The Textiles from Pazyryk

A Study in the Transfer and Transformation of Artisitc Motifs

By: Karen S. Rubinson

Originally Published in 1990

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Winters are cold and sum­mers brief at the site of Pazyryk in the Altai Moun­tains of Siberia. Here, in a high valley of their summer pastures, a group of horse-riding nomads once buried their dead, and with them, a rich assortment of local and im­ported goods that reflected the wealth and status of the deceased.

These burials took place more than 2300 years ago. Yet by a fortuitous combination of circum­stances, some of the most fragile materials survived the passage of time remarkably untouched by ordinary processes of disintegra­tion and decay. These circum­stances were both natural and man­made. The tombs were broken into shortly after the burials took place. Ground water flowing into the broken wooden chambers beneath mounds of stone formed ice that preserved the organic riches of the tombs until archaeological excava­tion in this century. Left behind as worthless by the robbers, these remains included the bodies of humans and horses, fabrics, fur, leather, wood, and other often fugitive materials.

Among the frozen finds were a large number of superbly pre­served textiles that have enriched scholarly discussion ever since their excavation. Ancient textiles are rarely preserved, and archaeolo­gists seldom have the opportunity to excavate and study actual fab­rics. They are usually known to us through artistic representations in less fragile materials, if they are known at all. The splendid fabrics from Pazyryk tell us much about the artistic preferences and cultural characteristics of those buried there. From them we can learn both about the origins of the im­ported fabrics and about local nomadic products. In addition, we can observe the elusive process of “influence,” that is, the transfer and transformation of artistic motifs, a fundamental component of art his­torical analysis.

Pazyryk is situated in what is today the Soviet Union, near the Chinese and Mongolian borders (Fig. 2). Eight burial mounds, called kurgans (Fig. 3), have been excavated by Soviet archaeologists, seven in 1947-49 by S.I. Rudenko, and one in 1929 by M.P. Gryaznov. That those buried here were no­madic is clear from the types of burial goods: horses furnished with harnesses bits, saddles and saddle blankets, whips, structural parts of tents, felt hangings and carpets, portable wooden tables with re­movable legs, wooden pillows, fabric and leather containeks, and usually only a single clay vessel. The felt and woven clothing of the males included long stockings and  short tunics (Fig. 4), typical of horse-riding nomads. The trousers and boots which were worn with such tunics were not identified at Pazyryk, although they have been found at other similar sites in the area.

Although the date of the Pazyryk burials has been a matter of de­bate, recent collaborative work by the members of the Trans-Asian Seminar of the Institute of Asian Research, City University of New York, has established. that they should be placed in the second half of the 4th through the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. (see box on The Tombs). At that time, the state of Qin on the western border of China was becoming increasingly powerful. It may have been the demand for luxury goods by the aristocracy of this state that stim­ulated international trade, resulting in the deposition in the Pazyryk tombs of goods from China as well.

The Tombs at Pazyryk

There are several kurgans in the Pazyryk group, of which five large and three small ones have been excavated. The tombs were log-cabin-like structures placed in a pit in the ground. On top of each tomb the soil from the pit was raised in a mound, over which stones were piled up. The stones sheltered the ground be­low from the heat of the sun, causing lenses of permafrost that retarded the decay of the organic materials.

The annular rings of the wooden grave structures of the five largest kurgans yielded a relative chronology that spanned 48 years: kurgans I and 2 were both built in year 0, kurgan 4 was built in year 7, kurgan 3 was built in year 37, and kurgan 5 in year 48 (Rudenko 1970). A presence/ absence seriation by the author places the smaller kurgan 6 at or near the end of the relative sequence. Kurgans 7 and 8 con­tained no material to support a relative or absolute date, as west, central, and south Asia.

The nomads could have acquired these goods as protection pay­ments from traders passing through the territories they controlled or as booty from raids on traders or entrepots along the trade route. Additionally, the Chinese may have been providing the nomads on their borders with Chinese-made goods in order to guarantee a peaceful relationship with their potentially troublesome neighbors. Once in the hands of nomads on the northern or western borders of China, Chi­nese goods could easily have reached the Altai through more localized trade.

We do not know the names of the people buried at Pazyryk nor the language they spoke, for they did not leave any written records. All we have are their remarkable grave goods. However, these tell us much about the artistic preferences and cultural characteristics of those buried at the site, as well as the nature of the process of artistic borrowing. For example, which imported motifs were copied and which were ignored demonstrates the selective process of the transfer of artistic motifs. How imported motifs were transformed illustrates the abiding nature of native stylistic and iconographic preferences.

The Textiles

It is generally apparent from the fabrics themselves which were lo­cally made and which were im­ported. Locally made fabrics consisted of felts and plain woven wool and vegetable fibers, while the imported textiles included a pile carpet, tapestry-woven fabrics, and brocade-woven as well as embroidered silks. There are two dominant categories of imported fabrics: one is Chinese silks and the other is woolen fabrics, including the pile carpet illustrating motifs inspired by the art of Achaemenid Iran (8th-4th century B.C.; see Fig. 5a, b).

Chinese Silks

The silks were both plain and decorated. One fine, plain woven fabric was made into a simple pouch, found in kurgan 3. Another silk fragment, also from kurgan 3, was covered with a geometric pattern created by brocade weave; the pattern consisted primarily of rhombs and triangles preserved as grey and green. The largest and most elaborate of the Chinese silks, from kurgan 5, was a piece of undyed raw silk on which an ele­gant embroidery of birds and floral elements was chain stitched (Fig. 7). Similar brocade and embroi­dered silks, dating to the Late Warring States period (4th-3rd cen­tury B.C.; Li 1985), have been excavated at Mashan, in the ancient Chinese state of Chu. In fact, the similarity of the silks from Pazyryk and Mashan is one element in the argument for a late 4th century date for Pazyryk.

What is particularly interesting about the embroidered silk is how the people at Pazyryk used this imported fabric. It has been incor­porated into a shabrak, or saddle blanket, cut and stitched together without regard to the pattern in order to fit the felt base. The multi­colored embroidery was enhanced by a border consisting of two strips of blue felt outlining a wider center strip of reddish-brown felt. This central strip had saw-toothed cut outs filled with gold leaf and tin foil, some of which is now missing. The rear of the shabrak was trimmed with three tassels made of yak hair held in leather caps. Such a bright, vibrant enhancement of the delicate Chinese silk is in keep­ing with the aesthetic apparent in the art of Pazyryk, an aesthetic that can often be seen today among nomadic peoples in Asia.

Imported Pictorial Woolens

There were several textiles that probably came to Pazyryk from somewhere in western or central Asia. In the past, scholars have generally identified these textiles as Achaemenid, and on this basis, some dated Pazyryk to the 5th century B.C. However, most of these figured woven fabrics, al­though showing Achaemenid influ­ence, different in significant ways from the art of the Achaemenid court. They are probably removed in both time and space from the royal Achaemenid centers of production.

Three different west/central Asian textiles were combined in a shabrak that came from kurgan 5 (Fig. 8). The central part of the shabrak is made up of several sections of a single piece of fabric decorated with squares containing stylized towers. This motif is de­rived from that seen on the cos­tume of archers decorating a glazed brick frieze from a palace complex of the Achaemenid court at Susa (Fig. 9). The pieces of the tower fabric are laid in various directions, indicating that the decorative motif itself was not of particular meaning to the person who made the shabrak.

The borders of this shabrak con sist of a second piece of imported woven wool (Fig. 10). According to the published reconstruction, the original fabric showed pairs of women on either side of a censer (Fig. 11). Both women were crowned, although the second figure on each side is smaller than the first, which would indicate subservient status in Achaemenid iconography. The larger woman holds a flower and raises her hand in an attitude of respect. The smaller holds a towel, a common attribute of a servant, as can be seen for example in the Treasury Relief from Persepolis, another royal Achaemenid building.

The complex imagery of this textile is clearly derived from Achaemenid iconography (Fig. 12), although it is not canonically Achaemenid. However, the treat­ment of this textile as it was incor­porated into the ornament of the shabrak indicates that the imagery as a whole had no intrinsic meaning to the nomads. Although the fabric is cut along the vertical axis and the forms of the human figures are generally preserved, the censer is usually destroyed and the women sometimes separated. In the section of the border along the rear of the shabrak, the larger figure is often partially obliterated by the black colt fur that frames the border.

Just as the shabrak made from the Chinese silk was brightened by embellishment, this shabrak made with the pictorial fabrics is also trimmed with gold leaf and tin foil, here applied as squares on the black fur. The five tassels at the back are made from red wool held in wooden ovoid caps which were apparently painted blue. The breast strap for this shabrak was made of felt covered by a third imported pictorial fabric, a strip of walking lions with open mouths and upraised tails (Fig. 13). This fabric is closer to Achaemenid prototypes than the others dis­cussed above. However, it shares the same dentate border and is technically similar, thus presum­ably originating in the same loca­tion as the other figural woolens. Like the shabrak itself, the lion fabric is edged with colt fur and metal foil squares, thus further enlivening and enriching the effect of the horse trapping.

A Pile Carpet

Another textile of west/central Asian origin is the famous pile carpet, also from kurgan 5 (Fig. 5a). Like the pictorial textiles, this carpet has often been called Achae­menid; like the woven fabrics, the carpet is made with some Achae­menid inspiration, which can be seen in the row of horses and horsemen along the outer frieze (Fig. 5b). However, the horsemen alternately walk and ride. In con­trast, on the reliefs at Persepolis (an Achaemenid royal capital), the horsemen always walk alongside their mounts in the standard court presentation of this motif (Fig. 8). In addition, the spotted fallow deer, which appears on the inner frieze of the carpet, is an animal characteristic of Transcaucasia and Siberia, suggesting that the carpet was manufactured somewhere be­yond the Achaemenid court.

Local Style

The local artistic vocabulary con­sisted primarily of animals and animal elements belonging to a bone and woodcarving tradition that extended back hundreds of years in the Siberian region (see box on Local Style). The roots of the tradition can be seen in carved horn and bone animals of the 3rd to 2nd millennium B.C. excavated in the region. In nomadic burials slightly earlier than Pazyryk, such as Bashadar, also in the Altai, an abundance of carved wooden ani­mals ornamenting the grave goods were preserved (Jettmar 1967).

Animals in paired combat, ani­mals with hindquarters twisted 180 degrees, isolated animal heads, antlers with bird-headed tines, and the prevalence of wolf, elk, feline, and bird-of-prey motifs were char­acteristic of the local style. In addition to animals, lively geo­metric ornaments, often based on floral elements, were common.

Polychrome and brightly colored objects were favored in all media, as was demonstrated by the treat­ment of the imported textiles made into shabraks. The effect of the burial inventory when it was intact must have been dazzling. Wooden objects were covered with metal foils, painted, and decorated with leather attachments. Leather was covered with metal foil, painted, or decorated with felt, fur, and other materials. Felt was appliquéd, cut­out, decorated with metal foil, embroidered, dyed, and enhanced with wool yarn and horse hair.

The Impact of Imported Objects

The foreign luxury goods at Pazyryk were certainly prized for their inherent value as well as their exoticism. As we have seen, some ornamented items ordinarily embel­lished with local materials. Others, such as the pile carpet, as well as a Chinese bronze mirror and a silver mirror from central Asia, presum­ably were used for the functions for which they were originally crafted. But some imported objects had a further effect on the people buried at Pazyryk; they influenced their art.

Scholars have noted that artistic “influence” has two components. It is not only the images available from the so-called sending cultures but also the selection or choice among them by the receiving cul­ture that together make up “influ­ence”. That process of selection is clear at Pazyryk, where only a limited number of the many foreign objects seen by the nomads inspired local imitation.

There are many examples at Pazyryk of imported images or formal elements appearing on lo­cally made objects. Sometimes the borrowing appears to have been an isolated event, occurring only once in the Pazyryk inventory. Other originally foreign images were in­corporated into the local artistic vocabulary and are found on many different objects.

Although in some cases the local artist copied the foreign elements quite closely, in many cases the borrowed images were transformed under the influence of local style and iconography. Four cases, three of them occurring in textiles, will illustrate these processes of transfer and transformation.

Bes Head

Animals dominated local im­agery, and human figures were not usually portrayed. As we have seen, the people at Pazyryk were exposed to at least one example of imported human imagery, that of the standing women on the pictorial woolen fabric. As far as we know, based on the materials preserved in the tombs, there was no effort on the part of the Pazyryk people to copy such standing human figures. However, in one instance, they did copy another quasi-human image, that of the head of Bes, a genie of Egyptian origin who was also popular in Achaemenid art (Fig. 16).

Although no figures of Bes were found in the Pazyryk tombs, some of the five heads on a bridle from kurgan 1 (Fig. 17) were clearly copied from a Bes image that must have been imported into the area. The round cheeks, prominent eyes, rounded tab-like ears, and hair and beard locks seen on Bes heads are also seen on four of the wooden heads on the Pazyryk bridle. The fifth head, on the nose band of the bridle, is longer and narrower than the other four, and is a less exag­gerated, more human face; it ap­pears to be an experiment in portraiture unique at Pazyryk and in all of the Altai in this period.

Since human figures were not generally part of the artistic vocabu­lary of these people, how might we explain the presence of the heads on the bridle? It is possible that the explanation may be found in Hero­dotus’s History of the Persian War, where he describes the customs of many different nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe, all of whom shared an underlying common life­style. Herodotus tells us that one people, the Scythians, beheaded those whom they conquered in battle and brought the heads to their leader to prove worthy to share in the spoils. In addition, they often removed the skins from the heads, cured them, and hung them from the bridles of their horses (Herodotus IV,64). Even if those buried at Pazyryk did not follow such practices, they may have shared a belief in the power of the heads of enemies. Such a belief, combined with the common occur­rence of isolated animal heads as part of their customary art, may have predisposed the Pazyryk artist to try this experiment in the repre­sentation of human heads.


In contrast, another borrowed image was widely used at Pazyryk: the body ornament called the dot­and-comma in the Near East, ori­ginally a stylization of musculature at shoulder and thigh (Fig. 14a,b). It is possible that this ornamenting of the surface appealed to the Pazyryk people because their traditional style was itself so highly decorated and colorful. For example, as was discussed above, wooden objects were embellished with gold foil, paint, and leather, and the imported textiles made more lively by bor­ders of metal foil, felt, and fur. Moreover, traditional carved ani­mals had textured surfaces and exaggerated features that were as decorative as the dot-and-comma ornament. Therefore, it seems likely that the imported materials that portrayed animals with dot-and­comma motifs—a pair of silver belt plaques from kurgan 2, the walking lion fabric (Fig. 13), the pile carpet from kurgan 5 (Fig. 5), or some other object not preserved in the tombs—provided inspiration for one more way to vary and enliven an image, thus appealing to local taste.

Crested Griffin

Some borrowings cluster in one or two graves, like the crested griffin, originally an image from the Representations of griffins were found in the earliest two Pazyryk tombs, which were built in the same year. Also exclusively in these two tombs were images of cocks. Grif­fins (Fig. 18) and cocks share the large beak and crest of birds-of­prey favored in imagery in some earlier tombs in the Altai, such as Bashadar, as well as in the two tombs at Pazyryk. It is likely that those physical characteristics made the griffin image appealing to the creators of the local copies.

Found in the later Pazyryk graves, unlike, for example, the dot-and ­comma pattern, reinforces the selec­tive nature of the borrowing: the griffin is copied only by those for whom the beaked bird had par­ticular meaning. We cannot know what the precise significance of the large-beaked and crested bird was, but it may have had a totemic meaning or have functioned as a clan symbol. Certainly it contained some kind of power, and the griffin, sharing the essential characteristics of the beaked bird, probably shared its meaning as well in the eyes of the Pazyryk people.

Lion Head

An image borrowed from west­ern Asia and transformed by the people at Pazyryk is the lion head. The felt lion heads (Fig. 19) made at Pazyryk as a border on a wall hanging have as their prototype Achaemenid lion heads, such as a gold clothing appliqué (Fig. 20) which might easily have found its way to Pazyryk. Rather than being copied exactly, however, the im­ported lion heads become wolf­like. Their elongated snouts and the size and overlap of their teeth are taken from the image of the wolf, which is found widely in the art of Siberia before the time of Pazyryk, as well as in many objects found in the Pazyryk tombs.

It is likely that the wolf, like the beaked bird, had symbolic meaning for these nomads. We know from Herodotus about the Neuroi, who once a year become wolves for a few days before returning to their original human forms (IV,105). His report is possibly a misunderstood description of a ritual where in­dividuals assume the costume of a tribal or clan totem.

The power of the image of the wolf, whatever its specific meaning, transformed the borrowed lion image. The image was clearly bor­rowed, since lions do not occur earlier in Altai art and are not native to the area. Was it borrowed be­cause the lion resonated with the traditional imaginal vocabulary of powerful felines and wolves? It is striking that it is the traditional wolf rather than the traditional panther that colors the imported lion image. The two may be linked because the large teeth characteristic of the Achaemenid lion are also an es­sential element in the Altaic repre­sentation of wolves. Another factor that may have drawn attention to the lion-head image is the very fact that the imported inspiration may have been a disembodied head. As noted above, animal heads were an integral part of the Siberian artistic vocabulary, and an object such as an Achaemenid bracteate may thus have been perceived as familiar despite its exoticism.


The Bes head, dot-and-comma ornament, crested griffin, and lion head are not the only images that the Pazyryk people borrowed from among the foreign images imported into the Altai, but they are sufficient to illustrate the nature of artistic borrowing: although many foreign images found their way to Pazyryk due to external historic and econ­omic circumstances, only a sub-set of those images was assimilated into the local art or even experimented with. There are, for example, ap­parently no attempts to copy the standing women or architectural towers illustrated on the pictorial textiles.

The example of Pazyryk also demonstrates that we cannot in­variably assume that if no foreign contact is reflected in local goods, then no such contact existed. Choice and selections by local people can also play a role in the absence of imported images. At least one Chi­nese pictorial silk had reached Pazyryk, yet apparently it was not emulated. Whether this was because it had not been around long enough for local artists to borrow from or had no inherent interest for the local people cannot be determined on the evidence.

Pazyryk is unlike the ancient Near East, where associations of political power, economic strength, or mili­tary might often informed the selec­tion of extrinsic images. In this remote area, where the imported goods were far separated from the places and peoples who created them, the exotic goods themselves apparently had power by virtue of their rarity. Thus, they enhanced the status of those that possessed them, but they came without con­text. Contexts were attributed to them by those at Pazyryk who saw the images and borrowed them, imbuing them with their own mean­ings and functions as they made them their own.


Cite This Article

Rubinson, Karen S.. "The Textiles from Pazyryk." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 1 (March, 1990): -. Accessed June 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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