Saturday, 27 February 2010

The World's Oldest Carpet Story: The Pazyryk

PAZYRYK, Siberia; Feb. 28, 2010 -- Every carpet tells a story. But few tell one as fascinating as the oldest intact carpet ever found.

It is the Pazyryk carpet, discovered frozen in a tomb beneath the Siberian steppe.

The carpet was woven sometime in the 5th century BC and recovered almost 2,500 years later when, in 1949, Russian scientists opened one of many burial mounds in the Pazyryk valley, in the Altai mountains south of Novosibirsk.

Because the tombs, where Russia borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, were dug deep into the permafrost and covered with piles of timber and stone, the carpet and the mummified bodies of the nobles it accompanied emerged in a remarkably well preserved state.

Here is a picture of one corner of the carpet, which is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The picture at the top of the page is a detail of one of the carpet’s horsemen.

The century during which the carpet was put in the tomb is best known in the West for what was happening in ancient Greece at the time.

The 5th century was the time of the Greek-Persian wars, of Herodotus completing his “History,” of the construction of the Parthenon, of Sophocles writing ‘”Antigone,” and, finally, of the ruinous Peleponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.

But the story the carpet tells is a very different one from that of the ancient Greeks.

It tells the story of the Scythians, a partly settled, partly nomadic people whose home was the vast expanse of Eurasia north of Greece, Mesopotamia, Persia and China.

This is a picture of a Scythian horseman, made with an appliqué felt technique. It is from a wall hanging found along with the carpet in the Pazyryk tombs.

The domain of the Scythians, who were Persian speakers and a fiercely independent part of the Greater Persian world, extended from modern Bulgaria, through Ukraine and Central Asia, to close to today’s Chinese border.

The basis of their power, and their trading wealth, was the huge herds of horses they raised. They are among the first peoples to be mentioned as mounted warriors and their mobility made them almost impossible to conquer.

At the same time, they were a conduit for trade along the Silk Roads, which carried goods between Persia, India, and China.

But if the horse-herding Scythians were mobile, they also were able to maintain the kind of rich court culture one usually associates only with city dwellers.

They were able to due so thanks to their use of carriages like this one, which was found disassembled in the Pazyryk tombs.

Their carriages enabled them not just to easily move their tents and other necessities, but also carry along stores of luxury goods, some which they imported and others they produced themselves.

One of the things the Scythians are best remembered for today is their intricate gold jewelry, which regularly tours the world in museum exhibits.

The other thing they are best remembered for is the size of their royal burial mounds, known as kurgans, which sometimes could reach over 20 meters high. Inside, as in the Egyptian pyramids, nobles were buried with their treasure for use in the afterlife.

This map roughly shows the extent of the Scythian lands at the time of the Roman Empire.

The other great nomadic people of northern Eurasia at this time, located farther east, were the Turkic-speaking tribes.

Later the Turkic-speaking nomads would sweep west in a centuries-long confrontation with the Persian speakers that would be chronicled in classical Persia’s epic poems.

Still, if much is known today about the Scythians due to their mention in ancient histories and the excavation of their burial mounds, very little is known about their carpets and carpet culture.

The only certainty is that their carpets included both pile rugs (the only example of which is the Pazyryk) and felt rugs.

Here is a close-up of a felt saddle blanket found in the Pazyryk tombs.

Both the pile and felt work show a level of technical sophistication that makes it clear they belong to a very old artistic tradition.

But whether that tradition was the Scythians’ own or was borrowed from neighbors is impossible to know for sure.

Most carpet scholars believe the Pazyryk pile carpet could not have been woven in a nomadic setting in such a remote corner of the Siberian steppe.

Murray Eiland Jr. and Murray Eiland III note in their book 'Oriental Carpets' (1998) that the carpet "raises the question as to how pastoral nomads could have acquired such a technically proficient work of art."

They answer that "it could have been through trade, as some Chinese silk fabrics were found at Pazyryk and other early nomadic burials on the steppes."

Theories of the carpet's origin generally assume it was woven in either a major population center of Achaemenid Persia or perhaps an outpost of the Persian Empire nearer to Pazyryk itself.

If the carpet were made in Persia, that would make it not only the earliest intact carpet ever found but also a striking example of the early carpet trade.

With its motifs of horsemen and deer, it may have been expressly designed for export to the steppes. Or, it might have been specifically commissioned by a Scythian chief.

Here is a saddle found in the Pazyryk tombs, showing the same kinds of tassels that can be seen on the saddles depicted in the carpet.

The mystery of the Pazyryk carpet's exact origin may never be solved. And perhaps it does not need to be, because the Pazyryk itself makes a still more important point.

That is, that carpets, whether woven at home or imported from afar, seem to be a universal human interest as old as time.

How did the Scythians use their rugs which – judging by their inclusion in a royal burial tomb – were clearly prized possessions?

The answer must be left to the imagination.

One possibility is that the carpets were at the center stage of decorating schemes that also included elaborate furniture like this table, also found in the Pazyryk tombs.

Perhaps the lion motifs of the table combined with the motifs of both natural and fantastic creatures on the carpets to fill Scythian tents with the echoes of the things their culture most prized.

The Pazyryk carpet alone includes horses, griffins, and deer. Its size is 180 x 198 cm (5'11" x 6' 6").

Today, the Pazyryk carpet is regularly reproduced by modern carpet weavers who find its design still has a magical appeal.

This high-quality replica is produced by weavers working in northern Afghanistan using natural dyes and handspun wool. It is available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

It is interesting to think of the Pazyryk carpet, placed in a royal tent, as the world’s earliest known example of a room with a rug.

And it is even more fascinating to think that this earliest known example is so stunning in its beauty that it can equally express all the pleasure and excitement people have taken in furnishing their rooms with rugs ever since.

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43 comments:

John hopper said...

A great article and some pieces that I haven't seen before, particularly the table which is extraordinary.

As you say, in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter who wove the carpet originally. Having said that, there seems to have been a lot of claims and counter claims from across Asia as to whose culture the carpet originated. Perhaps by owning the origin of the carpet, being the oldest so far found, it gives whoever claims it, a right to see themselves as the origin point of all future carpet weaving.

All nonsense of course, but interesting nonetheless.

Hakan Guzelgoz said...

Thank you for the great article. Just discovered your blog - and found very useful infos there! I didn't know that the Pazyryk carpet was in St. Petersburg. A pity as I missed it when I visited the city 6 years ago.

THE THREE LITTLE TOTO HOSTEL said...

STOP GOING OFF TOPIC,DAD! I CAN'T GATHER INFORMATION!!
FROM SASHA

Joanna said...

It's interesting to know the oldest carpet history.

Carpets have become part of a great history of art. Today, many establishments and some homes use carpet mainly for comfort. There are a lot of kinds of carpets and their designs really vary. To make it last longer, it is advisable to have good cleaning treatments to maintain the durability of the carpet. Grand Rapids has many good carpet cleaning services and we're so lucky because we have a lot to choose from.

Elia Smith said...

Hey i like this story. thanks for sharing this post!!! :)

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Susan in Fairbanks said...

So glad to find this!! I am taking a "History of Paints and Pigments" seminar this semester, and have chosen to create a felt piece based on the colors and motifs from this carpet for my final project. Thank heavens the kurgans were frozen in water -- so few textiles remain from this far back.

Susan in Fairbanks said...

Meant to ask, when you saw the carpet, did the red seem more of an orange-red, or a magenta-red? I haven't been able to find anything definitive on whether they used madder or kermes. Thanks!

Tommy Silver - Carpet Cleaner said...

In deed carpets are one of a kind invention. It sprouted to different places. What I am trying to say is, each town, city or country has it's own unique style carpets.

Amazing!!! Thanks for sharing your article. Somehow it's very informative. Keep it up. Hope you can also share stories or myths about carpets.

Dr. Khosrow Sobhe (Dr. Kay) said...

I liked the post. I also have a post on the Pazyryk on my blog. You may want to check that out. You're looking at the carpet from a different perspective. I wish this carpet could talk to tell us so many stories. I wonder why the thieves who broke into this tomb, saw no value in this carpet to take it. That was our luck to have this masterpiece to wonder.

http://animalcarpets.blogspot.com/2011/05/oldest-known-carpet-ever-animal-carpet.html

Dr. Khosrow Sobhe (Dr. Kay)
Certified Rug Specialist (CRS)
www.LosAngelesRugCleaning.com
www.RugIdea.com
Tel. 310-770-9085

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Anonymous said...

Thank you, I'd like also to add that Afghanistan is not the only replica maker of this PAzyryk carpet,there is a carpet factory in Azerbaijan named AZERILME also made this carpet.
I think,Pazyryk shows that how old Turkic nations, because the place,where this rug was discovered was the origin territory of Turkic nationality, Altai=tuks' homeland. I think,it is clear that turkic nations were the people who spent their life on horseback, and probably these horsemen on the carpet mentions the turks, too. And today's Turkey people are not only turks. There are Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Kazak, Tatar, Kyrgiz, Turkmen, Khazars people who have the same turkic root.

Lyda Tavorn said...

This is a nice glimpse of history. Carpets were made as early as the Persian era. The designs of carpets have changed a lot through time. People before depicted scenes of life through the artwork they made, and that includes carpets. Today, however, the trend seems to have shifted to a completely aesthetic nature. There are changes, but the carpets are nice, no doubt!

Persian Rugs said...

Excellent article about Pazyrk rug.
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Pazyryk Fan said...

The origin of the Pazyryk rug is very much known and is not a mystery at all... it is an Armenian carpet.

All other cultures trying to claim it, especially Azeris and Turks, is propagandist drivel.

Dr. Khosrow Sobhe (Dr. Kay) said...

To the "Pazyryk Fan" who believes this is an Armenian rug I have a question. Why do you think the weaver (s) used Achaemenid soldiers/horse rides design?

Pazyryk Fan said...

For Dr Khosrow: Those are not Archaemenid horsemen. That carving exists in Iran depicting certain nations bearing tribute. The horsemen on the rug come directly from this design as Armenian Tribute Bearers.

Carpet Cleaning Melbourne said...

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Pazyryk fan: Good input,the latest researches clarifies your statement. Congratulations.

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Anonymous said...

Great post. Sythian jewelry and art has rich motifs of animals that I believe predated, and inspired those fantastic Achamenid Persian motifs of Persepolis, etc.
Just look at those carved table legs! That sort of intricate sophistication is just hard to believe for the period.
Thank you again
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