Golden deer of eternity

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I got acquainted with the gold of Saks a quarter of a century ago, during the shooting of finds from Issyk burial mound for the museum booklet. At that place I met archeologists for the first time, and since then the history of Kazakhstan became the key subject in my work.

To be photographer means to have an opportunity to see people of very different occupations in their natural environment: in course of the working process. Once I had to take pictures of the technological process at the gold mine. I had got little time for shooting, but I had to manage to capture many various operations. In situations like this you work like ‘on autopilot’: you need to understand what is important and advantageous and at the same time not to be kept from work. There are very few things left in my memory: strict guards, the thorough inspection of the case containing my equipment, and incredible size production departments, where gold ore was milled in huge cylinders, and next, gold dust was sieved from it in complicated vibrating constructions. The pinnacle of this shooting became the melting process of precious metal and filling of special moulds with it. I was eager to show ‘mounds of gold’, too. My wish was granted unexpectedly easy, and the question they asked just shocked me: ‘Will a couple of hundreds kilos do?”

Bars of gold weighing about ten kilos each were fetched in a cart like those they use at the bazaar. Meanwhile they were building some structure resembling ‘the mound of gold’ out of these bars I did feel both the actual weight of gold and the peculiar glitter of the noble metal. But, much to my surprise, my heart gave no leap. On the contrary, the gold bars seemed to me somewhat too ordinary. Some digits and ciphers and some plain logo were unkemptly stamped on them. I somehow recalled stamps in passports that custom officers and other officials put here and there, and always in this rough and sloppy manner. And I also recalled the gold that I had never stopped to admire during many years, taking pictures of archeological finds in museums of Kazakhstan.

For many years I am shooting archeologists’ finds, and you can see these pictures in books on history of Kazakhstan. Mostly these are ceramic items, even their fragments only: potsherds. There are more of them than others, and I have to admit that despite their utility there are true masterpieces of art among them, too. Less often you bump into bone and wooden items. The majority of them would not last long, because time turns them into ashes. Stone is a different story – it is eternal from the point of view of the human outlook on life. That is why the most ancient works of human hands tens of thousands years old remain perfectly intact up to nowadays.

 As for iron, emergence of which in the first millennium BC marked the real breakthrough in the history of the humanity, it falls into researchers’ hands in the form of shapeless oxidized remnants. Only obscured features of former items that used to be the pride of their possessors can be read in them. Having lain in the earth for a long time, bronze items often alter beyond recognition, eaten up by corrosion. And it is only gold that never loses its splendor over time.

The most sensational discovery by Kazakhstani archeologists became the excavation of Saks’ burial site outside of Issyk, in the outskirts of Almaty. One April day of 1970 a never touched burial chamber of one of the mounds was opened up. A famous Soviet archeologist Kemal Akishev was in charge of this excavation. And the first person to have luck to notice the intact logs of the blockhouse was his young teammate Beken Nurmukhanbetov by name.

When scientists broke open the vault and walls of the burial mound, which were made up of Schrenk’s spruce, the truly magnificent view appeared before their eyes: On a wooden covering there lay a skeleton studded with golden plaques, which once decorated his funeral costume. Archeologists were the first humans who peeped into this burial chamber; this mound lay undisturbed for 2,500 years. Later on, after a laborious refurbishment they managed to fully restore warrior’s outfit that soon was called ‘The golden man of Issyk’. More than forty years have passed since then, but similar untouched burial mounds have not been found so far. We may only presume how gorgeous costumes of Saks nobility from burial chambers pillaged at various times were.

I was lucky to take photos of Issyk findings many times: both when they were kept at the Museum of Archeological Institute in Alma-Ata and later, after the entire collection had been transported to Astana. Out of four thousands of golden plaques there are a few of them which I particularly amaze at. I wouldn’t conceal that most of all I am attracted to lifelike images of different animals, because as to my view of life I am a naturalist in the first place.

Interesting that out of the huge diversity of the fauna surrounding us, ancient artists picked a rather small circle of animals for their creative activity. The majority of those animals were either game ones such as deer, goats, sheep, wild boars, or domestic ones like horses, camels, and cattle.

 Much attention was paid to predators such as tiger, snow leopard, and wolf, because these were competitors at hunting, and for hunters they were a fatal danger.

Some of the most beautiful and dynamic figurines, which I had a chance to shoot, were winged snow leopards against the background of the stylized summits of Alatau Mountains; they were at the lateral sides of the ‘golden man’s’ high headwear.   

One of the tiniest details of this costume is a small figurine of the wild sheep, or the argali. It crowns the head wear, and, despite its tiny size, which is less than two centimeters, it is accomplished with the surprising accurateness and detail design.

The most mysterious one for me remains a signet ring, with the image of the human profile wearing some head dress reminiscent of that of North-American Indians made of eagle’s feathers. But historians rather see in it the depiction of the deity Mithra.

One more widespread theme for golden bijoux is the image of the red deer, or Siberian stag. There are a lot of explanations why this image is so popular. The simplest of them is that it is a hunter’s trophy or an animal killed on the altar. The Sun as the central figure of the world creation was deified, and a golden deer was its earthly symbol. The other system of the world order was represented by the Tree of Life, and branchy horns of the deer were its symbols. There are images of red deer among the decorations of the golden man: these are attachable plaques for the belt in the shape of the deer with doubled-up legs, huge branchy horns, wings, and gryphons’ heads.

But the most beautiful, to my mind, are golden deer from Zhalauly. This treasure was found in the really amazing way. In the spring of 1988 children from Zhalauly village (170 km eastward of Almaty) ran into a felt sack brought in by snowmelt waters and lying at the side of the road. Inside of it they discovered about 600 (!!!) golden bijoux weighing almost 1,5 kg.

Apparently, some long time ago pillagers unearthed one of the hundreds of burial mounds in nearby Kegen’ dale, and the treasures found they ditched with the hope for better times. But they never came back for them. I have no idea whether some mystics or fate’s design was the reason of it, but the head of the archeologists’ team who came to study this occasional finding chanced to become Beken Nurmukhanbetov, the researcher of the Issyk burial mound. The good fortune of this scientist brought him to the gold treasure of Saks once again.

The figurines of Zhalauly golden deer are the most attractive ones for me, and, if there were such a competition, I would probably give the laurel just to them out of hundreds that I chanced to keep in my hands. They are hypertrophic to the utmost and their outlines are laconic and simple, but they are realistic and flawless from the point of view of animalistics. Particularly gorgeous are the two deer, which has merged into one united integral composition in the mirror reflection and are full of movement.

And of course, we cannot but take notice of such an outstanding discovery as the famous Kargaly hidden treasure, containing the lovely diadem, signet rings, and a mass of miniature golden plaques. In 1939 in the gorge called Myn-Oshakty (the upper reaches of the Kargaly River, 30 km to the west of Almaty) two hunters ran into a woman’s grave and 300 golden bijoux hidden in the split in a rock. Archeologists identified these items belonging to a Usunian female shaman, who lived at the beginning of our epoch.

Usuns came to replace Saks tribes at the historical arena, and their southern neighbours, the Chinese dynasty of Han epoch, preserved information about them in their written sources. Great influence upon the art of China of that period had creative findings of the nomadic culture: especially Saks’ zoomorphic ornament, later the art of Huns, and, finally, the art of Usuns. In its turn, the motives of Chinese mythology appeared in artefacts of Usuns, what is especially obvious in the presence of dragon images.

 But first of all, it is the hereditary of the animal style details that one can trace in artworks of Usuns, and its distinctive feature is the broad use of gems incrusted into gold, most of all turquoise. When a legendary Soviet archeologist, Professor Alexander Bernshtam described the Kargaly diadem in 1940, he emphasized that “despite the fantastic nature of the series of images, animals are depicted in the realistic manner, showing the profound knowledge of these beasts’ typical features and habits. Particularly expressive are figures of the Siberian stag, the bear, the soft pace of the tiger, and the swift run of the Alpine ibex”.

When I peer into two preserved parts of the broken diadem, every time I find more and more new details in the intricacies of the complicated plant pattern. Now I see the golden Siberian stag together with its doe, and then the bear or the winged horse called ‘tulpar’. And strange people wearing high caps on their heads are speeding into some mysterious distances, riding dragons, tau-teke, tiger, or argali. I feel some very special energy and life-asserting sense of purpose in their movement. Just about such art they say that it is eternal. 

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