NOMADS AND NETWORKS: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan

The popular image of nomads is one of wanderers who roam across vast grasslands or deserts, members of small groups organized at the most basic social level that rely for subsistence on warfare or raids of nearby settled cultures. Nomads and Networks is designed to dispel the misguided notion that nomadic societies were less developed than sedentary ones. It is the first U.S. exhibition devoted to an in-depth examination of the ancient nomadic heritage of Kazakhstan during the Iron Age (eighth–third centuries BCE).

For thousands of years, nomads—from the Greek νομάς, “roaming about for pasture”—have defined the overall cultural and historical makeup of the Eurasian steppe, their lives characterized by seasonally determined patterns of movement. The exhibition illuminates the nomadic way of life and provides a sense of the communal rituals they practiced, illustrating the importance of environment and landscape and highlighting the networks of communication and cultural exchange between nomads and their settled neighbors.

Nomads and Networks is installed according to the discrete but interrelated narrative themes of Environment, Society and Ritual, Networks, and the Site of Berel.

Environment: The first section explores landscape in the overall nomadic worldview and presents petroglyphs, or images carved on rock, that might once have demarcated and decorated “sacred places.” Other objects illustrate the importance of both land and water animals to the nomads’ understanding of the world around them.

Society and Ritual: While it is difficult to reconstruct the ritual and sacred life of nomads, since they left no written records, a group of massive bronze cauldrons and a series of elaborately decorated bronze stands have been tentatively related to ritual activities. Most were found in the landscape without association to any architectural remains, and one interpretation suggests that these objects may have been placed outdoors at locations considered sacred.

Networks: The nomads of the Tianshan and Altai regions were closely connected with their neighbors through networks of exchange. For the nomadic elite, relations with the sedentary world played a particularly important role. They acquired valuable luxury goods from abroad that became markers of prestige at home, helping to distinguish individuals with power from those without. Luxury imported goods circulated widely within the nomadic world and inevitably began to influence the artistic vocabularies of objects produced domestically. The two most spectacular examples of this cultural and aesthetic interaction are seen in the Zhalauli hoard and the Kargaly diadem, both on display in the United States for the very first time.

The Site of Berel: A significant focus of the exhibition is a display of recently excavated objects from Berel, the most significant Pazyryk-culture site in Kazakhstan. Located in the Altai mountains near the border with Russia and China, Berel was the burial site of a distinct elite stratum within nomadic society. Of the twenty-four kurgans, or burial mounds, discovered there, the exhibition highlights spectacular finds from three recently excavated examples. Objects include a series of expertly carved ornaments in wood—many painted or overlaid with gold and tin—as well as a beautifully embroidered saddle showing felines attacking horned animals, and carvings for horse decoration made of Siberian red-deer horn that were further embellished with cinnabar and gold.

Together, the over two hundred-fifty objects on view reveal a world of nomadic groups that—far from being “underdeveloped”—fused a close connection to the natural world with a sophisticated material culture that was connected by established networks to the world beyond the steppe.

This exhibition has been organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University in collaboration with the Central State Museum, the Presidential Center of Culture, the A. Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology, the Museum of Archaeology, and the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakshtan to the United States. The exhibition was made possible through the support of the Leon Levy Foundation.