Ancient Eurasian art spans an enormous variety of disparate nomadic and sedentary cultures of the tribes that dwelled in the vast territories of the steppes and sub-mountainous regions of the Eurasian continent. These territories stretched from the Balkans and the North Black Sea Steppes (modern Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Ukraine) through the Caucasus mountains and the areas of the Kuban, Don, Volga and Ural river basins (modern Russia), towards the Central Asian Steppes (modern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), Xinjiang and Ordos (modern China), Mongolia and South Siberia. In the course of their history, through war, trade and diplomacy, the ancient Eurasian tribes came into close contact with the important sedentary civilizations such as the Assyrians and Achaemenids, Greeks and Romans, Chinese and Sogdians, Byzantines and Sasanians.
The regional cultures of ancient Eurasia shared a common feature – the famous so-called “animal style". This started in Tuva and the Altai mountains and became widespread among many tribes, primarily of Scythian affiliation, as a result of the westward military expansion of the Scythians starting from the 7th century BC. The term Scythians was used by the Greeks to refer to a number of different tribes spread over the area of the northern Black Sea, the Caucasus, South Urals and Southern Siberia; they were called Saka by the Persians in the Achaemenid East. Nomadic archaeological sites have yielded fine examples of animal-style art that was used to decorate their weapons, horse harness and ritual drinking vessels. This animal-style art was a unique common language of representation between these disparate cultures and indicates the high level of close interrelation between peoples in the ancient Eurasian world. The term refers not only to a specific ornamental style in which stylised zoomorphic motifs were used extensively, which encapsulate a particular world view embedded in the lifestyle of pastoral Eurasian nomads. The Scythians were replaced in their role as the great masters of the Eurasian Steppe by the Sarmatian tribes, a group of nomadic tribes of Iranian origin, who arrived from the Urals region and took control of the Western Eurasian Steppes from the 3rd century BC until the 3rd century AD. Their goldsmiths enhanced the animal style art with their creative adaptation of the Hellenistic polychrome style extensively using semi-precious stone inlays.
On the edge of the "barbaric" world of the Eurasian Steppe we find one of the greatest centres of ancient Greek civilization, the Bosporus Kingdom. From their capital in Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), the Greeks controlled enormous areas along the North Black Sea coast. The Greek Bosporus Kingdom as well as the Greek Pontic Kingdom centred to the south of the Black Sea, exerted cultural, economic and political influence on the Scythian and Sarmatian tribes; this initially occurred in the Classical period but continued into the Roman era.
With the exception of burial mounds in Altai, organic materials found in the archaeological complexes of the nomadic aristocracy have been poorly preserved. This has made it very difficult to reconstruct the original interior decorations of the nomadic yurts as well as the appearance of human garments and horse harness. Thus the objects of nomadic metalwork are a key source for the contemporary study of their culture. Many articles produced by local craftsmen reveal an animal style art unique to the Scythian-Sarmatian world; others shows that they were trained in Greek and Roman traditions. Some of the finest pieces were made by the best Greek masters to order, for the kings and chieftains of the nomadic tribes. Additionally, the richest burial sites of the nomadic aristocracy found in the South Urals reveal important objects of metalwork made in the Achaemenid tradition.
We know from ancient Greek sources, such as the reports of Herodotus, that the Scythians and Sarmatians tribes were devotees of gold and the majority of their possessions – not only jewellery but also drinking vessels, arms and even horse harness – were at least ornamented with gold, if not fashioned entirely from this precious metal, thereby exhibiting their extraordinary wealth. The artistic quality of many of these objects is far superior to those found on the Greek mainland, although similar techniques appear to have been used.
Silver was almost as popular as gold, and probably almost as valuable in the classical world. Some of the great silver vessels produced by Greek and Roman craftsmen are preserved in nomadic burial sites. The figures shown on silver vessels represent scenes of everyday life, military encounters and hunting as well as important mythological images and portraits of their kings and gods. Bronze remained the cheapest and most commonly used material for making helmets, shields and daggers and was also used to craft elaborate attachments for iron swords, elements of belts and horse harness made in animal style.
Major changes in the history of Eurasia occurred in the 5th century AD, when the Hunnic invasion introduced new cultural ideas to Western Eurasia from the Turkic world, deep inside Central Asia. These changes transformed the classical civilization that was by then in decline and, under the leadership of Attila, the Huns even threatened the very existence of the Roman Empire. After its fall, the eastern part of the Roman Empire assumed control of the remaining territories and is referred to as Byzantium. From this time onwards, the different nomadic tribes of Turkic origin (Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, Pechenegs, etc.) dwelled alongside the Byzantines, and their chieftains had access to luxurious objects produced in Constantinople and given as gifts and bribes. Nomadic artists began to be greatly influenced by Byzantine art and many outstanding objects made in a cloisonné style using gold and garnet inlays have been found in nomadic complexes.
Although Byzantine influence on the early medieval nomadic cultures remains the most significant, the unique artistic tradition of the nomadic tribes also drew upon Iranian sources. Both the Sasanian and the Sogdian artistic traditions that flourished in the Central Asia from the 5th to 8th centuries AD, can be seen to have had an impact. The Sogdians became known as the chief international traders, the so-called "Phoenicians of medieval times", and were in charge of the Silk Routes passing through the whole territory of Eurasia, connecting Byzantium and China. They created a new artistic tradition akin to Sasanian art and examples of outstanding animal and human imagery can be found not only on precious silver vessels but also on silk costumes. Hundreds of richly decorated silver vessels have been found in the Kama River region as well as in the area of the Sub-Urals. The items reached these remote lands through the hands of the traders from Sogdiana as well as from Khwarazm, a separate sedentary civilization that flourished to the north-west of Sogdiana. The Sogdian and Khwarazmian traders travelled north from what is today Uzbekistan in order to exchange silver vessels for expensive furs which they then sold to the Turkic kings and Muslim caliphs. Only a few examples of a local manufacture have survived from the workshops of the Turkic Qaganates; these precious vessels represent production of the gold and silversmiths serving the Turkic kings. The most common items of metalwork from this period include elaborate multiple fitments for sabres, belts, and horse harness, all of which were richly decorated with floral and geometric ornamentation.
During the period of the Khazar Qaganate, a major semi-nomadic state that emerged in the Western Eurasian Steppes during the 8th to 10th centuries AD, the so-called Saltovo culture united tribes of Turkic and Iranian origins together under a common cultural tradition that can be clearly seen in examples of their metalwork, especially on their belts, horse harness and sabres scabbards. It exerted its influence as far west as the Balkans (where Bulgarian tribes pushed by the Khazars created their own state at the beginning of the 8th century), and into Pannonia which was conquered by the Magyar tribes at the end of the 9th century after their migration westwards from Khazaria. During the Khazar period a new ornamental style with flower-shaped designs became the most prevalent form of artistic expression, replacing the geometric and the zoomorphic styles of the previous period. The image of lotus flower became the primary and the most recognizable motif on almost all the objects of Saltovo metalwork. Although anthropomorphic images from this period are very rare, the few examples that have survived provide unique information about the everyday live of the Khazars. The imagery demonstrates the strong influences of the decorative styles which can be seen on post-Sasanian and Sogdian silver vessels and silks, both of which were traded along the Central Asian and North Caucasian sections of the Silk Road during the 8th to 10th centuries. Likewise, the art of the Magyar and the Volga Bulghar silversmiths in the 10th to 13th centuries demonstrate clear familiarity with the works of post-Sasanian and Sogdian artists that passed through their lands.
In the Eastern Eurasian Steppes, a similar but quite different artistic tradition was created by the Uyghur tribes. The Uyghur Qaganate which flourished in the mid-8th to the mid-9th centuries was centred in the Mongolian Steppes, but after its destruction, the Uyghurs migrated to Xinjiang where they settled. Initially they accepted Buddhism, later, in the 760’s, they began influenced by the ideas of Manichaeism, beginning in the 11th century they converted to Islam. The Uyghurs preserved their syncretic art tradition which was later passed onto the art of Kyrgyz tribes who dwelled in Khakassia, in Southern Siberia. Apart from the silver vessels executed in the Turkic-Sogdian tradition, the masterpieces of the Uyghur Manichean art included mural cave-paintings, but due to the later Islamization of the Uyghurs, this art tradition disappeared.
Later on, during the second part of the 11th century, new patterns of the Central Asian Turkic art were brought to the Islamic world by the Seljuk tribes. They conquered the lands of Iran, Iraq and Asia Minor, eventually controlling a vast area extending from Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia until 12th century. Although the Seljuk artists quickly adopted techniques and imagery of Persian art, the Old Turkic traditions of human representation and animal imagery remain visible in their objects of metalwork as well as in their sculptures.
Another important imperial culture was created by the Mongols who, following their large-scale conquests in the beginning of the 13th century succeeded in uniting the Eastern and Western Eurasian territories. They created the vast Golden Horde Empire (the so-called Ulus Juchi) in Western Eurasia as well as the Chagatay Empire in Eastern Eurasia that flourished from the 1220s until the end of the 14th century. Before coming to Central Asia, Persia and Eastern Europe, the Mongol tribes conquered China and much of their metalwork show clear Chinese influence; this can be seen particularly in the pieces of jewellery, made using the technique of gold filigree, which were used as decoration on Mongol-period dresses. The Mongol artists also revived many ancient animal-style art patterns that were used on the belt elements as well as on the gold and the silver vessels. As a result of the close acquaintance with both the Central Asian and the Persian worlds, both the Khwarazmian and the Seljuk artistic traditions were integrated in the imperial Mongol style and can be easily seen in their vessels, weaponry, belts, and horse harnesses.
The Golden Horde Empire started to collapse at the end of the 14th century following attacks by a new Turkic conqueror, Timur (Tamerlan), who arrived from the great trading city of Samarkand. His descendants, the Timurids, established the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia and the Mughal Empire in India. Since the Timurid elites during the 14th century converted to Islam, their culture came into close contact with the Muslim world, and the strong Persian influence on their art became visible in metalwork, ceramics and tiles. To the west, the glorious thousand-year old Byzantine Empire was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks. As result of their large-scale conquests in the first part of the 15th century, culminating with the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, they created the magnificent Ottoman Empire that became a major player, not only in Western Eurasia, but also in Europe.
During the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow emerged in Western Eurasia following the collapse of the Golden Horde. It succeeded in bringing the different Turkic tribes that had lived in the Golden Horde under its rule. These people were commonly referred to by the Europeans as Tatars and included the Kazan, the Astrakhan, the Sibir, and also the Nogay Khanates. During the time of the conquest many objects of metalwork were taken and melted down. Probably one of the best-known objects that did survive is the so-called Vladimir Monomakh's Golden Cap, dating from the early 14th century. This is a gold filigree skullcap elaborately ornamented with a scrolled gold overlay, inlaid with precious stones and pearls, and trimmed with sable.
The most exclusive works of ancient art belonging to the ancient Eurasian cultures form part of many museum collections across the world. They can be found in The British Museum and The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum and The Getty Museum, and in many German museums. The most comprehensive collection of Eurasian antiquities is, of course, held in The Hermitage. In recent times, important private collections have been formed and donated to the museums, such as The Metropolitan Museum and The Morgan Library Museum (by Eugene Thaw), and The Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva.
During the last two decades, many objects of ancient Eurasian Art have surfaced on the Western Art market, coming from both the old private European collections as well as from the collections coming from the territory of the former Soviet Union which were taken to the West by the emigrants following its collapse in the early 1990s. The original purchasing prices of the individual pieces on the antiquities market are still relatively very low because of the limited familiarity of the Western public with Eurasian antiquities compare to Classical antiquities. In the last years the Chinese buyers became active in exhibiting and purchasing works of ancient Eurasian art, particularly when they relate to the ancient cultures spread across the Silk Road that is considered in the establishment of ancient Chinese civilization. The process of building collections of masterpieces of Eurasian nomadic art has only begun.