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.Heroic Fights and Dying Heroes -
The Orlat Battle Plaque and the Roots of Sogdian Art


By: Markus Mode




The paper deals with the battle scene depicted on one of the bone plaques from the cemetery of Orlat (in nowadays Uzbekistan). The author presents an attempt to explain structure and contents of this image.

Narrative capacity of the Orlat image becomes evident through a formal "reading" of the pictorial contents. In the result, the author demonstrates the truly epic character of the scenery from within the image. This seems to be far more fruitful than forced attempts to adapt any given literary sujet, wherever it may come from.

The engraving seems to be not only a witness from the dark epoch of Hunnish invasions into Sogdiana at the eve of the Middle Ages. Beyond that, its complicated compositional formula as well as certain sets of motifs must go back to times earlier than the Hunnish era, in all likelihood even back to the Hellenistic period. Consequently, the original idea for the image should be sought within the sedentary world of Central Asia.

1. Introduction

One of the most important features of Sogdian monumental art during the early Middle Ages is the emphasis of narrative imaging. This is verified by a sufficient amount of works of art uncovered by archaeologists under the leadership of Boris Marshak who, for many years acts as director of the excavations at Sogdian Panjikant. Boris Marshak is not only a great archaeologist, but he also has supplied Central Asian art history with an immense wealth of basic research on the subjects, style and chronological questions of Sogdian art.

Narrative techniques in Sogdian art seem to be at their apogee in the seventh and eighth centuries as is witnessed by sets of mural paintings. Most of them come from residential structures of Panjikant (e.g., objects VI, XXI, and XXIII) and Shahristan (Qal'a-i Qahqaha), but also from a palace at Afrasiab, the ancient city of Samarqand. Sogdian narrative paintings cover a broad range of subjects with scenes from mythology, epic literature, folk-tales and even historical events.

One of the main questions concerning narrative Sogdian imagery is to ask for the roots, i.e. when and where and why it came into using. Up to now, these problems remain unsolved, because the beginnings are to be sought in the first half of the first millennium AD or even earlier. But from these periods the archaeological and art historical record is very limited.

At the beginning of the eighties of the 20th century, the Uzbek Art-Historical Expedition headed by Galina Pugachenkova carried out excavations at the burial ground of Orlat, some 50 km northwest of Samarqand.2 From kurgan no. 2 of this cemetery, the archaeologists uncovered a major complex of grave goods with pieces of weaponry and works of art: A set of engraved bone plaques turned out to be of great importance for the study of Central Asian art and, subsequently, these plaques became the subject of several lengthy studies published during the last decades3.

Kurgan no. 2 of the Orlat cemetery contained five decorated bone plaques.4 Ilyasov and Rusanov convincingly have shown that the pieces once served as elements of a belt.5 Two plaques are of greater size (each one measures 13,5 by 10,5 cm). Seemingly they marked the ends of the belt. Their incised decorations depict a hunting scene on the first and a scene of fighting on the second piece.6

Our following remarks are not intended to evaluate every single aspect of this find. Most studies have concentrated on the realia depicted on the plaques. Instead, we will focus on the plaque depicting a battle scene (Fig. 1),7 and with this we restrict our comments on some art historical aspects. Doing so we hope to meet with the major interests of Boris Marshak who, at his turn, has referred to the Orlat plaques at several instances.8

2. Major attempts to date the Orlat plaques

Although not a major aim of this study, we will shortly touch the important question of dating the Orlat plaques. In fact there are two tendencies. The first circles at a date around the last centuries BC and the first two centuries AD. The second group of opinions generally connect the Orlat plaques with the advent of Hunnish tribes in Central Asia in the 4th-5th centuries AD.

2.1. First group - an earlier date

One variant of the earlier date was first proposed by G. A. Pugachenkova.9 According to her, the archaeological materials from the excavated kurgans of Orlat belong to the so-called Sarmatian horizon; consequently the complex of finds dates to a span between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. Kurgan no. 2 with the celebrated bone plaques seems to be closer to the earlier date. Pugachenkova saw the persons depicted on the plaques as kinsmen of the Kangju (K'ang-kiu). Other authors followed this view and extended the argumentation. K. Abdullaev, V. Schiltz and E. Rtveladze saw the creation of the Orlat plaques within the period of Yuezhi domination in Southern Central Asia.10 J. Ya. Ilyasov and D. V. Rusanov have published a very detailed study of the realia depicted on the Orlat plaques. In their opinion, there are " valid arguments for the early datation of the Orlat plates (the 2nd-1st c.B.C.)".11 Instead, the materials from kurgan no. 2 have analogies "...belonging to the beginning of the Common Era".12 Consequently, the proposals for a later date cannot be valid. The authors "...are convinced that the most probable date is the 1st-2nd c. A.D.".13 This opinion was shared by V. E. Maslov.14 In one of her last studies, N. G. Gorbunova has performed an analysis of funerary complexes in Bactria, Sogdiana, and the Kyzylkum desert areas. Although Gorbunova tends to an early date of the Orlat cemetery, she considers the chronology of Orlat an open question.15

2.2. Second group - a later date

The first to propose a completely different chronology for the Orlat plaques was Boris Marshak. Already in 1987 he wrote, that the plaques belong to the Huns and should be dated to the 3rd-4th centuries AD. According to Marshak, they reflect in any case no local but a Central Asian nomadic tradition.16 Without knowledge of Marshak's study a similar statement came from B. Brentjes, who thought a definite dating to be impossible, but ascribed the images as belonging to the culture of the "Hunnish" wave, as first pictorial representations of Central Asian Huns.17 Another author, P. P. Azbelev, operates on the basis of analogies between the Orlat plaques and images from the Yenisei region (Tashtyk culture) with a date "...not earlier than the 3rd, more probably the 4th-5th centuries AD" for Orlat.18 M. V. Gorelik, the outstanding expert on ancient arms and armour, ascribed the Orlat images of warriors to the "White Huns", the Hephthalites.19 Within a recent major study of the problem, B. A. Litvinskiy, after a thorough re-examination of realia, pleads for the 3rd century AD as date of the Orlat and the Takht-i Sangin plaques.20

As our remarks are not intended to deal with the chronological problems of all the realia depicted on the Orlat plaques, we point explicitely to the broader examinations carried out by Ilyasov/Rusanov, Maslov, and Litvinskiy.21 Basically the complex of finds from Orlat kurgan 2 shares major features with the arms depicted on the battle plaque, as rightly observed by Ilyasov/Rusanov.22 But in general the chronological value of the materials is very limited, at least not of sufficient clarity to decide definitely between the dates we have mentioned above. In my opinion only one proposal can be ruled out: A placement of the Orlat findings and images among the Yuezhi invasion of Bactria seems to be fairly impossible. But most chronological indicators make it difficult to specify within a broader range of the first to fourth centuries AD. Personally, I tend towards the later half of the span mentioned and, concerning Ilyasov and Rusanov, who prefer the first to second centuries, I share the objections brought forward by Litvinskiy.23

Concerning the realia and their chronological position I only want to comment a point not touched by all the authors mentioned above: Much has been said about the swords depicted on the battle plaque, however, we miss an evaluation of the chapes. Ilyasov and Rusanov only speak of a "rectangular chape",24 but it seems useful to clarify the type. The piece appears slightly protrusive and of course rectangular as seen from the side. If we consider a view from the bottom, the chape must have had an oval outline. In reality one may reconstruct a separate wooden piece fastened to the scabbard and probably covered with a surrounding hoop. Now, for this specific type of chapes we have interesting comparative materials. A similar type appears on a famous silver bowl in the British Museum25 which can be dated into the Kidarite-Hephthalite context of Tokharistan (Bactria).26 This bowl was certainly created in the fifth century AD.27 A second pictorial parallel we find with one of the famous hunting plaques in the Siberian treasure of the Hermitage.28 Although the latter have been dated quite often into a considerably earlier ("Scythian") horizon,29 I am convinced that they belong to a "Hunnish" milieu of the first centuries AD in Eastern Central Asia.30 Archaeologically, the rectangular chapes under consideration are a very distinctive hallmark of weaponry from the age of Attila,31 and they appear from Central Europe to the Caucasus and even the Altai foothills (e.g., Jakusowice in Poland,32 Szirmabesényö in Hungary,33 Verin Kholm in Abkhasia,34 Brut in Ossetia,35 Tuguzvonovo in the Altai area36). All examples mentioned date to the late 4th and the first half/mid of the 5th centuries AD, but first traces in the West already appear around 300 AD (time of the Tetrarches, Werner's type "Gundremmingen").37 On the other hand, the Western Hunnish sword type definitely differs from the type depicted on the Orlat plaque. This is quite evident from the mobile Sino-Sarmatian sword guard found in Orlat kurgan 2 (similar to the type visible on the plaque) but never to meet with the Hunnish context mentioned.38 What does that mean? In our opinion, the Orlat chapes and guards belong to an armament of transition from the latest "Sarmatian" types to the classic types of the age of Attila. Therefore, I am inclined to see the armament complex of Orlat as belonging to the third century or to the first half of the fourth century AD.

We will close our remarks on chronology with a second argument in favour of a later date. On the Orlat plaque with the battle image, three persons wear a pair of tassels on their shoulders (fig. 2a, no. 2; fig. 2b, nos. 10 and 13). Concerning this detail, Ilyasov and Rusanov declared: "We believe that this kind of adornment is a natural feature of the nomadic costume and horse harness."39 If this would be true we should find the shoulder-tassels on a sufficient number of pictorial representations throughout the ages. I know, however, of only one single case: The main person on a Northern Qi (Ch'i, AD 550-577) funerary panel in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts wears exactly this type of paired shoulder-tassels.40 Interestingly, the panel seems to belong to a Sogdian owner. Although not conclusive, this similarity may also support a later, i.e., Hunnish-Sogdian, date of the Orlat find.

3. The Orlat "battle plaque"

Of the two greater bone plaques from Orlat, the piece depicting a scene of fighting (Fig. 1) has been described several times and, instead of an own attempt, we will cite the description given by the first publisher, G. A. Pugachenkova:

"There is represented a tumultuous battle scene of four pairs of mounted heroes and heroes fighting on foot. Those, who come from the left, defeat the opponents from the right side. The fighters are distributed onto four levels from bottom to top:

1. One mounted hero is obviously the most important of all because on his horse a banner (bunchuk) is fastened. With a long and bending lance he pierces the enemy who has been gone down on his knees. The latter still brandishes his sword but the shaft of his lance is already cracked and his arrow-pierced horse is broken down.

2. One hero on a galloping horse bends the string of his bow, and the same does the opposite standing foe.

3. One rider from the left side has pierced the horse of his enemy with a lance. At the latter's harness there is fastened the severed and bloody head of an earlier slain foe. This rider divides with his sword the lancer's skull, from which blood is running.

4. One rider at the right side entirely pierced with his sword a dismounted enemy. But the former himself dyes as his skull is bashed in by the pickaxe of the warrior on foot."41

We will provisionally leave this quotation unchallenged, although we do not agree with some details of the description.

4. Lost details and compositional traits of the image

At the left and right sides of the plaque the image seems to be cut off. From this we learn that the composition originally was larger and, that it must have been copied from another source. In the right upper corner there are traces of a warrior, as has been rightly observed by Ilyasov and Rusanov.42 The traces clearly point to a fighter on foot (Fig. 2b, no. 11; Fig. 3b), who is of a smaller scale than the other persons. Furthermore, he seems to have been slightly bended forward. We may easily explain this strange appearance: On the source image, the figure was correctly sized and arranged behind the upper right fighter of the image. But after completion of the central scenes, the copyist has had not enough space left, and therefore the person was only indicated in the manner described above.

The head of a fully bridled horse appears at the upper left corner of the plaque (Fig. 2a, no. 3). The animal must have been that of an equestrian emerging from the left side. With this simply cut off head we have one clear indication for the secondary status of the plaque's composition. Traces of a further horse seem to be at the lower left of the image (Fig. 2a, no. 7). And immediately behind the equestrians on the left side, there are at least three additional horses, seemingly without indications of bridles and riders (Fig. 2a, nos. 4, 8).

We conclude, that originally there should have been depicted four additional persons, i.e. two riders on the left and two warriors on foot on the right sides, respectively (cp. reconstruction Fig. 4a). Our observations corroborate one decisive point of the image: Concerning the general partition, there is an important difference between the forces. The warriors emerging from the left (Fig. 2a) are altogether mounted, and they carry along even reserve horses (i.e., the unbridled animals mentioned above). On the other hand, their opponents from the right side (Fig. 2b) form an army of fighters on foot,43 led by two equestrians.

With the establishment of (at least) four additional persons, the general outline of the image changes considerably. The central scenes, i.e., the major part of the surviving picture, are arranged like an ellipse. Now, the additional actors break this oval form and extrude the upper and lower parts to the left and to the right (Fig. 4b).

We are convinced that this structural division is not only a spatial one: It clearly points to a successive order of action, too. In other words, the entire composition was divided into a central area and an outer sphere. From the latter, reinforcement troops emerge and move towards the central battle areas. The chronological bipartition gives us a first hint on the general narrative character of the image. This important track we will follow a little later.

In the image, the acting persons divide into several groups. The groups are arranged along foreground and background levels and, certainly, the two levels are intended to mark two independent corps or wings of each army. Evidence for this comes from the army of the right side: Here equestrians lead the foreground and background infantrymen, one equestrian for each one level. The background rider acts as commander-in-chief of the right side (Fig. 2b, no. 9): His status is marked by a human trophy head fastened on the neck of his horse (Fig. 3a, no. 2). Accordingly, the right foreground rider (Fig. 2b, no. 12; in the image already fallen) must be the commander of the left wing44 of the right army. At the left side, the commander-in-chief fights in the foreground (Fig. 2a, no. 6). His badge of rank is a banner on top of a pole (Fig. 3a, no. 1).45 One can see now that both superior commanders are simultaneously leaders of their right wings (corps). Here we find an important tribal and military ranking system of Hunnish and Turkish nomads where the right unit, tribe, or ruler held a superior position.46

We will shortly summarize the structure of the image:

1. Partition into inner and outer battlefields, i.e., into the actual points of the fight and the areas of deployment and advance of reinforcements.

2. Partition of each army into left and right wings (foreground and background levels).

3. The leaders act as commanders of the wings of the armies.

4. The commanders of each right wing are the commanders-in-chief.

Our few remarks have made plain that the layout of the image is obviously well-considered. Seemingly we are faced with a quite differentiated course of action and deployment, i.e., a very sophisticated scheme of spatial and temporal arrangements.

At first sight, the fighting pairs seem to be simply scattered over the levels of the image. But if there were a fairly complicated formal structure and narrative contents, as already suggested, then one has to question how the alleged singular fights are connected with each other. Therefore, our next task is to offer a solution for this question.

5. Reading the image: a formal attempt

Bearing in mind the aforesaid, we will now try to demonstrate the reader the narrative capacity of the Orlat battle plaque. To give this attempt some vividness, I have decided to leave the way of a simple "description". Instead, I will tell the story as I suppose it should be read. I am well aware concerning the shortcomings of a procedure like that. One of them is quite obvious: As a matter of principle, we are only able to talk about formal aspects, i.e. we can touch the contents of this image only at the surface, because a headline of the story is lacking and names of acting persons and setting are unavailable as well. Nevertheless, the image "as is" seems to contain a great deal of narrative information that can be sequenced in a logical manner. And with this sequence, I think, we will come very close to the real narrative. So let us start with storytelling:

At the beginning: marching in of the toreadors

First we have to imagine our scene as empty. Only at the farthest left and right of the plain there is some movement, and slowly two crowds of warriors emerge. They move towards each other. At the left side we now can recognize a party of heavily armoured equestrians. For convenience we will call them "the westerners",47 led by a commander-in-chief furnished with a fluttering dragon banner. The people coming from the right side - now our "easterners" - are fighters on foot led by two mounted warriors. One of the last mentioned seems to be the commander-in-chief: his horse's neck is decorated with the head of a killed enemy.

Divided march: a strategic advance

Suddenly both armies alter their configuration. Each one splits into two wings evidently destined to fight at separate areas. In the following, we will call them a "northern" and a "southern" wing for each army.

First attacks: the battle starts

Meanwhile, the opposing wings are in effective range and the battle opens with long-range weapons. So the first attacks start with the "southern" wings. A "western" rider has prepared his bow and his first shot hits the horse's forehead of the foe (i.e., the commander of the "southern" wing of the "easterners"). Nonetheless the run against each other continues.

Close combat: the first wave meets

At the "northern" wings, the first line of commanding riders meets with full speed. They have drawn their heavy swords but because of the speed their strokes remain without any effect. Therefore, the two men pass each other and will soon be confronted with the following warriors.

In the "south" an archer on foot of the "easterners" has answered the first shot of the mounted "western" archer. But the shot was badly placed and the arrowhead only hits the left foot of his target.

A fast and mortal fight

Suddenly the breakthrough at the "northern" battlefield stops because the lance of a second "western" rider has pierced the breast of the horse of the "eastern" commander-in-chief. At the same time the latter chops his foe's skull with a single stroke of his sword. Streams of blood are flowing and the victim almost immediately should be dead. Even worse is the situation behind them. There the "western" commander of the wing meets a warrior on foot and pierces his breast with the sword. Simultaneously the deadly wounded man drives his battle-pickaxe into the rider's forehead. This combat evidently sees no winner at all.

While the "northern" fighters attempt to exterminate themselves, at the "southern" battlefield the following occurs: A second shot by the "western" mounted archer pierces the right eye of "eastern" commander of the wing. Nevertheless, the latter and the opposite mounted commander-in-chief proceed to attack with their lances.

The great shoot down: the celebrated end of a hero

Now in the "south" the "western" mounted archer places his third shot and hits the neck of the enemy's horse. Nearly at the same time the "western" commander-in-chief and the wounded opponent meet with their lances. The "eastern" commander of the wing, who is half blinded, must fail and his weapon breaks, while the lance of his opponent pierces him. This crash and the second arrow bring the "easterner's" horse to its end. The animal goes down and with him the rider. He throws away his broken lance, and then he grasps the scabbard with the left and draws his long sword with the right hand. This is the moment when the mounted companion of the "western" commander-in-chief takes aim at a last shot to hit the remaining eye of the man who will not die.

(A short but unavoidable comment:) Certainly, with the heroic death of the "eastern" commander of the "southern" wing the climax of the story has been reached. It is a story resembling some movie-like showdown or the endless dying in epic literature and drama. And with this, one important point becomes clear: Our image reflects a tragedy with the celebrated death of the main hero as highlight of the entire composition. This conclusion can be underlined by the following events.

A final shot...

With the death of the fallen rider on the "southern" battlefield the fighting ends only seemingly. We have overlooked the archer on foot of the "easterners". As we remember, he is the man who, at an earlier point of the story, has wounded the mounted enemy-archer at the point of the foot. Now he takes aim to shoot onto the face of the same enemy. The result seems inevitable: The target will be found and the man must die.

...but the battle is not over

Meanwhile, warriors approaching the battlefields reinforce both armies. One "northern" and one "southern" warrior on foot reach the "eastern" forces, while two riders appear for the "westerners". As we have seen, at the "northern" battlefield only the commander-in-chief of the "easterners" survived the fighting, but he has lost his mount. Together with one new warrior on foot he now faces a rider from the "west".

In the "south", the commander-in-chief of the "westerners" with his dragon banner is now supported by a second rider. Both will be confronted with two warriors on foot from the "east": one of them survived the battle already described, and the second one comes from the reinforcement troops.

There is no winner at all...

It is fairly impossible to make any prediction concerning the future course of events during a second round of this memorable battle, because the facing forces appear to be nearly coequal. But as the main hero is already slaughtered, the story in fact may end with a turn to renewed fighting.

It should be emphasized that everything told about the events is clearly indicated in the image itself. There was no need of additions or phantasies.

6. Battle-schemes

From a military point of view it seems possible now to explain the narrative by means of successive battle-schemes (Figs. 8-11). Concerning these schemes, our image must be read in terms of war gamers, i.e., the actors should not be seen as individual "tin soldiers" but as military units.

Phase 1 (Fig. 8b): Deployment of the opposing forces. Reserves left at encampments. Forces split into "northern" and "southern" wings.

Phase 2 (Fig. 9a): Advance of forces in battle array.

Phase 3 (Fig. 9b): Attack of archers at "southern", close combat at "northern" wings.

Phase 4 (Fig. 10a): Breakthrough at "northern", close combat at "southern" wings.

Phase 5 (Fig. 10b): Over 60 % losses in fighting. Each side loses one commander of a wing. Both commanders-in-chief survive. Deployment of reinforcement troops initiates.

Phase 6 (Fig. 11a): Reinforcement units advance in battle array.

Phase 7 (Fig. 11b): Final stage. Minor advantage of "eastern" forces at "northern" wing.

These schemes certainly afford some insight into tactics and movements of units. Yet we do not follow up the military line of interpretation, because our main concern should be the narrative contents of the image.

7. Comments on the proposed "readings"

7.1. The death of the "main hero"

In order to make clear the highlight of the narrative, we will now summarize again the events connected with the death of our supposed main hero (Fig. 5a). We have already called this meticulous and lengthy account a "celebration". (NB: The sequence concerns only the persons in the foreground. The "main hero" is the fallen rider, i.e., the commander of the left [or "southern"] wing of the "eastern" forces, Fig. 2b, no. 12.)

1. A first shot of the "western" mounted archer hits the forehead of the hero's mount (Fig. 5a, no. 1).

2. The archer on foot of the "easterners" replies but his shot was badly placed and only hits the left foot of his target (Fig. 5a, no. 2).

3. A second shot by the "western" mounted archer pierces the right eye of the hero (Fig. 5a, no. 3).

4. Nevertheless, the latter and the opposite mounted captain proceed to attack with their lances.

5. The "western" mounted archer places his third shot and hits the neck of the hero's horse (Fig. 5a, no. 5).

6. At the same time the "western" captain and the wounded hero meet with their lances (Fig. 5a, no. 6).

7. The half-blinded hero must fail and his weapon breaks, while he is pierced by the lance of his opponent (Fig. 5a, no. 7).

8. This crash and the second arrow bring the hero's horse to its end. The animal goes down (Fig. 5a, no. 8).

9. The hero slides from the horse (Fig. 5a, no. 9).

10. He throws away his broken lance (Fig. 5a, no. 10).

11. Then he grasps the scabbard with the left (Fig. 5a, no. 11).

12. He draws his long sword with the right hand (Fig. 5a, no. 12).

13. Now the mounted companion of the "western" captain takes aim at a last shot to hit the remaining eye of the hero (Fig. 5a, no. 13).

14. Simultaneously the archer on foot of the "easterners" takes aim to shoot onto the face of the "western" mounted archer (Fig. 5a, no. 14).

15. The "western" mounted archer is deadly wounded and only the captain of the "westerners" with his dragon banner survives.

These fifteen successive moments of the story (one may, I grant, divide them slightly divergently) seem to run like the frames of a film strip. A superior number of narrative information clearly concentrates on the one person described above, and the remainder of the battle only serves as a kind of framework around the deadly fight of this "main hero". These results lead to the following conclusions:

1. The lengthy account of action at the foreground level distinguishes sharply from the fighting groups in the background. As we have seen within our "reading", three of the four background-actors perform a single attack: one strike, and the foe is dead (and the episode, too). We are convinced that the artist(s) applied this sophisticated method of distinction to set focus on the elaborate foreground-story.

2. The person described as the "main hero" (Fig. 2b, no. 12) must be the "star" of the entire story, but not the commanders-in-chief of the opposing armies. With this we contradict several authors, e.g. G. A. Pugachenkova, who saw the standard-bearer playing the main part,48 or S. A. Yatsenko, who declared the standard-bearer and the rider with the head-trophy to be two representations of one and the same main person.49

3. The account of the "main hero's" death gives the most distinct indication of the truly "epic" contents of the image.50 In his book on Oriental silver, Boris Marshak has pointed to the importance of the dying hero in Iranian traditions.51 On the other hand Marshak has refused to assume an epic narrative contents of the Orlat image.52

4. With our sequential "readings" we are able to reject all attempts to describe the representation as a cruel crowd of fighters. ("...une scène tumultueuse";53 - "...abundance of men and horses fighting in this battle"54).

7.2. How to interpret the setting and the acting groups

Although one has to be careful with interpretations going beyond the level of obviously formal action, we will offer some further suggestions concerning the contents of our image. The general setting may be this: From the right ("eastern") side there seems to come an army of settled people. The warriors are principally infantrymen only headed by mounted leaders (Fig. 2b; cp. Fig. 4a). On the other ("western") side a completely equestrian army emerges (Fig. 2a, cp. Fig. 4a). It should be that of a nomadic tribe or confederation. Now one fact seems important: the acting persons of both armies are almost similar in their physical appearance, they share the same kinds of armour and are supplied with similar weapons. Consequently, they are clearly characterized as belonging to a very close ethnic milieu.55 In our opinion these circumstances might be explained as follows: The image reflects a story of military interaction between different groups of Huns at the time of their suzerainty in Western Central Asia. Some of their leaders already had captured or made tributary certain settled communities and whole principalities.56 But with the arrival of further tribes from the steppes conflicts arose inevitably, because land resources and booty were limited. As we have mentioned above, these settings (the battle) only mark a kind of background for the story of "the end of a hero". Interestingly, the latter person belongs to the forces of the "settled people", and one may ask whether this is an indication for the origin of the narrative...

I still want to go one step further, because the image possibly indicates the identity of the "army of the settled people". The leader of these forces, i.e. the rider with a human head trophy (Fig. 2b, no. 9),57 has an especially branded horse. The brand is clearly indicated on the hindquarter of the animal (Fig. 3a, no. 3). Ilyasov and Rusanov saw this sign, too, and they called it a "tamga". Furthermore, the authors recommended to search for similarities "...amongst the numerous examples of tamga, which were widespread amidst nomads..."58 In our opinion there is no need to look far away or even into the nomadic sphere: Although the tamga on our picture seems to have survived only fragmentary (Fig. 5b, no. 1),59 the mark can be associated with the well known sign of the Sogdian city of Samarqand (Fig. 5b, nos. 2-3).60 If this is correct, it would be an interesting confirmation of well known facts: The Chinese Wei shu testifies the reign of a Hunnish (Xiongnu) king of Sogdiana (Sute) in the 30s of the 5th century AD.61 The same source points out that he was the third ruler of his dynasty, and therefore it seems quite possible that Hunnish invaders established direct control over Sogdiana already in the second half of the 4th century. These chronological circumstances fit with the above-mentioned proposals for a later date of the Orlat plaques.

Returning to the Orlat battle image, we may now describe the general framework as fights between Hunnish rulers of Samarqand against nomadic - or at least mobile - groups of Huns. The latter fought under the dragon banner, a traditional ensign of military forces from the steppes.

Of course, we have to remind, that all this must be seen as wrapped into a narrative circling around the life and death of a high-ranking kinsman (our "main hero"), i.e., the story is not an historical account but an epic that plays with certain historical circumstances.

7.3. Shooting into the eyes

One of the most interesting motifs on the battle plaque is the shot into the eye62 of the "main hero". As we have seen after closer examination, in reality there must have been two shots, the first one already done (Fig. 3a, no. 6; Fig. 5a, no. 3) and the second one in preparation (Fig. 5a, no. 13). In the light of our formal readings it would be tempting to see here an epic motif well known from the Persian "Book of Kings" where, during the memorable fight between Rustam and Isfandyar, the former is nearly defeated and seeks help by the Simurgh. There is only one way to overcome the invulnerable Isfandyar and, following the bird's advice, Rustam shoots a tamarisk's branch into the eyes of his opponent.63 - To return to our picture, we could even see Rustam in the carrier of the dragon banner (Fig. 2a, no. 6)64 since this is his device in the Persian epic.65 But all resemblances are only superficial. As we have mentioned, the dismounted warrior fell a victim to two attacking persons. Therefore, the fight in the image does not belong to the epic type of duel with two heroes like Rustam and Isfandyar. Our epic model operates with imbalanced fighting, and this is certainly a dramatic measure to pronounce superior heroism of the main actor. Regarding Rustam, we cannot expect him within the rows of nomadic Huns,66 and, most important, the carrier of the dragon banner is not the marksman shooting the main hero. In any case there remains a general similarity, which can be explained by descent from a common "melting-pot" and by the application of structural equivalent motifs in different narrative contexts.67

7.4. Further questions of "narrative" details

What may have been the reason for the fighting depicted on the Orlat plaque? In our opinion several hidden hints in the image point towards a possible solution of this problem. These hints are certain details of the picture which seemingly do not fit with our reconstructed sequence of events:

1. The severed head that is fastened on the horse of the leading mounted "easterner" (Fig. 3a, no. 2),

2. The lacking sword in the scabbard of the upper right fighter on foot (Fig. 3a, no. 4), who in fact uses a pickaxe, and

3. The lacking helmet of the lower right warrior on foot (Fig. 3a, no. 5).

The severed head is clearly marked by streams of blood, i.e., its former possessor died not long before the actual fight began. The lacking sword and helmet were probably lost in another battle. All together these signs may be interpreted as traces of a former campaign between the same opponents: At that time the victorious "easterners" had killed the former leader of the "western" army, and this event was the reason for the actual battle depicted on the plaque. With our proposal we would considerably enlarge the narrative time line of the picture.

Nevertheless, the assumed "hints" may have quite another meaning, too. According to the "epic" character of the narrative depicted, it seems plausible to assume that the acting persons do not merely designate anonymous types of different fighters. Instead they should represent individual heroes, each one marked by special traits. And among these traits may well be the three alleged "hints" mentioned above. Now, is there a possibility to "name" the persons - at least formally? Our attempts follow below:

Fig. 2a, no. 5: "He who is the marksman/the eye-shooter" (i.e., the mounted archer in the foreground)

Fig. 2a, no. 6: "He who carries the dragon banner" (the ruler of the "nomadic" Huns)

Fig. 2b, no. 9: "He who has taken the foe's head" (the Hunnish ruler of Samarqand?)

Fig. 2b, no. 10: "He who has lost his sword"

Fig. 2b, no. 12: "He who rides an extremely powerful (or magic) horse" (i.e., the "main hero" whose horse quite long resisted the attacks of the enemies).

Fig. 2b, no. 13: "He who fights bareheaded"

It appears that a "formal naming" seems to be quite easy for six of the eight main actors (at least at first sight). These characterizations should either point to actual names of the persons, or indicate some special event from their earlier career. Be that as it may, in any case we do not believe in accidents or a meaningless play of the artist. Everything depicted on the plaque is in right order and should have a well-defined function in the narrative structure of the image.

8. Status of the image on the battle plaque

As already noted by several scholars, the image on the battle plaque must have been copied from some other source.68 This is indicated by the cut off left and right corners of the plaque, where traces of further persons and animals are still visible (cp. above, paragraph 4). In our opinion the image on the battle plaque almost certainly was copied from a picture originally not destined for belt decorations or the like. But the alleged "immediate source" of the battle image (cp. Fig. 4a) should be rather designated as "intermediate", as we can deduce from the graphic and linear character of the surviving picture. The "intermediate source" seems to have been of limited size, may be some "mobile" work of art (e.g., a decorated metal vessel69). At the same time the "intermediate" very painstakingly adopted all representations of costume and equipment details from a supposed "original" image, and this may indicate a relatively close connection between "intermediate" and "original source". Concerning the latter all further considerations remain hypothetical. One thing, however seems clear: The supposed "original" must have been a great and sophisticated work of art, most probably a mural painting or a relief panel. Its basic conception was a complicated three-dimensional composition with multiple levels of action. We suppose even indications of architecture or landscape to enlarge the spatial effects.

This conception distinguishes from compositional schemes we encounter in Sogdian narrative paintings of the Early Middle Ages. Heroic battles from the apogee of Sogdian art in the 7th-8th centuries seem to follow other guidelines. In mural painting, narrative cycles usually appear as extended strips with action on one and the same level (e.g., Panjikant, object VI, room 4170). Nevertheless, Sogdian scenes of "epic" fights are dominated by single combats. A very good example is the famous Kulagysh silver plate with its representation of a duel between to heavily armoured heroes.71 There exists a certain analogy to the "dying hero" of the Orlat plaque. This analogy is the "endless death", but on the Kulagysh plate both combatants seem to share the same fate.

From the art of the steppes peoples we have a series of wrestling scenes which appear on Hunnish belt plaques of the Eastern Eurasian zone.72 They were created under unmistakable Chinese influences. The wrestling motif certainly can be called a motif of duel, and thus it touches the thematic circle of the Orlat plaque. Furthermore, the wrestling theme reappears in later Sogdian and Iranian art, and it is a well-known epic motif, too.73 But after all, these pictures have nothing in common with the sophisticated spatial and temporal schemes of the Orlat battle plaque. The latter's complicated formula must go back to times earlier than the Hunnish era, in all likelihood even back to the Hellenistic period.

Do we go too far with such an assumption? I do not think so, because some details of the image furnish us with conclusive evidence: A first hint comes from the group of two passing riders at the background level (fig. 2a, no. 1, Fig. 2b, no. 9). Both riders have finished their duel. Now they are fighting with new enemies, but their horses turn the heads in a delicate way as if they wish to renew the first round. Except for the lacking lower part of one horse, the little group is composed in great subtlety and does not match any conventions of the "art of the steppes". Our second example seems to be even more conclusive: The pictorial group of the "dying hero" and his fallen horse (fig. 6a) is arranged in an extraordinary manner. If we separate the animal from the man (figs. 6b-c) we can easily recognize that both figures pose in the same way: one leg is stretched and the other is bended (fig. 6b, nos.1-2; fig. 6c, nos. 1-2). Concerning the fallen horse, this attitude of the forelegs is a very common motif in classical Greek and Hellenistic renderings. In our image the "hero" repeats the horse's pose and, doing so, he seemingly has moved slowly down. In other words, he was not bucked off and he did not fall down from the height of an upright moving horse.74 Now we have to look at the reins of the horse. They entwine around the bended left foreleg (fig. 6b, no. 3). It seems quite impossible to imagine this in reality, i.e., the motif must have been an artist's invention or the copy of such an invention. Even more interesting is the combination of the entangled reins with the poses of the legs of horse and rider. For this combination of motifs we can present a striking Hellenistic model with the famous "Alexander Mosaic" of Pompeii (fig. 7).75 The similarities are quite obvious: the deadly wounded knight with bended and stretched legs (fig. 7, nos. 1-2) who moves slowly from the horse, the bended and (half-)stretched forelegs of the deadly wounded horse (fig. 7, nos. 3-4) and, last and most important, the horse's foreleg entwined with the reins (fig. 7, no. 5). There can be no doubt that the artist of the Orlat plaque's primary source was well aware of a fixed set of motifs as described.

One may question whether the "intermediate source" of the Orlat image was already a creation of artisans from the steppes. This seems rather unlikely if we think of a precious decorated metal vessel. Indeed, only the latter - or another mobile high-quality piece of art - may well have come into the hand of a (nomadic?) copyist to be reworked for the belt of a nomadic warrior. But does this make our image a work of art from the steppes?76

If our remarks on the Orlat battle plaque hit upon the right thing, they may underline the exceptional importance of this small-sized masterpiece. The engraving seems to be not only a witness from the dark epoch of Hunnish invasions into Sogdiana at the eve of the Middle Ages, but a very early manifestation of fully developed narrative imagery in Transoxania, too.


9. List of illustrations



Fig. 1: Bone plaque with battle scene, Orlat (Uzbekistan). After Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), pl. IV:1.

Fig. 2a: Orlat battle plaque, warriors approaching from the left side (1 equestrian with sword; 2 equestrian with lance; 3 head of bridled horse [equestrian]; 4 reserve horse of equestrian no. 2; 5 mounted archer [marksman]; 6 mounted commander with banner; 7 traces of horse [equestrian?]; 8 two reserve horses of riders no. 5 and no. 6). Author's drawing.

Fig. 2b: Orlat battle plaque, warriors approaching from the right side (9 mounted commander-in-chief with trophy head; 10 warrior on foot with pickaxe; 11 traces of warrior on foot; 12 warrior fallen from his horse; 13 archer on foot). Author's drawing.

Fig. 3a: Orlat battle plaque, special details (1 dragon banner; 2 human head trophy; 3 brand of horse; 4 empty scabbard of fighter with pickaxe; 5 head of fighter without helmet; 6 eye hit by an arrow; 7 broken lance of fallen rider fig.2b:12; 8 arrow in neck of fallen horse; 9 arrow in forehead of fallen horse; 10 foot of rider fig.2a:5 hit by an arrow). Author's drawing.

Fig. 3b: Orlat battle plaque, upper right corner with restored traces of warrior on foot, cp. fig. 2b:11. Author's reconstruction.

Fig. 4a: Restored source image of the Orlat battle plaque. Author's reconstruction.

Fig. 4b: Composition of the Orlat battle plaque. Author's sketch.

Fig. 5a: Orlat battle plaque, foreground level, order of actions (cp. explanation in text, paragraph 7.1). Author's drawing.

Fig. 5b: Brand (tamga) on horse, cp. fig. 3a:1 (1 preserved traces; 2 restored tamga; 3 tamga turned to position according to coin mark of Samarqand). Author's drawing.

Fig. 6a-c: Orlat battle plaque, fallen horse and rider (1 stretched foreleg, 2 bent foreleg, 3 reins entwined around bent foreleg of horse). Author's drawings.

Fig. 7: "Alexander Mosaic", wounded Persian knight and fallen horse (1 and 4 stretched legs, 2 and 3 bent legs, 5 reins entwined around bent foreleg of horse). Author's drawing after Zahn.

Fig. 8a: Orlat battle plaque, supposed order of battle. Author's drawing.

Figs. 8b-11b: Orlat battle plaque, supposed battle schemes (cp. explanation in text, paragraph 6). Author's drawings.


Fig. 8b

Fig. 9a

Fig. 9b

Fig. 10a

Fig. 10b

Fig. 11a

Fig. 11b


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1 I would like to thank Erika Fischer and Sören Stark for their comments on a draft of this paper.

2 The major excavation report is Pugachenkova (1989b).

3 Most of them will be cited in the following notes.

4 Further bone plaques come from kurgan no. 4; their total number remains unknown from the excavation report. Four rectangular plaques are decorated, cp. Pugachenkova (1989b), pp. 132, 148f. and ill. 69.

5 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), pp. 107-110 and pl. VIII. - The same idea was expressed already by Dodzhanskiy (1990), pp. 28f.

6 For detailed reproductions of the two plaques, cp. Pugachenkova (1987), ill. p. 57; Chuvin (1999), fig. 135-136.

7 Several authors have accentuated an interdependence of the two images on the hunting and battle plaques, cp. especially Yatsenko (2000), pp. 92f. - Within our study we will abstain from comparisons. Here only one point seems noteworthy: The complex formal structure of the battle image, which will be demonstrated below, has absolutely nothing in common with fairly simple composition on the hunting plaque.

8 Cp. Marshak (1987), pp. 235f., p. 246, notes 11-12; Marshak (1992), p. 211; Marshak/Raspopova (1990), pp. 86f.

9 Pugachenkova (1987), p. 62.

10 Abdullaev (1995), p. 175; Bernard/Abdullaev (1997), p. 85; Schiltz (1999), p. 69; Rtveladze/Rapin (1999), p. 99.

11 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), p. 130.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Maslov (1999).

15 Gorbunova (2001), pp. 146f.

16 Marshak (1987), p. 235.

17 Brentjes (1990), p. 182.

18 Azbelev (1992), p. 212.

19 Gorelik (1993), p. 159.

20 Litvinsky (2001), p. 155.

21 Cp. references above.

22 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), p. 123.

23 Litvinsky (2001), pp. 146-155.

24 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), p. 117.

25 Dalton (1964), no. 201, pl. XXX (below), pl. XXXI (below).

26 Cp. Göbl (1967), vol. II; pp. 262-266; Marschak (1986), pp. 32-34.

27 Marschak (1986), pp. 33f.

28 Rudenko (1962), pl. I:5; good reproduction: Artamonov (1973), ill. 185.

29 Cp. Schiltz (1999), pl. 50 and p. 49 ("IVe-IIIe siècle av. J.-C.").

30 Bunker (1992), pp. 211-213, favoures a date in the Han Dynasty (with special reference to the sword depicted on the plaque).

31 Cp. Werner (1966).

32 Werner (1966), pp. 140f. and ill. 1:3; Anke (1998), vol. 2, pp. 54f.

33 Menghin (1994-1995), pp. 169f. and ill. 24; Anke (1998), vol. 2, p. 131.

34 Menghin (1994-1995), p. 170 and ill. 25; Anke (1998), vol. 2, p. 147.

35 Wieczorek/Périn (2001), pp. 124f. (no.

36 Umanskiy (1978).

37 Werner (1966), pp. 137f.

38 Cp. the scabbard of the famous sword of Altlussheim, where a guard of the type in question is only secondary used as chape; Wieczorek/Périn (2001), pp. 121f. (no. 2.12.2); Werner (1956), p. 39, pl. 3, 1b.

39 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), pp. 128f.

40 Cp. Marshak (1994), fig. 14. A very good closeup of the detail can bee seen in Illustrated London News, 22.4.1967, p. 23, fig. 6.

41 Pugachenkova (1987), pp. 56-57 (in Russian, translated by the author).

42 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), p. 111.

43 They are evidently not dismounted: any indication of horses is lacking.

44 To avoid misunderstandings, we will use the term "commander of a wing" (of an army in battle array) instead of "wing commander" (i.e., commander of several air force units).

45 In the following we will speak of a dragon banner, cp. Pugachenkova (1987), p. 61; Brentjes (1990), p. 179; Yatsenko (2000), p. 90. Yet the details are badly preserved. If the identification is correct, the piece would be the earliest Inner Asian "draco". For Western, Sarmatian and Roman, examples, cp. Brzezinski/Mielczarek (2002), pp. 38f.; Junkelmann (1996), pp. 78f. and note 270 (further literature).

46 Pritsak (1954), pp. 379f.; Pritsak (1955), pp. 256-258.

47 In the following, all directional terms are not intended to point to actual geography.

48 Pugachenkova (1987), p. 56 (as already cited above).

49 Yatsenko (2000), p. 90; Yatsenko (2001), p. 97; cp. our next note.

50 An epic character of the scenery was also assumed by Pugachenkova (1989a), p. 108, and Maslov (1999), p. 229, both without any statement of grounds. Only Yatsenko (2000), passim, substantiated his idea by drawing a line of tradition from the Orlat image to the Alans and later Ossetian epics. In our opinion, his theory is not well founded because he failed to give a thorough analysis of the pictorial mechanism of the Orlat image. Yatsenko's line drawing of the battle plaque (ibid., p. 91, ill. 2b) cannot be taken seriously (mistaken lance of the fallen rider; mistaken arrow in foreleg of horse, etc.).

51 Marschak (1986), pp. 286f.

52 Marshak (1992), pp. 210f.

53 Pougatchenkova (1988), p. 1146.

54 Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), p. 111.

55 This view is shared by most authors; cp. Pougatchenkova (1988), p. 1156.

56 With this we completely diverge from other views, cp. Pougatchenkova (1988), p. 1156.

57 Op. Ilyasov/Rusanov (1997-1998), p. 113. The authors repeat the often expressed opinion of gathering and exposing human heads to be an exclusive custom of nomadic people, but this is an oversimplified view; cp. Knauer (2001), p. 315.

58 Ibid., p. 112.

59 The reconstruction of the tamga given by Yatsenko (2001), ill. 28:130, seems to me absolutely unfounded.

60 On numerous coin series of Samarqand with this sign, cp. Smirnova (1981), pp. 22-23. In our case, the tamga is rotated about 45 degrees from its usual upright position.

61 Enoki (1955), p. 44; cp. de la Vaissière (2002), pp. 103f. - Recently, the Classic Numismatic Group, Inc. (CNG) has sold a unique copper coin with Hunnish portrait bust (Khingila?) and the Samarqand tamga on the reverse (

62 During the siege of Sogdian Samarqand, Qutaiba selected snipers to shoot the eyes of a Sogdian defender on top of the city wall, cp. Altheim (1959-1962), vol. II, p. 101 (Tabari). - In Sogdian art, a very close motif appears on a mural painting from the palace at Qal'a-i Qahqaha II, room 4, cp. Negmatov (1973), p. 192, ill. 7 (demon-warrior with broken arrow in the cheek).

63 This is a standard motif in Persian miniature painting, cp. Enderlein/Sundermann 1988), pp. 180f.

64 Cp. our note 44.

65 Shahbazi (1993), p. 159; Shahbazi (1996), p. 315.

66 Interestingly, Rustam is a Saka king and he fights in the service of Iran, cp. Colpe (1986), p. 426 )Rustam cycle of non-Zoroastrian, but Saka origin); Shahbazi (1993), pp. 158f. (Rustam descends from the Aparni, the ruler's clan of the Dahi).

67 As we know, the Sogdians had their own narrative traditions of Rustam, cp. M. J. Dresden in Azarpay (1981), pp. 6-8. These traditions also appear in Sogdian painting, cp. Marshak (1989), pp. 120f., Marshak (2002), Azarpay 1977), p. 325.

68 Brentjes (1990), p. 174 (possibly by means of a foil).

69 As suggested by Brentjes (1989), p. 39.

70 Cp. Belenickij (1968), pls. 136-138 (foldout).

71 The Kulagysh plate has been fully analyzed by Boris Marshak, cp. Marschak (1986), pp. 284-286.

72 I know of eight pieces, two of them seem to be fakes. Six pieces are listed by von Gall (1990), p. 94, notes 38 and 37 (fake, piece not in Art Inst. Chicago but in Sackler Coll., Bunker (1997), F31); furthermore: Rawson/Bunker (1990), no.221, Bunker (1997), fig. A131; plus one fake in the Art Inst. Chicago: Bunker (1997), p. 338 note 2. - Melikian-Chirvani (1998), p. 188, suggests illustrations of "some early version of the Rostam cycle." More balanced is von Gall (1990), p. 95, who also points to non-Iranian traditions of wrestling, ibid., note 44. Wrestling as a mortal combat for prestige occurs already in the "Secret History of the Mongols", cp. Taube (1976), p. 99, Taube (1989), p. 67; this reflects certainly a much older nomadic custom of Inner Asia. - The most interesting attempts of interpretation of the Hunnish wrestling plaques are Gryaznov (1961) and Marshak (1992).

73 Cp. von Gall (1990), p. 95.

74 There is an interesting similarity with the scene from the Poros battle. Alexander's horse Bucephalos is seriously wounded and exhausted. But the rider does not fall. Instead the horse allows him to slide down (Curtius Rufus, Hist., VIII, 14, 34).

75 Cp. Moreno (2001), pl. X.

76 About this we are at a variance with Boris Marshak (1987), p. 235; cp. Abdullaev (1995), p. 161 ("the Orlat plaques are engraved in the style of the art of the steppes").

77 The list is restricted to titles cited in the footnotes.



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