By Zvezdina DODE, Cand. Sc. (History), Stavropol State University
The northeast of the Stavropol Territory is still a blank spot on this country's archeological map. Up until recently archeologists knew next to nothing about cultural monuments left by nomadic tribes in the plains there. But now field workers of the state company Naslediye (Heritage) have filled this gap. Looking through aerial survey photos, they have detected a round mound, 30 cm tall and 20 m in diameter. What kind of mysteries lay buried there?
According to historical data, this land in the Middle Ages was part of Desht-i- Kipchak, the steppe (plains) inhabited by the Polovtsi, a nomadic tribe also known as Kipchaks or Kumans. Russian chronicles called them Polovtsi, European sources- Kumans; to oriental authors they were Kipchaks.
These nomads came to the plains north of Caucasia in the mid -11th century A.D. or so. A century later a clear boundary was there to separate them from two other tribes, the Alans and the Adygs (Adygeis) along the rivers Kuban, Nizhnyaya Malka and Terek, as we can judge by the area where the Polovtsi left stone sculptures. When, in the 14th century, the Mongols joined Desht-i-Kipchak to their empire, the Polovtsi made up the bulk of the population within the Caucasian ulus (province) of the Golden Horde.
The mound discovered in 1998 gives us a glimpse into the daily life of the Polovtsi. Beneath the upper layer of tell was a bank of thick loam with admixtures of clay, and lower underneath two burial constructions were found-an arched trench and a circular little ditch. Archeologists dug up five skeletons there: one of a man, another of a woman, with the remains of two horses next by; and last, there was a child buried there, its grave differed from those of the adults in burial trappings.
Examining these burial sites, archeologists ascertained the nature of tombs, they found household articles, dresses, arms and horse harnesses. The identical silver cups, laid next to the man and the woman, meant that they were related to each other, while a steppe cherry pip indicated the time of the burial.
This material enabled us to visualize what happened there in the dim and distant past. Let's try to lift the veil of time...
So, the winter is over, and young blades are breaking through the sere grass of the summer before. The
boundless steppe is still and desolate, with an eagle, its mighty wings a-spread, hovering up in the sky. A nomad leaves the town on the bank of the Kuma-populated by a motley lot of Polovtsi, Alans, Mongols and merchants from distant parts-to drive herds of horses and cattle onto steppe pastures. He will stay in the plains throughout the summer. Only with the onset of winter will he return to Madzhar, one of the largest towns of the Caucasian ulus of the Golden Horde. This place is brisk with handicrafts and trade, and it has a mint of its own. Peasants outside the town are busy tilling their land-fields, gardens and orchards.
He, the horse-and cattle-tending nomad, is looking north for a place where to put up hisyurta tent. Being a Turki, he orients his abode east, toward the rising sun, light and warmth.
The denizen of the steppe pulled up stakes every now and then. He had to do it fast, that's why everything was orderly within his yurta. This tent was partitioned into two-one part (right) for men, and the other (left)-for women. The heart of the tent was an ever-burning fire which used to symbolize the continuity of generations. Back of the fireplace, household holies were kept. The home-management part of the tent was just in front of the entrance.
Setting out, our nomad, as it behooved a real horseman, put on red jackboots, an evereng* shirt, and pieces of armor. Part of his getup was a beshmet quilted coat, a close-fitting thing flaring from the waist and supplied with many small fabric buttons.
* Evereng - a smart loose shirt, usually of soft silk.- Ed.
He donned a loose gown above, single-breasted on the left side, and fitted with a belt and iron platelets. The long narrow sleeves of the beshmet came out from under the short and wide sleeves of the gown. This apparel was made of red-and- golden silk.
The horseman's attire indicated his family status. Upon marriage he put on a red caftan, a garment having long sleeves and tied at the waist by a girdle. Red was an essential element of wedding symbolism for groom and bride alike, as we learn from epic Turkic poems harking back to the Middle Ages.
In the wake of the Mongol-Tartars, there came a flood of posh oriental fabrics, with genuine Chinese symbols too. The masters of the Celestial Empire wrought intricate designs combining diamond formations of peonies, chrysanthemums and other flowers (or just loose bouquets) with images of the dragon, parrot, falcon and nightingale. The ornamental beshmets were complemented by flying geese and dragons against a backdrop of asymmetrically placed vegetation motifs. The dragons were done in a characteristically Chinese manner when one and the same image incorporated elements of all the various animals: a lion's head with a flowing mane was on a serpent's trunk covered with the scales of fish-the curved paws of this fancy creature ended in aquiline claws. Such monsters, impersonating beneficial water, clouds, mountain peaks and heaven, were the Chinese symbols of good bestowed from above. Subsequently the dragon became an epitome of the might and perfection of imperial power. The goose was depicted with widespread wings and a long curved neck. The plumage, paws, eyes and body parts were portrayed quite true to life. The bird's head bore a crown in the shape of an open flower.
The same held for the ornament of an outer gown: amidst plants and flowers there was a staggered pattern of phoenix birds with spread wings and three flying tails.
The steppe folks, though not engaging themselves in the art of weaving, would readily use brocade, silk and linen. The Polovtsi made some of their clothes from leather and felt, and decorated them with appliques. The outer wear had no pockets-instead, the nomads made use of leather pouches adorned with plant ornaments and fastened by a cast clasp of bronze.
Our horseman wore high leather boots, but without heels and hard sole-because he spent nearly all of his life in the saddle. His headgear had an original look too. It resembled the classical Mongolian kolpak, or a pointed cap, made of red velvet and sewn together from four gores, or gussets; besides, it had two elements slanting toward the base, and its brim hung loose and low. The nomadic horseman's headdress must have looked like the Kazakh sultan cap of the 18th - 19th centuries which is known to us from numerous engravings and pictures of the Kazakh nobility of the day. The Turkish would not choose four gores (gussets) by chance-this number kind of materialized their idea of the spatial and cyclic model of the universe: the four cardinal points, the four seasons, and the four essential directions-right, left, forward, backward.
The Turkic (Orkhon) runes of the 7th to 11 th centuries have this to say: "When the blue sky appeared overhead, and the brown earth below, the sons of man were born between the
two. My ancestors mounted the sons of man... Four corners of the world were their enemies. Marching on with a host, they subjugated the peoples of the four corners of the world..." As the rulers of the nomad empire saw it, state and cosmic order was possible only when the visible world of the boundless steppe was in their power.
Desht-i-Kipchak was a land of nomads. Those who conquered the Polovets plains were few in numbers, and so one could hear Turkic speech oftener than Arabic or Mongolian. The Golden Horde khans of the 14th century (Toktamysh) and Tamerlane wrote their yarlyks(edicts) in the Kipchak language. It is not accidental that the four gussets of the gold-embroidered helmet worn by our horseman carried an embroidery of the Polovets totem: four cheetahs on black silk medallions stepping one after another against the background of greenery. Other pet images of the feudal age were pictured as well-snow leopards, lions, gryphons and eagles, epitomizing might and power. The Polovtsi were fast and cunning, they fell upon their enemy in quick overwhelming attacks. Superb equestrians, they knew how to handle their racehorses. Their weaponry comprised an iron dagger in a wooden sheath and a bow wrapped in thin strips of bark. Iron-tipped arrows were kept in a quiver made of bark. Opening the mound, we could also learn something about the nomad's woman.
She wore a long-sleeved dressing-gown of red silk with a golden pattern on. Since she spent a good deal of time on horseback, her clothes had to fit accordingly. Unlike Mongol women, the Polovets wenches girdled their garment with a belt carrying a silver buckle. Attached to the woman's dress was a bone needle-case. Judging by what we have found in the dig, she was pretty good at needlework, adorning her costumes with appliques, and with gold and silver embroidery. Her soft little boots of leather were fastened with thin small straps at the ankle. The nomad's wife graced her neck with a thread of parti-colored beads made of glass and cornelian (sard); this necklace was further enhanced by a small gold badge in the shape of a flower with two twigs of coral.
By the head of the deceased woman lay a round bronze mirror in a wooden rim, and at her feet were a bronze cauldron and an iron hook. A knife was shoved at the top of the left jackboot. We know how the Polovtsi ate meat-taking a chunk, they cut it at the very lips.
Yet another essential item was recovered from the burial mound, and this was a silver chalice with a stamped gold ornament and a gold lotus on the bottom; from this cup the Polovtsi would drink koumiss, or fermented mare's milk. A newly- married couple was presented with it at the wedding feast.
Buried next to this Polovets wench on the northern side of the mound was a horse. Beheaded before burial, it had the essential trappings, the saddle and the harness, which was decorated with gold-coated bronze badges. The hard saddle-and-bellyband was bound with iron plates. The maker used iron nails with rectangular heads. The stirrups were arched and had oval steps.
Buried in the selfsame mound was a child about five or six years of age. Laid at its feet was a sooty pot of clay. It looks like the nomads would let their kids go about naked, even in winter when they crept for warmth into their parents' fur coats or hid in what they first came by. At best, they wore a loincloth or something like that. And buried were they without any special ceremonies.
In time, our nomad horseman, together with his faithful steed, would go to his last home under this very mound to tell us, centuries after, about the life of his tribe that is no longer there.
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