«BIRD-HEAD» OR «HORSE-HEAD» SCEPTRES — A REAL OR APPARENT DILLEMA?


Keywords: Carpathian Basin, Caucasus, sceptres, Great Steppe communities, migrations, horse breeding. Я. Хохоровські

Abstract

Thanks to their visual attractiveness the bronze sceptres resembling small axe-heads but enriched with zoomorphic elements rank among the most exclusive and interesting objects of ancient bronzeworking. Late Bronze Age examples of such artefacts are known from two separate regions in Europe: north-west Ciscaucasia (3 pieces) and the Carpathian Basin (7 pieces). Cultural affiliation of these few albeit highly interesting objects was first discussed by J. Werner, who in 1961 characterised Central European finds of «battle axes-batons» when presenting a specimen discovered in an Early Hallstatt grave from Předměřice on the upper Elbe River (Czech Republic). Due to the shape of the top («head»), which resembled a stylised horse head set on an arching neck, he described such objects as «horse-head» sceptres (Pferdekopfszepter). The issue was re-addressed in 1965 by V. A. Ilinskaja, who interpreted the find from Předměřice as a kind of a horseman’s pick. In her opinion, the contours of Pre-Scythian and Scythian sceptres resembled stylised eagle heads, so she introduced the descriptor «bird-headed» (птицеголовые скипетры). All the researchers addressing Central European sceptres terminating in horse heads have been unanimous in noting the absence of local traditions for this type of zoomorphic style in the Late Bronze Age bronze metallurgy of Central Europe. Looking for the original inspiration for such artefacts and for the “horse head” motif, they have commonly pointed to the Caucasus, and in particular to the milieu of the Koban (Protomeotic) culture.

Addressing this issue requires above all the a stylistic analysis of both Central European and Caucasian sceptres, the analysis that would consider similarities and differences observable in the manner of rendering zoomorphic representations. In the case of two sceptres from the Carpathian Basin: found in the Sбrviz channel in eastern Transdanubia and in the Turiec Basin (i. e. in the former komitat of Tъrуc in eastern Slovakia), we are undoubtedly dealing with naturalistic representations of horse heads set on arching necks, with species characteristics clearly discernible. In the approach to stylistic analysis of zoomorphic representations formulated by A. R Kantorovich (2016), these two representations were inspired by the «natural prototype» («природный прототип»), an actual existing animal «model», whose characteristics were imitated by the artist-metallurgist to an extent determined by limitations imposed by the bronze casting technology on the one hand and the artist’s own skills on the other. They are the result of reproducing in bronze either a visual impression elicited by observation of characteristic features of a specific animal, or an image of these animals engrained in common consciousness. The realism of representation is emphasised by elements of harness (straps or perhaps reins) depicted on the necks of both figurines. This is particularly evident when we look en face at the horse head adorning the sceptre from Sбrviz. In contrast, there are absolutely no elements there that would depict in the same realistic manner the head or beak of a bird. The important element in the rendering of the horse head, one which I noted some time ago (Chochorowski 1993), is the clearly marked imitation of the short, stiff mane running along the arching neck.

The diversity of forms among the remaining sceptres known from the Carpathian Basin and adjacent areas is also very telling, in particular with respect to the modelling of the horse head. Relatively similar to each other, the specimens from Prьgy and Sоnmihai de Pădure show simplification and certain reduction of species characteristics in the head itself, although the mane crowning the massive neck is still well-discernible. As in the pair of sceptres discussed above, they also have clearly marked pointed ears. In the sceptres from Batina and Předměřice, the head is almost undiscernible from the neck in outline, and the mane modelling is all but vestigial. In the artefact from Batina it is only marked as a narrow ridge running along the curved neck all the way from the shaft hole to the end of the «head», with the ears (?) marked by two small knobs, one on each side. If we follow Т. Kemenczei (2005) in including to this group a stray find from Bйkйs-Hagymбsi, we have an example which, while maintaining the overall morphological form of a sceptre with a «blunt» head, shows total disappearance of the zoomorphic motif. Apart from the mushroom-shaped butt and a similar termination of the curved «socket», the only similarity between this artefact and the naturalistically modelled examples discussed above is the fact that the «base» of the neck or mane (?) seems to be distinguished by mouldings. As a result, at the end of the process the original idea becomes represented by the very shape of a sceptre, and it expresses the same symbolism as the naturalistic artefacts.

The above analysis seems to prove that the collection of bronze sceptres from the Carpathian Basin represents an autonomous phenomenon, revealing internal changeability consistent with logical principles of a «typological sequence / line». Gradual departure from the naturalistic manner in representing the «natural prototype» of a horse head was probably due to the trivialisation of the motif which, initially innovative, with time became common and lost its «communicative freshness» in social narration. The owners of sceptres maintained their status by the very fact of their ownership, without a need for manifesting the iconographic symbol of the role and social function attached to the sceptre.

Thus, the bronze sceptres from the Carpathian Basin are a fully autonomous phenomenon, one which emerged at some point point at the second half or end of the 10th century as a sort of indicator of the new social-cultural order. The main characteristics of this new order included a pastoral economy with an important role (important enough to influence the European system of distribution of goods — Sherratt 1993) of selective breeding of horse breeds of steppe origins, and hierarchic social structures with distinct status markers. These characteristics are rooted in the cultural identity of Great Steppe communities, shaped by specific environmental conditions and a long — sometimes reaching as far back as the Eneolithic — accumulation of existential experience. As a result of migrations of aggressive groups of steppe shepherd-warriors looking for ecological niches advantageous to their pastoral economy, these characteristics were «implanted» into the Carpathian Basin in the second half of the 10th century. With time, the newcomers became integrated with local populations, contributing to the integration process with their own package of social-cultural behaviours. Their contribution was particularly evident in the sphere of specialised horse breeding and outstanding skills in using these animals, both for riding and traction (Chochorowski 1987). This package of achievements and cultural experience was an important innovation in the European spectrum of economic strategies and, in a short time (maximum two generations), allowed for full integration of the «steppe people», and for the adoption of a significant portion of their civilisational package in the local environment.

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2020-04-02
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Chochorowski, J. (2020). «BIRD-HEAD» OR «HORSE-HEAD» SCEPTRES — A REAL OR APPARENT DILLEMA? . Archaeology and Early History of Ukraine, 36(3), 35-78. https://doi.org/10.37445/adiu.2020.03.01