Since 1983 a subpolar party of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography (Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences) has been searching in the upper reaches of the Ob in the Far North-in the Tyumen administrative region to be exact. These parts are inhabited by the Khanties and Mansis, who are small ethnic groups of the Russian North. Their household sanctuaries conceal sundry curiosities, for one, figurines of human beings and animals dating back to the Bronze Age.
Such articles have been unearthed in burial grounds at Surgut and elsewhere, including random finds recovered over a vast territory- all the way from the mouth of the Irtysh to Salekhard. Archeologists from the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals date most of the specimens to a period of the 8th to 11th centuries as part of the local culture.
Lately several items came to be in the limelight: four figurines of bears (found in the 1999 field season) as well as images of pangolin ("scaly anteater"), goose and warrior (the 2000 season). These finds also include a knife haft. The Khanties and Mansis regard such odd things as a godsend and keep them among household relics in a chest or trunk set aside for the purpose. These are their household gods and custodians. A local fisherman will read the message all right - say, of a bronze figurine recovered off river banks or on the sites of ancient encampments. The bear is the most revered sacred animal, and the playings of these beasts attract local people from far and wide. The goose, an avian image of the highest deity Numi-Torum-Mir-Susne-khum (the "Copper Goose" sanctuary), protected the yurta("wigwam") homes of Ob aboriginals, as testified by early 18th-century evidence. As to the pangolin ("scaly anteater"), it must be a mythological water dragon, or serpent. The knife haft must have belonged to one of the forefathers, a bogatyr (an epic hero), and the warrior's figurine is its likely image.
Suchlike finds (bronze horsemen, beavers, birds) were retrieved in the past too; today they number by the dozen. These articles have been displayed in various museums, in the Hermitage of St. Petersburg as well, and their inventories are published in reputable catalogs.
According to their manufacturing technology, the relics are divided into two categories: the flat and the three-dimensional castings. The bronze hollow figurines (of goose and bear) are related to the category of zoomorphic (animal-like) mascots with a hole made in the back, possibly for a leather strap. They are cast on both sides with a core within; all the joints and seams are removed, and the surface is well-polished, with traces of a cutter visible here and there. Since no mass analyses have been carried out yet, we cannot tell for certain what the composition of alloys and surface coatings is.
The bear figurines measure 6.5х4 cm in size. One figurine (7х4.3 cm) images a she-bear and her cub: the mother stands on a flat surface done up as a cub whose face is turned towards her. The mother bear has her mouth open, and she licks the teddy's muzzle. Both figures are decorated with a raised bolster, and the cub's back is truncated, made shorter.
The goose figurine stands out for its dimensions (10х9 cm), weight and silvery hue (white bronze so-called); there may be yet another image, that of a bird or a bug, as an addition.
The warrior and the serpent are specimens of flat one-sided casting. The obverse side is polished. The warrior ("chief) stands with his legs far apart and holds what looks like a bowl. His head resembles a skull, but its upper part, namely the eye-sockets and nose, has prominent features and makes the impression of a mask or helmet with visor, beaver and nose-piece. The limbs accentuate a composite zooanthropomorphic image, i.e. of man and animal in one, a feature fairly typical of the mythological outlooks of Siberia's peoples. Quite often their patron ghost is in the image of a hero serving as a kinship totem - a forefather imaged like a bear, wolf, bird and so on.
Now, why did the northerners make things like that? What for? Such articles show no signs of wear, hence they must have been designated for ritual purposes. A small loop on the reverse side of the warrior's figurine shows that the thing was meant as a pendant. Yet one can hardly visualize such a somber image on the apparel of a shaman, or priest; or, say, imagine him wearing a massive bronze goose. Possibly the people of the Ob region who lived in the Middle Ages had a tradition of making a ritual scenery for "roving altars", the stage of sundry magic carryings-on. Such altars and fixings could be pitched anyplace when needed, then and there. The curtains made of leather or fabric could be decorated with bronze figurines arranged in a definite sequence (A. Solovyov). But we cannot tell for sure as yet. More bits of evidence are needed to solve the riddle of Siberian antiquities.
Nauka v Sibiri (Science in Siberia), 2000
Prepared by Rusanna DOLGIKH
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