cais1.gif (153930 bytes)

CAIS Persian Text.gif (34162 bytes)


The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

 Persian Section.PNG (9914 bytes)


About CAIS


Daily News

News Archive


CAIS Seminars

Image Library





Contact Us


Facebook-Button.jpg (107165 bytes)


"Animal Style" Art & the Image of

the Horse and Rider


By: 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 paper.1

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 rider.2 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 on in the study of steppe nomads of the first millennium BCE, the important role of the horse was obvious and thus thoroughly examined. For example, Griaznov stated, "[i]t is difficult to determine which animals played a leading part in the life of the nomads. All that can be said with confidence is that the riding horse was most highly prized. The nomad could not live without his horse, and when a man died his horse was buried with him."4 Certainly the archaeological evidence demonstrates that statement, with 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? 5 Although nomadic art is found in burials from the beginning of this life-way,6 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.

Although it could be that we simply do not have such representations preserved - since textiles like the Pazyryk hanging are preserved only from a limited area and over the whole steppe so many of the kurgan burials have been robbed - it seems more likely, given the volume of the evidence, that riders on horseback were virtually absent before the 4th century BCE in the artistic representations on portable objects of the steppe nomads,7 even though such representations occurred at least as early as the second millennium BCE,8 and were popular, if not common, in the areas bordering the steppe, such as the Caucasus,9 Iran,10 and the Northern Chinese borderlands,11 as well as in the relief representations of the neo-Assyrian empire, in the early first millennium BCE. In fact, in the materials excavated from steppe nomad kurgan burials, human representation - on horseback or not - is altogether rare prior to the 4th century BCE.12

To frame the question of the possible explanations for the appearance of this image, 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. 13 Or, as Wolff puts it, "art is clearly an ideological activity and an ideological product."14 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' "messages."15

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 noted.16 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 burial."17 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 population."18

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. The message varies in degree across space and time, but the agricultural and industrial elements of these societies are usually not included in the range of burial goods, particularly among the largest and richest burials. That is not to say that some kinds of industrial objects are never found. For example, spindle whorls are found in burials ranging from relatively poor to very rich19 and needles, awls and other metal tools have also been found.20 However, generally these objects are not associated with the most elite burials that contain many objects of artistic production, or such utilitarian objects represent only a tiny part of the burial inventory. Sometimes, of course, tools which were used in the burial construction were left behind, as shovels from Tuekta,21 but these are not part of the deliberate burial inventory. The exception to the emphasis on mobility is the burial structures themselves, which when built of wood reflect what must have been, at a minimum, winter quarters, and, when of stone, local urban structures.

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. Familiar quotations from the Chinese Shiji of Suma Qian and The Histories of Herodotus, as examples, underscore this same ideal:

The Shiji describes the nomads as follows:

"The animals they raise consist mainly of horses, cows, and sheep, but include such rare beasts as camels, asses, mules and wild horses. They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture. Thus, all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in times of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. [They eat] the meat of domestic animals and wear clothes of hide, or wraps of felt or fur." 22

In Herodotus's Histories is the oft-cited description:

"having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwelling with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by agriculture but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?"23

These texts emphasize military prowess and suggest a totally mobile life for the steppe nomads. This same vision is what is stressed in the burial inventory of the steppe nomads from about the eighth through the fifth centuries BCE.

In contrast to the imagery found within burials, horse-riders are depicted in steppe rock-art and representations of humans with their weapons form burial stelai. 24 But these are landscape-related images and are not part of the message of the burial inventory. So the question remains, what happened in the 4th century BCE which encouraged the inclusion of images of riders on their horses in the graves of the nomadic elite? For, as Hays says, "[a]nother approach to understanding the roles of visual symbolic communication is to trace stylistic behavior through time. The degree and kind of investment by societies in their visual arts changes. Changes cannot be passed off as mere 'fashion' which itself is a phenomenon to be explained. Rather, investment of labor and materials in decoration of artifacts is connected in important ways to economy, social organization and ideology."25

Although it has been argued that the human representations, including riders on horseback, are inspired by Greek art, 26 recent scholarship emphasizes the interaction of Scythian and Greek craftsmen in the creation of the human imagery (including horse-riders) in the nomadic world in the Black Sea area, as cogently argued by Jacobson.27 The fact of the appearance of images of riders on horseback in objects such as the Solokha comb28 and Kul-Oba torque29 cannot be attributed solely to the "influence" of the Greek world, but must be viewed in the context of the meaning of those images to the nomads themselves. Jacobson notes particularly the "aspect of attention" in these and other objects, which, she states, is not a Hellenistic Greek characteristic.30 She also points to the narrative tradition in rock-art and other elements that contributed to the art of the Scythians.31 Jacobson's discussion in this case is framed within the Western steppe, the Greek world, and the art of the Scythians.

However, the appearance of the image of horse and rider further east on the steppe also occurs at a similar time, at the site of Filippovka, in the southern Urals, in two very different expressions. From kurgan 1 (treasure pit 1) comes a gold cup ornament showing a rider on horseback, shooting a bow and arrow, part of a hunting scene.32 This ornament shares style and function with much other gold work from Filippovka, but all the other cup ornaments depict only animals or geometric elements. Also from the site comes a bone 3-dimensional sculpture of a horse and rider, from kurgan 3, Grave 1.33

Other objects from burials in the eastern steppe which depict riders on horseback may also have been buried at a similar time. Depending on what chronology one accepts for the Pazyryk kurgans excavated by Griaznov and Rudenko, the felt hanging from kurgan 5, with the repeated representation of a rider on horseback may also belong to the same period, as may the plaques with images of horsemen from the Peter the Great treasure , although some have suggested a late 5th century date.34 Both the hanging and the plaques are from burial contexts, although the nature and details of the burials from which the Peter the Great plaques were taken is not known. A lamp or incense burner from Semirechye, showing a rider on horseback, does not come from a burial; rather it is part of a ritual hoard.35 It too may be as early as the late 5th century, although it could be as late as the 3rd century BCE.36 I mention it here, despite the fact that it belongs to a different class of objects and a different depositional context, since it raises the possibility of alternative explanations to my arguments below explaining the appearance of the horse and rider image.

Although human representations are found on many burial objects in the tombs of the Royal Scythians, even within that large corpus, the horse and rider remains rare. Nevertheless, I suggest its appearance at all is significant. Just as today modern nomads display their horse-riding skills for visitors and tourists, so I suggest that the representation of riding among the nomads' art is a purposeful display. In fact, there is one more object to consider in this context. A mirror from northern Mongolia, despite its undocumented archaeological context, speaks, I believe, to the specific symbolic significance of the image of a horse with rider. The mirror was cast with two horses as ornament on the mirror back. The riders on the horse backs were subsequently scratched into the mirror. Thus, an image once considered complete showing two horses needed to be amplified, expanded, or explained at a later time by the addition of the riders.37

The question here, then, is what social, cultural or ideological changes caused this 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. The increasing sedentarization of the Scythians by the 4th century BCE 38 is echoed on the eastern steppe in the material studied by Chang and her colleagues in southeastern Kazakhstan. Here settlements seem to increase in density in the 4th century BCE 39 and evidence for millet as a crop at the same time is clear.40 Evidence from the Trans-Ural steppe seems to demonstrate a similar settlement pattern.41

I return here to Wobst's discussion of stylistic behavior and information exchange, in which he identifies the target group for what he terms "stylistic messages" of "artifacts" as a group of people that is "socially distant." Wobst says that "regardless of content, stylistic messages gain in utility relative to other modes, if the potential receivers have little opportunity to receive the message otherwise, but nevertheless are likely to encounter it and are able to decode it." He places these receiving individuals as "not to close" and "not too distant."42 Wobst notes that if an artifact belonging to an individual indicates the social group that individual belongs to, it also announces that the individual is, as Wobst says "in conformity with the other behavioral norms and the ideology behind these norms."43

Might we surmise that in a world of increasing sedentarization, the elite of the steppe nomadic groups might want to make explicit and emphasize their ancestral practices? Might they want to convey clearly the mobile and militaristic message of their past, perhaps even to groups of socially distant individuals who attended the burial of an important person? Although this is just a hypothesis, the goods from the burials at Fillipovka may suggest that some participants in the burial ritual came from afar - this is Farkas's suggestion for the presence of Achaemenid vessels in kurgan 1.44

It is hard with the meager evidence and available theoretical constructs to capture all of the meanings and functions of the image of the horse riding nomad in the 4th century BCE. In fact, there is more to explore. The narrative images of horse and rider in this nomadic art are mostly hunt scenes, familiar in other, usually royal or elite, art, in, for example, the Sasanian and Sogdian worlds discussed by Marshak. Should we think of the rider on horseback hunting as conveying a similar message in Iron Age times, of royal prowess and power, of elite success or family status? Or does it echo and extend the message of such images in earlier rock art? There surely are multiple messages and multiple needs to convey them. But I do think it is clear that the messages were either conveyed in other manners in earlier periods or the messages weren't necessary until the 4th century BCE, when the horse and rider became part of the visual vocabulary of the steppe nomads.

Works cited:

Artamanov, M.I.

1969 Treasures from Scythian Tombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Aruz, J., A. Farkas, A. Alekseev, E. Korolkova, eds.

2000 The Golden Deer of Eurasia. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Baipakov, K.M

2001 "Semirechenskiye Khudozhestvennyye Bronzy," Arkheologicheskiye Vesti 8: 151-159.

Basilov, V.N., ed.

1989 Nomads of Eurasia. Los Angeles: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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.

Chang, C., P.A. Tourtellotte

2000 "The Kazakh-American Talgar Project Archaeological Field Surveys in the Talgar and Turgen-Asi Areas of Southeastern Kazakhstan: 1997-1999. 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: 83-88. BAR International Series 890. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Chang, C., P.A. Tourtellotte, K. Baipakov, and F.P. Grigoriev

2002 The Evolution of Steppe Communities from the Bronze Age through Medieval Periods in Southeastern Kazakhstan (Zhetysu): The Kazakh-American Talgar Project 1994-2001. Sweet Briar, VA and Almaty: Sweet Brian College, The Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, A.Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology.

Dvornichenko, V.

1995 "Sauromatian Culture." In J. Davis-Kimball, V. Bashilov, L. Yablonsky, eds., Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age, pp. 105-116. Berkeley, CA: Zinat Press.

Erdenebaatar, D. and Yu. Khudyakov

2000 "Nakhodki bronzovykh shlemov v plitochnykh mogilakh severnoi Mongolii" (The finds of bronze helmets from cist graves of Northern Mongolia). Rossiyakaya Arkheologiya 2: 140-148.

Farkas, A.

2000 "Filippovka and the Art of the Steppes," in The Golden Deer of Eurasia, edited by J. Aruz, A. Farkas, A. Alekseev and E. Korolkova: 3-17. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Griaznov, M.P.

1980 Arzhan. Leningrad: Nauka.

Gryaznov, M.P.

1969 The Ancient Civilization of Southern Siberia. New York: Cowles Book Company.

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.

Hays, K. A.

1993 "When is a symbol archaeologically meaningful?: meaning, function, and prehistoric visual arts." In N. Yoffee and A. Sherratt, eds., Archaeological theory: who sets the agenda?, pp. 81-92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Itina, M. A. and L. T. Yablonsky

1997 Saki Nizhnei Syrdar'i. Moscow: Rosspen.

Jacobson, E.

1995 The Art of the Scythians. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

1999 "Early Nomadic Sources for Scythian Art." In E. D. Reeder, ed., Scythian Gold, pp. 59-69. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Jakovenko, E.

1991 "Scythische Spindeln." In Gold der Steppe: Archäologie der Ukraine, pp. 111-113. Schleswig: Archäologisches Landesmuseum.

Khazanov, A.

1984 Nomads and the Outside World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Korolkova, E.

2000 "Images of the Mounted Steppe Warrior." In Aruz et al 2000:59-60.

Koryakova, L. and M-Y Daire

2000 "Burials and Settlements at the Eurasian Crossroads: Joint Franco-Russian Project." 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: 63-74. BAR International Series 890. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Lerner, J.

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

Marcenko, K and Y. Vinogradov

1989 "The Scythian period in the northern Black Sea region (750-250 B.C.)," Antiquity 63: 803-13.

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.

Melyukova, A.

1995 "Scythians of Southestern Europe." In J. Davis-Kimball, V. Bashilov, L. Yablonsky, eds., Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age, pp. 28-58. Berkeley, CA: Zinat Press.

Miron, A. and W. Orthmann

1995 Unterwegs zum Goldenen Vlies: Archäologische Funde aus Georgien. Saarbròcken: Siftung Saarlandischer Kulturbesitz.

Piotrovsky, B.

1975 "Early Cultures of the Lands of the Scythians." In A. Farkas, ed., From the Lands of the Scythians, pp. 12-25. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rosen, A., C. Chang, and F.P. Grigoriev

2000 "Palaeoenvirnoments and economy of Iron Age Saka-Wusun agro-pastorialists in southeastern Kazakhstan." Antiquity 74: 611-23.

Rudenko, S.I.

1962 Sibirskaya Kollektsiya Petra I. Arkhologiya SSSR, D3-9. Moscow-Leningrad: Akademiya Nauk SSSR

1968Drevneishiye v Mirye Khudozhestvennyye Kovry I Tkani. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

1970 Frozen Tombs of Siberia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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 Gryaznov (1969), p.154.

5 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).

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

7 Korolkova (2000), p.59.

8 See, for example, the iron image of a horse with ithyphallic rider from Tbilisi, Georgia, 13th century BCE (Miron and Orthmann 1995, p. 194, fig. 203).

9 E.g., a bronze belt from Samtavro, Georgia, 9th - 7th century BCE (Miron and Orthmann 1995, pp. 118-119, fig. 109).

10 E.g., a sealing from Hasanlu, Iran, Period VIB, 9th century BCE (Marcus 1996, pp. 86-91).

11 E.g., a bronze object from tomb 3, Nanshan'gen, China, 8th century BCE (Bunker et al 1997, pp. 70-71, fig. A105).

12 Jacobson (1999), p 65.

13 Marcus (1996), p. 2.

14 Wolff (1981), p.55.

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

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

17 Hanks (2000), p.23.

18 Hanks (2000), p.22.

19 Eg., Melyukova (1995), p.43; Jakovenko (1991), pp.111-113.

20 Dvornichenko (1995), p.108.

21 Rudenko (1970), pp. 14, 16-17.

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

23 IV-46.

24 Jacobson (1995), p.75.

25 Hays (1993), p.83.

26 Piotrovsky (1975), p.21.

27 E.g., Jacobson (1995), pp. 72-75.

28 Artamanov (1969), pls. 147-148, 150.

29 Artamanov (1969), pls. 201-202. And see also other pieces such bowl and plaques, pls, 153-155, 188, 230.

30 Jacobson (1995), pp.72-73.

31 Jacobson (1995), p.75.

32 Aruz et al. (2000), pp. 95-98, fig. 24.

33 Aruz et al. (2000), pp. 170-171, fig. 111.

34 See note 5, above.

35 Basilov (1989), p. 21.

36 Baipokov (2001), p. 151.

37 Erdenebaatar and Khudyakov (2000), p.147 and fig. 2, no. 5.

38 Marcenko and Vinogradov (1989), p.810; Khazanov (1984), p.254.

39 Chang, Tourtellotte, Baipakov and Grigoriev (2002); and see Chang and Tourellotte (2000).

40 Rosen, Chang and Grigorev (2000), pp.421-22.

41 Koryakova and Daire (2000), Table 2.

42 Wobst (1977), pp.323-4.

43 Wobst (1977), pp.327-28.

44 Farkas (2000), p.6.





Top of Page



Please note this article is originated from: Webfestschrift Marshak Ērān ud Anērān - Electronic Version of studies presented to Boris Ilich Marshak on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday.

Editors: Matteo Compareti, Paola Raffetta, Gianroberto Scarcia



Please note: CAIS has the privilege to publish the above article originating from the above-mentioned source, for educational purposes only (Read Only). This article has been published in accordance with the author(s) / source' copyright-policy -- therefore, the ownership and copyright of this page-file remain with the author(s) / sourceFor any other purposes, you must obtain a  written permission from the copyright owner concerned. (Please refer to CAIS Copyright Policy).




my_Iran.jpg (13682 bytes)

"History is the Light on the Path to Future"


Persian_NOT_Farsi_by_Shapour_Suren-Pahlav_3D2.gif (177309 bytes)


Encyclopaedia Iranica

BIPS.jpg (15695 bytes)

The British Institute of Persian Studies

"Persepolis Reconstructed"

Persepolis_reconstructed2.jpg (36944 bytes)


The British Museum

The Royal

Asiatic Society

Persian_Gulf_Facebook.jpg (1935028 bytes)

The Persian Gulf

Facebook Page

Please use your "Back" button (top left) to return to the previous page

Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)