Ērān ud Anērān
Webfestschrift Marshak 2003


"Animal Style" Art and the Image of the Horse and Rider

Karen S. Rubinson


I am pleased to present this paper in honor of the 70th birthday of Boris I. Marshak. I treasure the friendship of Dr. Marshak and his wife, Dr. Valentina Raspopova, and value our many conversations about the art and art history of Central Asia and the steppe, including discussion about this very paper1.

The subject matter of my study lies outside the timeframe and geographical emphasis of most of Marshak's work. However, the issue of how to explain the appearance, exchange and borrowing of artistic imagery is central to Marshak's research and that issue is addressed here. In addition, Marshak and Raspopova have published a wall painting from their excavations at Panjikent of a horse and rider2. Further, Marshak examined the meaning of hunt scenes in Sasanian and Sogdian wall paintings3 and his suggestions of many-layered meanings contributed to my thinking on the subject herein.

From early in the study of steppe nomads of the first millennium BCE, the important role of the horse in nomadic life was obvious and thus thoroughly examined. There are dramatic horse remains from burials in the Scythian world on the west to Siberia and Eastern Kazakhstan on the east. The question I examine in this paper is: given the importance of the horse to the first millennium BCE steppe nomad, why, with perhaps a few exceptions of what may be late 5th century date, is it only in the fourth century B.C. that we begin to see representations of humans on horseback in the burials of the steppe nomads? 4. Although nomadic art is found in burials from the beginning of this life-way,5 at that time there are only animal representations on the burial goods, in contrast to the art of other groups who lived near and around the steppe at the beginning of the first millennium BCE and also even in the steppe itself in rock-art representations.

To frame the question of the possible explanations for the relatively late appearance of this image in the art of the nomads found among the burial remains, I make some assumptions both about the uses of art and about the construction of burial practice. As Marcus has cogently summarized, "there is a functional relationship between art and culture, and the affective properties of art -construct and maintain social hierarchies"6. Or, as Wolff puts it, "art is clearly an ideological activity and an ideological product"7. And Wobst, in his seminal article on style, both made clear the role of artifacts in the process of information exchange, and defined the most important recipients of such artifacts' messages8.

In addition to the actual creation of art, a further construction of social hierarchy and ideological climate can be conveyed by the setting, architecture, contents and other practice of burials and cemeteries, as McHugh has noted9. In other words, there is the likelihood of a social or ideological message in both artistic representation and in the contents of burials. In a recent summary of approaches to burials and their contents in light of the evidence of steppe nomads, Hanks notes several important points. He says that one must take into consideration that the lives of individuals, within both the contemporary and the past, are composed of structured relationships built around a series of multiple roles. It must therefore be the intention of the researcher to strive for an understanding of how these various roles are either represented or under-represented within the material remains of the burial10. Citing Parker Pearson, Hanks points out that it is important to take into consideration the fact that the selection of grave goods reflects a specific 'subset' of artifacts taken from the variety of choices available from within the material culture signature of the respective population11.

In general, the message conveyed by the burials of the early nomads is that the nomadic life is highly mobile, often militaristic, and with an economy based on animals, including horses. Elements of cult are also often part of the burial context.

This emphasis on the mobile and military life found in the range of burial goods placed in tombs of the nomads is reflected as well by the settled populations who wrote about the nomads, both on the east and west of the steppe, including Suma Qian in the Shiji12 and Herodotus in The Histories13.

The question examined here is what social, cultural or ideological changes caused the transition in nomadic art from exclusively animal imagery to the inclusion of the representation of the horse with human rider? Was it because the tribal leaders were no longer really the military leaders, but chose to emphasize that now mythic aspect? Was it because of a growing sedentarization in nomadic life? Did stronger political alliances negate the need for the same military practices as had existed in the past? Or were tribal leaders, as part of larger confederations, choosing to emphasize their military prowess? It seems possible that all of these factors played a role in the underlying symbolic change.

Works cited

Bunker, E., T.S. Kawami, K.M. Linduff, Wu En
1997 Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes. New York: The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation.

Griaznov, M.P.
1980 Arzhan. Leningrad: Nauka.

Hanks, B.
2000 "Iron Age Nomadic Burials of the Eurasian Steppe: A Discussion Exploring Burial Ritual Complexity". In Kurgans, Ritual Sites, and Settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age, edited by J. Davis-Kimball, E.M. Murphy, L. Koryakova and L.T. Yablonsky: 19-27. BAR International Series 890. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Itina, M. A. and L. T. Yablonsky
1997 Saki Nizhnei Syrdar'i. Moscow: Rosspen.

Lerner, J.
1991 "Some So-called Achaemenid Objects from Pazyryk", Source, vol. X, no. 4:8-15.

Marcus, M.
1996 Emblems of Identity and Prestige: The Seals and Sealings from Hasanlu, Iran. Hasanlu Special Studies III. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Marshak, B.I.
1996 "New Discoveries in Pendjikent and a Problem of Comparative Study of Sasanian and Sogdian Art". In Atti dei Convegni Lincei, 127. Le Persia e l'asia Centrale da Alessandro al X Secolo:425-438. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Marshak, B.I. and V.I. Raspopova
1990 "A Hunting Scene from Panjikent". Bulletin of the Asia Institute, NS, vol. 4:77-94.

McHugh, F.
1999 Theoretical and Quantitative Approaches to the Study of Mortuary Practice. BAR International Series 785. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Rudenko, S.I.
1962 Sibirskaya Kollektsiya Petra I. Arkhologiya SSSR, D3-9. Moscow-Leningrad: Akademiya Nauk SSSR
1968 Drevneishiye v Mirye Khudozhestvennyye Kovry I Tkani Moscow: Iskusstvo.

Wobst, H. M.
1977 "Stylistic Behavior and Information Exchange". In For the Director: Research Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin, edited by C. E. Cleland, pp. 317-342. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan Anthropological Papers, no. 61. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.

Wolff, J.
1981 The Social Production of Art. New York: St. Martin's Press.


1 A version of this paper was first presented at the international conference "Eurasian Steppes in Prehistory and the Middle Ages" commemorating the centenary of the birth of Professor Mikhael Griaznov in St. Petersburg, March 2002.

2 Marshak and Raspopova (1990), pp. 77-94.

3 Marshak (1996), pp. 428-430.

4 The few objects which may belong to the late 5th century rather than the 4th century BCE are a felt hanging from Pazyryk kurgan 5 (Rudenko 1968, pls. 46, 51a,b) and gold plaques from the treasure of Peter the Great, now in the Hermitage (Rudenko 1962, pl. I, 5 and pl. VII 1,7). The dates of these objects continue to be discussed and are not yet precisely fixed. The carpet from Pazyryk kurgan 5, which displays horses with riders, is not likely a nomadic product (Lerner 1991, p. 12).

5 E.g Itina and Yablonsky (1997), figs. 77,78; Griaznov (1980), figs. 15, 25-26.

6 Marcus (1996), p. 2.

7 Wolff (1981), p.55.

8 Wobst (1977), pp.321, 325-327.

9 McHugh (1999), pp. 1-18.

10 Hanks (2000), p.23.

11 Hanks (2000), p.22.

12 Bunker et al. (1997), p.16.

13 IV-46.

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