Barbarian Art



The term ''barbarian " loosely defines a broad range of peoples and art styles that existed
alongside the ''civilized'' cultures of the Mediterranean, China, and the Near East. Barbaras is Greek for "foreign", but literally meant "stammering", after the itnfamilar sound of tongues other than Greek. As barbarian cultures were fundamentally non-literate, we know them primarily through the rich material culture and art they produced.

The influence and exchange I of ideas and art styles between "barbarian" and "civilized" cultures was a continual process. The Greeks and the Etruscans were in contact with three primary groups of "barbarians" - the Celts, Scythians, and Thracians. Modern knowledge of these cultures is largely derived from archaeological investigations, although one literary source - Herodotus, the Greek geographer and historian writing in the mid-fifth century bc -vividly describes Scythian culture. The vast Roman Empire dealt with different groups of "barbarians" that superseded the above - the later Celtic populations, the Sarmatians, and groups of Germanic-speaking peoples who had migrated from the north to southern Russia and Eastern Europe. In the late fourth century ad, Hunnic tribes from Inner Asia, the "ultimate barbarians", arrived in southern Russia. This forced the Germanic and Sarmatian populations west and initiated the historical process known as the Migration Period, which transformed the Roman Empire into medieval Europe.


The Celts

The "Keltoi" to the Greeks or "Galli" to the Romans were Indo-European speaking peoples whose culture spread from the upper Danube and eastern France south to north-ern Italy, the Iberian peninsula, and North Africa; west to the Low Countries and the British Isles; and east to the Balkans and Asia Minor. The first manifestation of Celtic art appears on the objects found in more than a thousand graves excavated at Halstatt, a salt-mining settlement in the Alps, near Salzburg in Austria. In this Bronze Age phase, which began in the late second millennium and continued until the mid-sixth century bc, the "art" consisted largely of functional but highly sophisticated metalwork designed for personal adornment and to embellish weapons, and horse and chariot fittings. It was probably produced under princely patronage and is primarily geometric and non-representational in nature. The second, Iron Age phase, lasted from about 500bc to the Roman conquests in the late second and early first century bc and is called La Tene, after a settlement and votive deposit on the shores of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Early La Tene styles derive from classical decorative and vegetal motifs, such as palmettos and scrolls. but these incorporate animal figures and human heads into their curvilinear structure. Depending on the region, these styles evolved in different ways with the representational elements often becoming more cryptic and abstract, and the continuous geometric designs more fluid, often underpinned by complex, compass-based patterns. Some stylistic variants were completely linear, engraved on flat surfaces, while others were more plastic and naturalistic. The artists still worked primarily in metal, favouring gold, copper alloys and iron, sometimes adding inlays of coral, amber or enamel. Personal jewellery for both men and women, arms, armour and horse trappings were elaborately decorated, as were everyday articles such as mirrors and vessel fittings. Torcs or neckrings were status symbols in many Celtic societies, which together with long hair, beards, and trousers, came to signify "barbarian" in Greek and Roman representations. Celtic artists also worked in wood and stone, producing large representational sculptures of both humans and animals; many of these appear to have been used in cult temples or as grave markers. After the Roman conquest, abstract variants of the Celtic style survived primarily in the remote British Isles, to be invested with new vigour by artisans in the second half of the first millennium ad.

Stone statue of a warrior wearing a torc, Castro do Lezenho,
Boticas, Portugal,
first century bc to first century ad.
Museu Nacional de Arqueologia e Etnologia, Lisbon

Bronze disc covered with embossed
gold sheet inlaid with coral and enamel, Auvers-sur-Oise,
early fourth century.
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Gold torc from the chariot
burial of a princess,
Waldalgesheim, Germany,
second half of the fourth century bc.
 Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn




The territories beyond the Greek cities around the Black Sea were occupied by Thracians in the west and Scythians to the north and east. The latter traded wheat, fur. slaves, gold, and amber from the north. Scythian burial mounds in southern Russia were storehouses of everyday Greek pottery buried side by side with breathtaking gold jewellery, vessels, and fittings reflecting both classical and barbarian traditions. Some items, such as necklaces, earrings, and ritual vessels were purely Greek in both style and function; other ornaments, such as large pectorals and combs, were Scythian forms decorated in Greek style; yet other objects were purely Scythian in both decoration and function. Some objects in the second category, which must have been made by Greek craftsmen for Scythian clients, bear naturalistic images of the Scythians themselves, engaged in battle, milking mares, and shoeing horses. These contrast with abstract and stylized representations of animals used to decorate horse harnesses and with representations of animal combat, which derive ultimately from ancient Near Eastern sources. A similar admixture of Greek, Persian, and barbarian traditions also characterizes the objects from Thracian tombs on the western shores of the Black Sea, concentrated in Bulgaria, In contrast to the Scythian finds, many of these were fashioned in silver, probably reflecting local mineral resources. The sheer quantity of precious metals and their exuberant decoration may have reflected "barbarian" taste, but in general the decoration of all of these luxury goods is of the highest standard.

Gold phalera with a feline attacking a stag, Ol'gino Mound,
fifth century bc.
Museum of Archaeology at the Ukraine National Academy of Science, Kiev

Gold comb showing a battle, Solokha kurgan, Ukraine,
early fourth century bc.
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg




The Art of the Steppes

Felt saddle cover with applique depicting an elk, Kurgan 2, Pazyryk, Altai, Siberia, fifth century bc. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The arcs enclosing dots used on the haunches are a typical steppe motif derived from Iranian art

The steppe, the vast grasslands that stretch across Eurasia, was in ancient times, as it is now, home to nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral peoples of both Caucasian and Mongolian stock. They were in contact, both peacefully and aggressively, with the great settled civilizations of the ancient world - the Assyrians and Persians, the Greeks and Romans, and the Indians and Chinese - and their art was a rich blend of their own cultural symbols with those classical traditions. Much of the art they produced was small, portable metalwork and wood can-ing, suited to their lifestyle and stylistically conservative for many centuries. The primary tribes with which the Western civilizations were acquainted were the Scythians, their successors the Sarmatians, and, finally, in the early medieval period, the Huns. The Iranian-speaking Scythians are first mentioned in Assyrian sources around the middle of the seventh century bc. Within two centuries, their territories stretched from the Danube to the Don and north to the boundary between the forest and steppe, but their cultural sway extended south-east into the Caucasus and west to the Dobruja with a far eastern branch in Siberia. Herodotus described the everyday life of the Scythians, who drank mare's milk and interred their dead beneath massive earthen mounds, accompanied by human and animal sacrifices. His observations have been borne out by excavations of these mounds or kurgans, the underground chambers of which were filled not only with sacrifices but splendid golden grave goods. In the east, a spectacular group of Scythian burials in wooden chambers was discovered in the Altai mountains in Siberia. The permafrost preserved human bodies, including one entirely tattooed man, and horses still wearing their elaborate wooden bridles and headgear. Colourful felt textiles, such as three-dimensional stuffed swans designed to hang from the top of a tent, illustrate the richness of the nomadic lifestyle, while a knotted woollen rug, the oldest in existence, testifies to long-distance trading contacts between the Scythians and Achaemenid Persians. The animal style developed by the Scythians was powerful and stylized, depicting animals and birds with their most important attributes (horns, paws, and beaks) exaggerated. It was applied to personal status symbols such as belt buckles, horse trappings, and weaponry such as akinakes (short swords), battle axes, and bow cases. The Iranian Sarmatians continued a stylized version of this animal ornament, often executed in repousse gold sheet accented with turquoise inlays. Ornaments in this style, dating from the second century bc to the second century ad, have been found across a large region stretching from Afghanistan to the Caucasus and across southern Russia. Graffiti, dating from the Roman period, depict Sarmatians as mounted horsemen carrying long spears and with both themselves and their horses encased in suits of armour. Like the Scythians, their leaders were buried beneath massive mounds. Recent excavations in the Ukraine at the kurgan complex called "Datschi", near Azov have unearthed large quantities of gold ornaments and vessels studded with semi-precious stones in a polychromatic style that influenced later Migration Period art.
The Huns, who appeared without warning at the Sea of Azov in ad 369, were traditionally regarded as the most brutal and physically ugly of all barbarians. They probably spoke a proto-Turkish tongue and, although their origins remain obscure, there can be no question that one of their primary artifacts - large footed bronze cauldrons with loop handles - can be traced across the steppe to the northern borders of China. In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, they formed alliances with Sarmatian and Germanic tribes and often fought with the Romans against other barbarians. They succeeded in extracting large subsidies in gold from the Roman government, both in payment for their services and to keep them at bay. Once their power base was established in Pannonia, the Hunnic federation under Attila (died ad 452) began plundering and raiding further to the west, remaining undefeated until a disastrous battle at the Catalunian Fields in France, where the allied Huns. Ostrogoths, and Burgundians suffered heavy losses. We know almost more about them from historical sources than from archaeology, as they cremated their dead and founded no settlements. Their most splendid ornaments were fashioned of gold sheet studded with cabochon garnets. Many of these took non-classical forms, such as diadems, temple pendants, and whip handles.

Large gold stag plaque from a shield,
Kostromskaja kurgan, Krasnodar region, late seventh or early sixth century bc.
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg



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