Sunday, January 8, 2012

Trypillians and After: Art of the Ukraine

If you ever wondered what the earliest civilizations devised by humankind were like, stop down to see the current show at the Russian Museum before it leaves town. There you’ll see ceramic artifacts from—not the Egyptians, not the Sumerians—but the Trypillians, who occupied the region between the Danube and the Dnieper rivers extending north from the Black Sea, some nine thousand years ago. (The official dates given are 7400 BCE to 4700 BCE.) These mysterious people knew how to plow, kept domestic animals, grew grapes, and erected temples the look of which have been preserved in miniature clay replicas.

About half of the area occupied by the Trypillians (also known as the Cucuteni) is within the borders of modern-day Ukraine, and the show, titled “ Antiquities From Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations" includes artworks, weapons, jewelry and sundry other items from succeeding civilizations, too—the Cimmerians, the Scythians, and the Greeks, Johnny-Come-Latelys who didn’t begin to colonize the region until 800 B.C.

Some of the large clay jugs on display are reminiscent of far more recent productions of the Hopi and other Southwestern peoples, and no less beautiful. Others carry the spiral ornamentation I associate with the Minoans. The tall, narrow, clay figurines bring to mind fertility goddesses of the Cycladic cultures of the Aegean. But the Trypillians pre-date all of these peoples by far. Considered all in all, the older artifacts on display fall into the category of genuinely Gee-Whiz “cool.”

Perhaps the most intriguing, though not the most attractive, are a set of weird ceramic vessels that consist of several hollow binocular-shaped units fused together. (Maybe we’re looking at the world’s first kitsch candleholders?)

As we follow the faux-flagstone pathway to the rear of the exhibit space, we meet up with the Scythians, who figure prominently in the history of Herodotus. The Scythians were talented horsemen and knew how to make bronze. They buried their kings surrounded by their household staff, who met their end for precisely that purpose. On the first anniversary of the king’s death, thirty of his top horsemen were killed and buried around the tomb, along with their horses. According to the museum text, Herodotus referred to the Scythians as “wiser than any nation on the face of the Earth." I’m not so sure.

The Scythian warrior carried a gold cup on his belt, in imitation of Herakles, and a very fine one is on display. (We used to carry our cups on our belts while out on the trail in the BWCA, too.) Nearby, a golden headdress made of wafer-thin oak leaves and tiny acorns is also staggering. The small gallery at the back of the museum is given over to jewelry from the classical Greek, early Christian, and Byzantine eras, and it’s almost uniformly exquisite. (The buckle you see below is about one inch high.)

Back home, I pulled my Herodotus from the shelf but found no reference to the overreaching wisdom of the Scythians. At one point he says, “The Black Sea is home to the most ignorant peoples of the earth.” He excludes the Scythians from this judgment, however, and goes on to praise them for having discovered what he calls “the cleverest solution I know of to the single most important matter in human life.” He commends them for carrying their homes behind their horses on wagons, rather than building villages and strongholds. “Since they are all expert at using their bows from horseback, and since they depend on cattle for food rather than on cultivated land, how could they fail to be invincible and elusive?”

So elusive, indeed, that they have long since vanished from history.

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