Just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a much smaller suite of galleries is showing something special: “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” an exhibition mounted by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Founded half a dozen years ago and occupying a dignified building just off upper Fifth Avenue, the ISAW is a research and education center devoted to the study of ancient cultures that grew up beyond the Mediterranean basin in some of the most far-flung corners of the globe.
“Nomads and Networks” (open through June 3) focuses on Central Asia’s four corners region where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. For travelers, it is a storied place of ever-frozen mountains and steppes where it's thought horses were first domesticated sometime around 3500 B.C. Bridled and saddled, they became not just a means of transportation but a cultural icon for the nomadic people of eastern Kazakhstan’s Altai and Tianshan regions, who left no written record, though they were mentioned in “The Histories” of Herodotus.
It’s a small exhibition composed of just two rooms of 250 objects borrowed from four museums in Kazakhstan, displayed for the first time in the U.S. They come from single finds and archaeological digs into burial mounds known as kurgans now being excavated in Kazakhstan. One gallery is devoted to a kurgan that is thought to have held the remains of a chieftain, buried with 13 horses, sacrificed in formal regalia. The animals’ tack, carved of deer horn, ornamented with gold foil and cinnabar, testifies to the artistic sophistication of the nomads. A piece of a saddle made of felt and wood occupies a showcase nearby, preserved across millennia by permafrost, which served as a sort of refrigerator for organic material that would have otherwise decayed. The analysis of human remains also preserved by permafrost has revealed that nomads of the Asian four corners region wore full-body tattoos and knew the secrets of embalming, carrying mummified corpses with them through frozen winters until the ice melted and the bodies of the dead could be interred.
A second room displays a collection of 23-karat gold ornaments, highlighted by what is known as the Kurgan Diadem, a hammered gold band with imagery common in neighboring China, suggesting the reach of nomadic contact and trading. Just as stunning are four tray-like objects, mounted on conical stands, bearing creatures out of an ancient box of Animal Crackers: horses, deer, ravens, two-humped Bactrian camels and snow leopards.
Though the function of many of these objects remains unknown, the exhibition’s objective—to show that the nomadic people of the Central Asian steppe were anything but the biker guys of the ancient world, that they lived in coherent communities and had their own understanding of this life, as well as the next—is evocatively fulfilled. Only, now I’ve got to add another place to my travel list: Kazakhstan, hopefully on horseback.