Ērān ud Anērān
Webfestschrift Marshak 2003


Volga Bulgaria Silver of the 10th-14th centuries
(on materials of the Trans-Urals collections)
Artistic Metal Studies presented to B. Marshak

Natalia V. Fedorova*


Volga Bulgaria silver is one of the brightest phenomena of the Middle Age European culture: 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; clear orientation of craftsmen-jewellers towards the "export" market and not just the local population, together with its tremendous production volumes make Bulgarian silver working a truly unique phenomenon. The main purpose of this paper is to trace the history of Bulgarian toreutics over the period between the 10th and the 16th centuries, as well as the interaction of the Bulgarian and the "Hungarian" styles in artistic metal, the role of the "Northern component" in artistic techniques of the Volga Bulgaria craftsmen.

Brief historical reference

Volga Bulgaria silver is one of the brightest phenomena of the Middle Age European culture. Its organic combination of the Turkic traditions, artistic techniques and motifs of the urban culture of Central Asia (first the pre-Islamic Sogdian and later the Islamic one), and the imagery peculiar to the heathen population of the Ural and Western Siberia; clear orientation of craftsmen-jewellers towards the "export" market and not just the local population, together with its tremendous production volumes make Bulgarian silver working a truly unique phenomenon.

Volga Bulgaria - a state that was formed at the confluence of the rivers Volga and Kama in the 10th century. At the same time the Bulgarians adopted Islam. Volga Bulgaria is considered to have been "one of the most economically developed states of Eastern Europe" (Belavin, 2000, p.7). This development was further facilitated by the fact that the Bulgarians were actively involved in the international trade along the Volga route, where they acted as the intermediaries between the merchants of the West and the Orient on the one hand, and the Northern suppliers of valuable furs on the other, at the same time zealously protecting the Northern territories from the penetration of their competitors. Vast majority of Bulgarian artefacts evidencing this trade was represented by artistic silverware - decorations and dishes, with the most interesting and varied collection of these items having as its origin the northern taiga part of Western Siberia, which prompted the choice of the subject for this publication.

The products of Bulgarian craftsmen were also exported to the neighbouring with the Volga Bulgaria Kama regions and to the territory of the present day Komi republic. However, while the majority of the artefacts from the burial sites of the Vychegda region and the sites of the upper Kama are well described in numerous publications and have become part of the research literature, the West Siberian items are much less known. Possibly the only exceptions were the two Hermitage exhibitions catalogues of 1991 and 1996 (Oriental Artistic Metal, 1991; Treasures of the Ob, 1996).

The body of sources

The body of sources on the subject consisted of silverware (approximately 20 dishes and cups found in various locations in the north of Western Siberia); silver decorations with niello decor: protective bow plates - 16 (or more) items; silver face bands - 9 items; folding bracelets - 4 items; approximately a dozen rings. Other types of niello decorations were less representative, e.g. a couple of temple pendants with rhombic shields, two round plaques with the horseman image (the so-called falconer plaques).

The set of ornaments decorated with filigree was more varied: beaded rings, single beads, pendants - half moon, trapezoid, blade-shaped, grape-shaped, duck-feet shaped, cross-shaped. Two Glasov type grivnas (UH, p. 110, TO, p. 107) and two plaited chains are also known. The belt sets in stamping technique, plaques with animal images (UH, p. 119) are pretty rare. All the artefacts are stored in museum collections of Western Siberia (in Salekhard, Khanty-Mansijsk, Surgut, Tobolsk, Tumen), as well as in the collections of the archeological laboratory of the Ural State University (Ekaterinburg), Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Novosibirsk), and the State Hermitage (St-Petersburg).

Problem formulation

The main purpose of this paper is to trace the history of Bulgarian toreutics over the period between the 10th and the 16th centuries, as well as the interaction of the Bulgarian and the "Hungarian" styles in artistic metal, the role of the "Northern component" in artistic techniques of the Volga Bulgaria craftsmen. For the purposes of this study the filigree decorations and some other toreutics groups, such as a group of silver foil round plaques with punched ornamentation along the border, dishes and cups made of thin silver sheet were excluded from the analysis, as this would have required to expand the body of sources and reference material significantly.

History of research

Bulgarian niello pieces, namely, the rings became first known towards the end of the 19th century owing to the publication of the Archeological Atlas by A. Likhachev. Their analysis - typology, dates, attribution - was made by A. Kavka in his article "Rings of the Kama-Volga Bulgaria" (A. Kavka, 1928). Unfortunately, his work is not well known to the researchers. Aleksey P. Smirnov in his book "Volga Bulgarians" (1951) and later publications interpreted all Bulgarian niello pieces as the Russian ones, assuming that the art of niello was not known to the Bulgarian craftsmen at all (The Steppes of Eurasia, 1981, p. 211). The issue of distinguishing the Volga Bulgarian toreutics as a specific artistic phenomenon was raised in 1970 by Vasily Yu. Leschenko (Leschenko, 1970). He attributed a group of silver plaques with the image of falconer to Bulgarian artefacts. Later he expanded the list of artefacts with Bulgarian attribution having added to it a silver hand plate (protective bow plate - N. F.), face band and two ladles (Leschenko, 1981, p. 107). Vasily Yu. Leschenko identified a number of features characteristic for the "Bulgarian toreutics school" and traced its links to the Russian and the Far Eastern art (op.cit. p. 110-117). Boris I. Marshak was the first to attribute as Bulgarian a group of silver dishes with archaic drawing elements (Marshak, 1976), which was a particularly important step forward both in the study of the artistic culture of Volga Bulgaria, and in the more global sense - in understanding the mechanism of origination of the schools of toreutics in the young states of the Middle Ages. The author of this publication has continued the study of the Bulgarian toreutics on the basis of the finds from the territory of Western Siberia having distinguished several groups, or schools (Fedorova, 1984,1991).

Early Bulgarian dishes

Probably one of the least known and the most interesting for the understanding of the processes of development of Bulgarian silver working is a group of five dishes. For the purposes of this study and to keep the description short I would call it the "early Bulgarian". It was this group that was in his time described by Boris I Marschak (Marschak, 1976). Relatively recently two more pieces became known that appeared to belong to the same group: a dish decorated with a mythological scene from a treasure found on the river Synya (TO, 82,83) and a dish with two lions from Zeleny Yar site near Salekhard (Fedorova, 2002) (fig. 1). There was a striking similarity between all of them in shape and details, as well as in the decor composition. All of these round massive dishes with the diameter from 20 to 30 cm, sometimes even larger - up to 45 cm had a heavy vertical border. Decor was concentrated in a round central medallion and made in the technique of fine point stamping against a gilded background. The central medallion was either encircled with the embossed edging (the dish with a scene of a predator attacking a deer (fig. 2), the dish from the r. Synya (fig.3)) or placed within the ornamental frieze filled with the geometrical ornament (the dish with a deer from the Tomsk province (fig. 4), the dish from the Pashkin jurts), the ornament imitating kufic inscriptions (the Rublev dish (fig. 5)), or the floristic ornament (the dish from Zeleny Yar). Niello decoration was registered only once - in the decor of the Rublev dish. The personages in the scenes of the central medallions of the dishes were the lions (the dish from Zeleny Yar, the Rublev dish), fantastic predators attacking a deer (the dish with a deer), complex multi-figure compositions with a deer, a man and a bird (the Tomsk province dish) or a fantastic predator, a snake, a man, some small animal (a dish from the r. Synya). One of the characteristic features of this group were the images of the "life line" and some specific elements of the drawing (representation of human hands, a bird with the spread wings, etc.), which went back to artistic traditions of the West Siberian or, in a wider sense, the Ural craftsmen. They were registered on the artefacts of the West Siberian artistic casting of the Middle Ages and on the so-called engravings - the drawings harrowed with a sharp instrument on silver dishes or on bronze plaques.

The craftsmen most probably used the imported goods as the patterns; thus, for example, the Sogdian dishes of school A (SS, Fig. 5-8) had the same shape and decor against a gilded background concentrated in a round central medallion. Boris I. Marschak dated them as the 8th century (SS, p.73). Some elements of the ornament were copies of the later Central Asian samples, thus the floristic ornament on the dish from the Tomsk province was similar to the ornament on a cup from the Anikov treasure dated as the 10th century. Pseudo-kufic ornaments, birds in small round medallions, and the general composition - four small round medallions around the central one, positioned cross-wise on the Rublev dish go back to the Iranian pieces of the 10th - 11th centuries (see, e.g., Darkevich, 1976, Table 34, 35). Apparently, the whole group can be dated as the 10th - 11th centuries AD, the latest in the group being the Rublev dish.

"Hungarian toreutics"

The group of the so-called "Hungarian toreutics" is closely related to the "Early Bulgarian" dishes (Darkevich, 1976; Marschak, 1986; Fedorova, 1990; TO, 1996). Vladislav P. Darkevich believed them to be the Pannonian import, whereas Boris I. Marschak and Natalia V. Fedorova were of the opinion that the place of their origin was the Ural region, the so-called territory of "Magna Hungaria". The group consisted of five round massive dishes with the heavy vertical border and the decor inscribed into the round central medallion with the gilded background. Four of them pictured horsemen (fig. 6, 7). Two were practically identical in terms of composition: on a slit dish from the Yamal peninsula (fig. 7) and on the dish from the upper Kama region there were pictures of riders on massive horses with a large bird sitting on a rider's arm. Two more - a dish from Muzhy (fig. 6) and a dish from the Vasilenko collection from the Yamal peninsular, which was probably found in the Khetose burial site, had pictures of fully armed horsemen without any accompanying personages. Finally, the cup from the upper Kama region had a lion image in the central medallion. It is necessary to note, that the craftsmen wanted to represent the animals in motion - all the horses were rendered in a "stepping" attitude with the raised front leg, the lion was pictured in the same attitude. The author of the dish from Khetose probably tried to represent the horse in a gallop: both of its front legs were raised - however, he failed to inscribe the image into the round space of the medallion, therefore the horse's attitude turned out to be unnatural. Two more "Hungarian" group vessels became known recently, unfortunately, these materials have not yet been published (Baulo, 2002). Some of the decoration techniques serve as the attributing features of the group: a drawing in the form of two arcs with an outward directed stroke, a stroke with three triangle shaped groups of dots, specific details of floristic ornament, etc. The group has its analogues in the Pannonia Hungarians' silver - cover plates for bags, arms details, round plaques and the very scarcely represented silverware (Fodor, 1982, Tabl. XXXVI - XLI), but for all this obvious similarity looks much less solid, unified, or prevalent. Besides, the recent finds, and in particular the dish from Zeleny Yar, made it possible to talk of the similarity of the "Hungarian" and the "Early Bulgarian" groups in shape, manufacturing technology and the decoration techniques. To my mind this is a decisive point for the understanding of the general situation in the formation of toreutics schools in the early states and the pre-state formations of the Volga and the Ural regions. In addition to the general similarities the "Hungarian" dishes may be said to form the chains of twin features with some of the "Early Bulgarian" vessels with regard to specific artistic elements. Thus, for example, the ornament on the headdresses of the riders from the Kama and the Yamal dishes looked like the pseudo-kufic decor of Rublev's dish. By a number of analogues the "Hungarian" group can be dated within the range of the 9th - 10th centuries: the types of arms and the horse harness, clothes ornaments (Kazakov, 1992, p. 65, 67; TO, p.114-117). We do not know of any later artefacts made in the same manner.

The similarity between these two groups is not limited to the similarity of artistic techniques. Attention of a researcher is drawn to the following facts 1) All the dishes were massive, i.e. the craftsmen did not spare metal for their making. 2) All the dishes, at least in cases when the location of the find was more or less accurately known, were found in the territory of the western part of the lower Ob region: the basins of the rivers Northern Sosva and Synya, south-west of the Yamal peninsular, around Salekhard, i.e. the areas of habitation of the contemporary groups of Mansi and the Northern Khanty. 3) With the exception of the two Yamal pieces all of them were found in the complexes of the active sacred places or sacred trunks. 4) The pictures on them represented either horsemen, or some mythological motifs with the obvious traces of the West-Siberian (Ural) artistic manner. It seems quite plausible to assume that at least some dishes of these two groups were not only made by the craftsmen to the direct order of the Trans-Ural customers, by also that in the process the artistic metal of the customer was used as a pattern.

The latest piece in the "Early Bulgarian" group is the so-called Rublev dish from the collections of Nizhny Tagil regional museum (Darkevich, 1976), the materials on which, by the way, have not been properly published yet. It was the first one to feature niello in the lines of the background hatching, the ornament around the central medallion was an imitation of a kufic inscription, general composition of the decor with the four small round medallions around the central one copied the Iranian 11th century vessels.

The Rublev dish represented a link between the "Early Bulgarian" group and the group of silver artefacts that can be dated as the 12th -13th centuries. It consists of two dishes (TO 37, 38), two ladles (fig. 8), two bracelets (fig. 9), possibly one of the protective bowstring hand plates, rings with a floral sprout on a shield. The definitive features of the group were the floral sprout, which was not characteristic for the "Early Bulgarian" group, background finish in parallel lines, niello in the toothed lines, such ornamentation motifs as the triple gilded plaited ornament. The patterns for these were the Iranian silver vessels of the 11th - 12th centuries (e.g. OS 148). All the items looked very festive, expensive owing to the combination of niello and gilt in the decor, as well as the massiveness of the things. It should be noted, that this group was the closest in style to the works of the Russian jewellers (Makarova, 1986). Practically all finds (with the exception of the rings), the location of which is known, were made in the treasure complexes or sacrificial offerings in ancient sacred sites, once they were encountered together with a Byzantine provinces cup (Fedorova, 1982) and Bulgarian filigree decorations.

Volga Bulgaria silver-working shops

In the 13th - 14th centuries the Volga Bulgaria silver-working shops developed mass production of both niello and filigree decorations. From that period on they were found together with the Golden Horde silver vessels - cups, dishes and ladles (UH, p. 124-126), which were quite possibly made in the cities of the Volga Bulgaria (Fedorova, 1991). Most of the artefacts were found in the burials.

The mix of niello pieces of the 13th -14th centuries was represented with various types of decorations, among them the decorated bow string protection hand plates (fig. 10, 11). The common features for the style of that time were: detailed working of the decor on the pre-made drawing with the point stamping on the face, gilding, niello background, added gilt along the image contour and niello in the lines of the background hatching. Some elements of the decor, as e.g. the matched volute-like curls, the vine left in reserve - were borrowed from the Islamic prototypes. A plaited ornament of two, three or four bands became an almost obligatory motif found on the majority of the items. It is possible to distinguish at least two groups or schools of the 13th -14th century Bulgarian toreutics: the most outstanding feature of school 1 was the presence of a recessed gilded groove along the edge of each piece; school 2 was characterised by the edge decoration with the border of the so-called roll filigree (Fedorova, 1991a).

Of all the numerous artefacts of this series the best known are the small round plaques with an image of a horseman and a bird sitting on his arm surrounded with various animals, the so-called falconer plaques. Around 16 pieces of those were so far found in the Perm Kama region, 5 in the territory of the Komi republic, 1 on Vaigach island, 1 (cut) in the Trans-Urals, in the Likin burial site, and only two in Western Siberia (UH, p. 111). Again after the interval of two-three hundred years (there were no horsemen images on Bulgarian provinces silverware since the "Hungarian" dishes times) the horseman motif became popular, and what's more - in the same composition "a horseman with a bird on his arm".

There is a certain dynamics in the chronological distribution of horseman motifs across the territories of the east of Europe and the north of Western Siberia. In the 9th - 10th centuries two groups of the "horsemen" were known. The first consisted of the bronze cast horseman images with a disproportionally small body, especially compared to a large head, sitting on a horse "in a lady's fashion", i.e. with the legs hanging on one side of the horse, left hand on the animals neck and the right resting against its back. The rider's head was capped with a helmet, sometimes represented quite realistically, in other pieces rather conventionalised. A horse was standing on a base, often in the form of some elongated zoomorphic figure. These relatively widely spread images are for some reason often referred to in the literature as a "horsewoman on a snake". They are encountered in the complexes of both the 9th - 10th centuries and the later ones, but not later than the 11th century. The second group is represented with the already described "Hungarian" dishes with a horseman.

Iconographically the horsemen of the "falconer plaques" go back rather to the bronze cast images, than to the images on the dishes: large pointed head of a horseman, the right hand resting on the horse's back, rather specific technique of representing the horse's head with one arched line from the top of the ear to the lower jaw. A large bird of prey as remotely resembling a hunting falcon as the bird of the "Hungarian" dishes was sitting already not on the hand or the arm of the horseman, but on the outside of his elbow bend. Among the animals surrounding the "falconer plaques" horsemen it is possible to recognise the fur animals, elks, bears, waterfowl. The "sun" and the "moon" placed near the horseman's head became a frequent element of decor.

Using this rather large group of artefacts it is easy to trace the role of the northern component in the formation of the style of the Bulgarian artistic metal. One can assume that first, far from all the craftsmen - silversmiths, jewellers, bronze casters came from the Turkic-Bulgarian community, but that some at least came from the Ugrian or the Perm population that lived in the Kama territories prior to the formation of the Volga Bulgaria. They contributed their own techniques and imagery to this style. Second, the new finds and the close study of already known artefacts suggest the idea, that the interaction between the craftsman and the customer, including the West Siberian customer, was much closer, than was until recently believed. Namely, this communication had the form of direct contacts, rather than contacts exclusively via the intermediaries, i.e. the Bulgarian and the "Chulyman" (i.e. the upper Kama, Rodanov) merchants. This interpretation explains the exact iconographic likeness of certain personages of the dishes decor (e.g. a bird of prey from the Tomsk dish) to the West Siberian or the Ural canon.


It was repeatedly mentioned in literature that the Bulgarian silver making was a developed urban craft, and the craftsmen were skilled in all the contemporary technological techniques: casting of large items, hot forging, drawing, gilding and niello techniques, stamping, etc. However, it is only the Trans-Ural materials that allow us to evaluate the degree of its orientation towards the northern market. Moreover, they make it possible to understand better all the complexity and variety of the processes of formation of this art, and together with them the multi-component nature of the Middle Age urban culture no less characteristic for the "young" state formations on the eastern borders of Europe, than for the "old" ones in the West or the South.

List of illustration:

Fig. 1 - the dish with two lions from Zeleny Yar

[Missing Image]

Fig. 2 - the dish with a scene of a predator attacking a deer

[Missing Image]

Fig. 3 - the dish from the river Synya

[Missing Image]

Fig. 4 - the dish from the Tomsk province

[Missing Image]

Fig. 5 - the Rublev's dish

[Missing Image]

Fig. 6 - the dish from Muzhy

[Missing Image]

Fig. 7 - the slit dish from Yamal peninsula

[Missing Image]

Fig. 8 - the ladle with the floral sprout

[Missing Image]

Fig. 9 - the bracelet from Zeleny Yar burial site

[Missing Image]

Fig. 10 - the decorated bow string protection hand plate

[Missing Image]

Fig. 11 - the decorated bow string protection hand plate

[Missing Image]

List of abbreviations:

OS - "Oriental Silver"; Ya. I. Smirnov. Oriental Silver, 1909 (Russian)

TO - "Treasures of the Ob"; Treasures of the Ob. Editor B. I. Marschak, "Formica", 1996, 227 p. (Russian with the summary of the Introductory Article by Boris I. Marshak in English)

SS - "Sogdian Silver"; B. I. Marschak. Sogdian Silver. Essays on the oriental toreutics. M. Main Publishing House of the Oriental Literature, 1971, 155 p. (Russian with English summary)

UH - "Ugrian Heritage"; A. P. Zykov, S. F. Koksharov, L. M. Terekhova, N.V.Fedorova. Ugrian Heritage. Ekaterinburg, Vneshtorgizdat, 1994, 158 p. (Russian and English)


Baulo, A. V. Ob Ugrians: attribution and mythology (metal in religious practices and rites of the 18th - 20th centuries). Doctoral thesis, Novosibirsk, 2002. (Russian)

Belavin A.M. The Kama trade route. Middle-Age Ural region in its economic and ethno-cultural ties. Perm, Perm Pedagogical University Press, 2000. 200 p. (Russian)

Darkevich, V.P. Artistic metal of the Orient. M, Nauka, 1976. 196 p. (Russian)

Fedorova, N.V. Two silver vessels from Surgut area. CA N.1, 1982 (Russian)

Fedorova N.V. Golden Horde toreutics in the Ob region. // The study of the Middle Age archeology of the forest band of Eastern Europe. Izhevsk, 1991 (Russian)

Fedorova N.V., a. Artistic metal of Volga Bulgaria. // Oriental artistic metal from the middle Ob region. New finds. L, 1991 (Russian)

Fedorova, N.V. A dish with lions - five lives in a thousand years. // Vestnik of the Ural branch of RAS, issue 2. 2002 (Russian)

Fedorova, N. Silverware of ``Magna Hungaria'' // Congressus Septimus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum. Debrecen, 1990 (English)

Fodor Istvan. Die grosse Wanderung der Ungarn vom Ural nach Pannonien. Corvina Kiado, Budapest, 1982. 372 s. (German)

Kazakov E. P. Culture of the early Volga Bulgaria. M, Nauka, 1992. 332 p. (Russian)

Leschenko V. Yu. Hunting scenes plaques from the Volga region. CA N.3, 1970. (Russian)

Leschenko V.Yu. Applied art and mythology in the period of decline of the patriarchal-tribal system (Bulgarian artistic metal in the culture of Finnish-Ugrians). // Problems of the study of religion and atheism. State museum of history of religion and atheism press. Collection of papers. Leningrad, 1981. P. 105 - 125. (Russian)

Makarova, T. I. Niello craft of the Ancient Russ. M, Nauka, 1986, 153 p. (Russian)

Marschak B. I. Silver vessels of the 10th - 11th centuries, their importance for periodization of the art of Iran and Central Asia. // Art and archeology of Iran and Central Asia. M, Nauka, 1976 (Russian)

Marschak, Boris. Silberschatze des Orients. VEB E. A. Seemann Verlag Leipzig 1986, 438 c. (German)

* Ekaterinburg, Institute of History and Archeology,
Ural Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences

© The Author/s

Actualizado el 24/07/2004

Valid HTML 4.01!
Any Browser!
Creative Commons License
Como lo hacemos?