The other side of the Great Wall

Like the much smaller wall built by Hadrian in Britain, the Great Wall of China carved a dividing line between a highly sophisticated civilization and what that same civilization could only regard as a seething mass of rapacious barbarians. Although neither fortification work was, in the long run, able to stop the tribes, in both cases history was kinder to the wall-builders – literate cultures that left comprehensive records of their past and were so remarkable in their achievements as to deservedly hog scholarly attention. But rather sooner for the Picts and Scots, and later for the nomadic peoples of the eastern steppes, archaeology came to sketch small doodles on the largely blank sheets of barbarian history. Some of these are now on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, in a new exhibition that focuses on the tribes the Chinese were so eager to keep out that they built a 2,400-kilometer-long, nine-meter-high wall to that purpose in the late third century BC. «Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation,» which was inaugurated last week, brings together some 80 pieces from the New York-based foundation, and comes to Greece on the first stop of a European tour. Archaeologist Dimitris Plantzos, who coordinated the display on behalf of the museum, sees the works as representative of an art that is «practical and laconic, but also impressive due to its simplicity.» «They open a window on man’s environment before he became a city-dweller, when he lived in social groups that were often strictly hierarchical and socially stratified but had not yet lost their direct contact with nature,» he said. The artifacts – ornaments, weapons, vessels and ritual objects – were made in the second and first millennia BC and come from northwestern China and Inner Mongolia. They belonged to people from diverse ethnic groups such as the fierce Xiongnu or Hsiung-nu (the Asian Huns who terrorized the Chinese for centuries), the Xianbei and the Wuhan. As exhibition curator Trudy S. Kawami, director of research at the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, points out, «the mobile lifestyle of the steppe-dwellers required art objects that were easy to wear, carry or pack. They favored bronze for its strength, light weight and resilience.» Metalworking was probably undertaken by a distinct, itinerant group among the pastoralist steppe peoples who performed a function similar to that of the tinkers in English tradition. Although the average nomad family needed metal, its requirements were not such as to keep a smith employed throughout the year. Therefore, metal goods were most likely traded at regular fairs at which nomads would converge from large areas of the steppe. Although the horseriding tribes adopted metallurgical traditions developed in China and western Asia, they would have mined their own ore from sources within the steppes. A large part of the exhibition consists of ornate buckle plaques decorated with animal forms. Archaeologists believe the size and ornamentation of the buckles would have corresponded to their wearers’ social status, while specific animals may have had clan or totemic associations. Backed with wood occasionally lined with felt, the buckles and other decorative features were attached to the nomads’ leather, sleeved jackets that were clasped with leather belts from which hung tools and weapons. Men wore trousers and women long skirts, while members of both sexes sported long riding boots. Despite their frequent wars with the Chinese, the steppe peoples also traded furs, leather, the prized «celestial» Ferghana horses, cattle and goods from the west for Imperial silk. Chinese princesses are recorded to have been given in marriage to barbarian rulers whose favor the Empire courted – not always with success. One of the main Chinese gains from their conflict with the nomads was a better knowledge of Central Asian geography, which eventually led to the development of the Silk Road. «The steppe peoples’ intimate knowledge of the routes across the steppes and mountains, the sources of water and the seasonal changes in climate were invaluable to the caravans,» Kawami says. «By guiding and supplying the trade caravans, the steppe-dwellers played an essential role in the exchange of goods and ideas between East and West.» The exhibition runs until September 14 at the Cycladic Art Museum on 4 Neophytou Douka Street. Tel. 010.722.8321-3.