Origin of the Hsiung-nu


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Hsiung-nu art

Detailed stylistic analysis of different objects of Hsiung-nu art makes it possible to trace an evolutionary sequence beginning from the originally zoomorphous "Scythe-Siberian" representations, most of which were strongly influenced by the Near Eastern art. In the following text we shall exemplify this suggestion (see in detail, Miniaev, "New finds of Hsiung-nu decorative bronzes and a problem of origin of "geometrical style" in Hsiung-nu art// Archaeological News, vol. 4., Saint-Petersburg, 1995).

Plaque-buckles of the upper belt. The artifacts whose origins are best documented are "lattice" plaque-buckles. Perhaps one of the most ori-ginal compositions is a scene showing fantastic animals standing beside a symbolic tree (Peter the Great’s collection). This scene is encompassed by a rectangular frame on which there are pits for the inlay, shaped like tree leaves. The tree and the animals are well modeled, and the heads are quite realistic. Buckles of this type were prototypes for bronze plaques, but many details had been lost in the process of repeated copying and additional modeling of the casts. The frames of some bronze plaques still retain the heads of animals rendered in the same manner as those on the buckles from Peter the Great’s collection, but the entire composition becomes geometric. Later, only several cells remain of the heads of the animals, and eventually they disappear as well. The original scene depicting animals beside a tree turns into a geometric composition. The later plaque-buckles look as trapeziums with zigzag edges and have little if anything in common with the original composition .

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Scenes showing animals beside the sacred tree and possible transformations of this scene in Hsiung-nu bronzes.
1) imprint of a cylindrical seal from Susa; 2 ) fragment of a pectoral from Ziwiyeh; 3) plaque from Peter I collection; 4,5) bronze plaques from South Siberia.

Most representations on plaque-buckles were apparently subjected to a similar remodeling, with a gradual simplification and stylization of zoomorphous scenes. This applies to representations of three mountain goats, two pairs of snakes ultimately transformed into a lattice of small diamond-shaped cells, the weight of some plaques dropped from 100-110 g to 18-20 g).

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Possible transformations of the scene with four snakes on Hsiung-nu plaque-buckles.

Round openwork buckles of the upper belt. The original "Scythe-Siberian" composition is seen on a ring from Peter the Great’s collection, showing birds walking in file. Being initially realistic, the representation gradually becoming mo-re and more schematic. At first, only heads situated along the edge of the plaque remained of the birds. Next, the heads, too, turned into cells, which eventually disappeared as well, the composition turning into a geometric pattern: two concentric circles connected by several radii whose number also diminished with time.

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Assumed transformation of a composition on round openwork rings.

The evolution of rectangular plaque-buckles and openwork rings demonstrates certain regularities in the schematization process: in the first stage only the heads of animals or birds are preserved of the zoomorphous scenes, then they turn into comma-like cells, and ultimately the buckle frame becomes smooth.

Small bronze artifacts (buttons, spoon-like clasps, ornamented belt buckles). The representations on these artifacts undergo a similar transformation ultimately turning into geometric patterns. Stages of this evolution can be traced in a series of buttons representing a sitting bear, in spoon-shaped clasps, and on openwork belt buckles. These artifacts, too, have clear-cut prototypes among the collections of Siberian gold. the Hsiung-nu buckles are less expressive, but the transformation process was similar to the one described above.

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Assumed transformations of compositions on spoon-shaped clasps (1--6), belt buckles (7,8), and buttons (9--12).

As our analysis demonstrates, "geometric" compositions in Hsiung-nu art were the outcome of the stylization process that occurred during repe-ated copying of the original Scythe-Siberian zoomor-phous representations, primarily those on golden artifacts from mounds of the noblemen (many such artifacts belonged to Peter the Great’s and the Witsen’s collections, and some have recently been found in undisturbed assemblages). However, these representations did not result from the evolution of Scy-thian art proper, since some of them have demonstrative parallels in the Near Eastern tradition, whose impact on Scythian art has been discussed more than once.

Let us turn back to the first composition showing animals beside a symbolic tree. The subject had been used in Near Eastern art from time immemorial, the earliest known examples being represen-tations on the cylindrical seals dating from Period C in Susa. Minor modifications disregarded, this scene continued to be popular in the Near East throughout the period of 1500–900 B.C., when it was depicted on cylindrical seals and bronzes, and even later, as evidenced by a fragment of a 9-th Century BC vessel from Hasanlu. A similar scene is represented on a golden pectoral from the Sakkyz hoard, which in a way may be viewed as an intermediate link between the Scythian art and that of the Near East. Scenes of this type were adopted and modified by Scythian artisans, the outcome of the process being seen on buckles from Peter the Great’s collection. The-se, in turn, were copied and remodeled by Hsiung-nu jewelers.

Another scene popular in Hsiung-nu art was that of a hoofed animal clawed by a griffin and a feline. While virtually the same scene is observed on a steatite beaker from Khafajah, the link connecting it to Hsiung-nu art are golden plaques from Peter the Great’s collection.

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1) composition on the beaker from Khafajah; 2) detail of the composition (clawing scene);
3) and a similar composition on a Hsiung-nu bronze.

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1) detail of composition on the beaker from Khafajah; 2) a transformation of this scene in Hsiung-nu bronzes (one of the assumed versions).

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Detail of composition on the beaker from Khafajah (1), hsiung-nu bronze plaque from Ordos(2), details of compositions on the beaker and on the bronze plaque (3,4).

Such examples (whose number may be enlarged) indicate that representations related to a very ancient Near Eastern tradition penetrated into, and were modified by, the Hsiung-nu milieu via the Scythian world. A rapid transformation of zoomorphous scenes, which over a short period turned into geometric compositions, implies that the Hsiung-nu jewelers failed to fully comprehend their contents, simplifying or eliminating many details and even images unfamiliar to them while retaining or realistically enriching only scenes which were easy for them to understand, namely those showing animals. And, because Scythe-Siberian traditions were so radically changed by the Hsiung-nu, it may be suggested that aesthetic criteria inherent in Hsiung-nu art formed outside the Scythe-Siberian area.

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Electrum beaker from Iran (1), Hsiung-nu bronze plaque from South Siberia (2), details of compositions on the beaker and on the bronze plaque (3-4).

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Assumed stages of evolution of Hsiung-nu bronze plaques with rectangular protrusions (1--3), golden plaque from Emez burial ground (4).

It is quite probable that originally the elements on which the Scythe-Siberian animal style was based were not part of the Hsiung-nu art, the characteristic features of the latter being engraved representations on organic materials like bone or antler and on minerals. Such representations, sharply differing from the "Scythe-Siberian" canon, have been found on many Hsiung-nu sites.

The rapid evolution of the prototypes, which before the Hsiung-nu conquest were basically stable over several millennia, demonstrates that the new ethnic, cultural, and linguistic (Proto-Mongolian?) milieu with its peculiar mythological and epic imagery was quite alien to the Near Eastern tradition. Some of the prototypical compositions had been retained possibly due to the fact that certain ideological similarities did exist; others were stylized and transformed by the Hsiung-nu in accordance with their own aesthetic norms.

Corrected by Barbara Hazard