University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Exploring the Wonders of Central Asia – Petya Andreeva

October 2, 2017

The front façade of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo Courtesy: Zachary Hershey.

My current project involves studying metalwork excavated from burials across the Eurasian steppe, specifically gold and silver objects from elite burials associated with early Iron Age nomadic groups which once inhabited the northern Chinese periphery and the regions further west, all the way to the Crimean peninsula. I am particularly interested in the depictions of hybrid zoomorphs and the so-called “animal style” associated with metalwork excavated from burials across the vast domain of Central Eurasia.  My ultimate goal in both this specific project and my dissertation is to trace any existing links between scenes of animal interaction incorporated in luxurious metalwork and the spiritual system of the tomb occupant. Since a great number of the hoard and tomb objects in question are now part of museum collections across Russia and Central Asia, I am extremely indebted to the Penn Museum Field Fund as the grant enabled me to visit exhibitions and archives in person. Seeing and examining items which have hardly been published in English-language scholarship would not otherwise have been feasible for me.

My research took me and my colleague from the East Asian Languages and Civilization department, Zachary Hershey, to the State Hermitage Museum and Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, The Museum of Regional Studies in Irkutsk (Siberia), The Central Museum and Museum of Archaeology in Almaty, and the National Museum of Kazakhstan in Astana. The primary purpose of this trip was to view and examine the animal imagery incorporated into golden and silver treasures as well as textiles excavated from Inner Asian hoards and tombs over the last several decades. As many of these objects have never been published in English-language monographs accessible in the West, seeing and photographing them in person was of utmost importance to my project as it gave me a realistic idea of their size, color, and level of preservation. The State Hermitage Museum truly exceeded my expectations. I was able to see in person the oldest pile-woven carpet in the world, the famous Pazyryk rug which was excavated by Russian archaeologists in the Altai region of Siberia in 1949. Other highlights from my trip to the Hermitage were numerous Xiongnu artifacts excavated from tombs in present-day Mongolia, including textiles and bronzes which feature scenes of animal combat, predation, and metamorphosis. Zachary Hershey and I had the privilege to gain access to the Golden Room which contains some of the most astonishing treasures in the world, from elaborate Scythian gold to modern-day Uzbek jewels.

Me and the earliest pile-woven carpet in the world, Pazyryk Tomb 5, Siberia, 241 BCE. Photo Courtesy: Zachary Hershey.

I was able to view remarkable items unearthed from multiple sites across Central Eurasia, but the highlights of the visit to the Golden Room was certainly the Novocherkassk treasure, particularly the diadem. In addition, I am appreciative of the opportunity to see the greatest Sogdian masterpieces in the world. The Sogdians who once inhabited the Zeravshan Valley were an Iranian-speaking people who left us remarkable traces of their presence as traders in Central Eurasia (Sogdian language was for a long time the lingua franca of the Silk Road). I had previously worked on Sogdian murals from the sites of Penjikent in modern-day Tajikistan, Varaksha, and Afrasiyab in modern-day Uzbekistan under the guidance of my advisor Dr. Nancy Steinhardt, and thus, seeing these masterpieces had been a dream of mine for a long time. Currently most of these wall paintings have been successfully transported, restored, and exhibited in the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg. While examining Sogdian paintings was not the primary goal of my research trip, being able to study these paintings certainly helped to further develop a secondary interest of mine, which I intend to pursue further in my academic career.

Examining Sogdian masterpieces: Riders attacked by tigers, Mural from Red Hall of the Bukhar-khudat, 5th-6th c. CE (originally in Varaksha, Uzbekistan). Photo Courtesy: Zachary Hershey.
My subsequent trip to Siberia was truly an experience of a lifetime. Apart from visiting the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal, near the city of Irkutsk, I was able to see some rare bronze items from the collections of the Irkutsk Regional Studies and Irkutsk Historical Museum. I was also astounded by the colorful wooden architecture of the city and its many churches.The last stop on our journey was Kazakhstan. A great number of tombs and hoards in the Kazakh steppes have over the years yielded incredible golden treasures. The country’s cultural heritage boasts the excavations of several “golden men,” the most famous of which is the Issyk Golden Man. The elite burial contained the body of what was most likely an 18-year old Saka aristocrat. Several such burials have been found in the country in the recent decade. My visits to the museums in Almaty and the capital Astana were rather productive as I gained in-depth knowledge of objects I had not been aware of prior to making the trip. My stay in Astana overlapped with the World Expo, so one of the fun activities on my itinerary was to visit the hundreds of national pavilions at the Expo where I learned a lot about the heritage of other cultures and how countries around the world approach this year’s theme “Future Energy.”

Irkutsk’s wooden architecture.
At The National Academy of Sciences, Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Photo Courtesy: Zachary Hershey.
The Golden Man of Issyk, National Museum of Kazakhstan, Astana.

As I am currently writing my dissertation, I plan to incorporate the material which I studied over the summer in its content. In addition, I hope to work more on the Maikop Treasure and the Ordos bronzes from the collection of the Penn Museum and view these in the context of the material which I saw in museums in Eurasia this summer.


Petya Andreeva is a graduate student in the East Asian Languages & Civilizations program.

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