia», which was rather slack for a time, began to flourish only in the 12-14th centuries, which resulted in a complete change in the set of decorations and costume detail of the West Siberian elite alone at first, and then, with the mass casting of bronze imitations - of all the free and equal people of the region.

Third, we can assume, that the functioning of the North Seaway started already in the Vikings time, though they hardly ever reached the areas east of the Vaigach island, and continued in the 13th century, when West European vessels were brought to the Ob region.

Fourth, we can assume that there were at least two waves of migrations from across the Urals to the north of Western Siberia: the first, that brought with it the silver of the 9-10th centuries can be dated by that time; correspondingly the second occurred in the 11th century, with this wave came the early Bulgarian silverware and the Iranian silver of the 10-11th centuries. It is possible, that both migration waves were related to certain historical events in the Kama region, particularly to the economic and political activities of the Volga Bulgaria.

Fifth, in this case the appearance of the horsemen images in the ritual attributes of the West Siberian population at the end of the I - beginning of the II millenium becomes understandable, since the first wave of migrants was obviously well acquainted with the horse-breeding culture, the evidence of which were the horsemen images on the dishes of the Ural-Hungarian group.

If our exhibition helped the viewers to see the north of Western Siberia in a new light, if it arose interest in its eventful history and respect for its bright culture, if the population of the North Ob region emerges to the eyes of the viewer as an equal partner in trade relations with both the south and the west, and not as barbarians hiding in the taiga, if we managed to assist in reading at least a small page of the dramatic history of the West Siberian ethnic genesis and helped to see the formation of the styles and trends in the artistic metal of the young states and the pre-state formations of Eastern Europe - we believe we have fulfilled our purpose.



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  • OS – Smirnov Ya. I., 1909. Oriental Silver. Atlas of the ancient silver and gold plates of oriental origin found in most instances within the territory of the Russian Empire. Collection of works
  • TO – Treasures of the Ob, 1996. Editor. B.I.Marshak. Collection of works
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