“Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea: Image-Making in Eurasian Nomadic Societies, 700 BCE-500 CE” by Petya Andreeva

Ornament from the ‘Golden Man of Issyk’ from the book's cover Ornament from the ‘Golden Man of Issyk’ from the book's cover

The centrality of Central Asian nomads to world history has, after decades of neglect, more recently become something of a truism. If you’re not up on your Scythians, Saka, kurgans, Xiongnu, deer stones, Pazyryks and the like, there are better places to start than Petya Andreeva’s Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea, an analysis of the (mostly) iron-age objets-d’art of the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, which is detailed, granular and assumes more than a little familiarity with the peoples and history.

Nevertheless, anyone who has ever visited an exhibition or seen photographs of some of these artifacts, will recognize the themes that Andreeva documents.

 

Ordos-style bronze. Cernuschi Museum, Paris (from the book)
Ordos-style bronze. Cernuschi Museum, Paris (from the book)

It is animal-style imagery that dominates this art, the “defining corpus” of which, she writes, comes from “the period between the seventh and third centuries BCE”. The elements are abstracted and recombined in ways that defy unraveling, as in this description of a Ordos-style bronze:

 

the viewer can, upon a seriously concerted effort, untangle the following: a tiger’s body, numerous deer antlers with bird-head terminals emanating from the animal’s back and tail, sharp-toed paws which together with the sharp teeth and open jaw convey the predatory nature of the beast. So convoluted and perplexing is this fusion of zoomorphic parts that any attempt to pinpoint a prevailing organism ultimately fails. Meant to confront the normative, this fantastic beast offers a glimpse into an ‘inverted’ anatomy and represents the nomadic penchant for fabricated fauna.

 

In another:

 

the artisan has depicted disjoined fragments from different animals while completely reversing the order of anatomical configurations. Animals are still dissected, fragmented, reorganised … the ‘deer-ness’ is implied through the doe ears, the rams indicated through textured horns, and the raptor evinced through a delicately curved beak in profile. But the outcome is not an organic composite which is able to breathe, eat or fulfil other vital functions. For example, the legs do not have a body attached to them, and the heads are hanging in a vacuum…

 

For those who have seen such objects in museums or as illustrations in a book, Andreeva’s synthesis is illuminating. She includes carefully-selected photos for her examples; it is easy to follow what she is saying.

 

Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea: Image-Making in Eurasian Nomadic Societies, 700 BCE-500 CE, Petya Andreeva (Edinburgh University Press, March 2024)
Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea: Image-Making in Eurasian Nomadic Societies, 700 BCE-500 CE, Petya Andreeva (Edinburgh University Press, March 2024)

What is perhaps more striking is the geographic extent of such imagery, from as far west as the Black Sea and Thrace to well into what is now China. Andreeva tracks the influence as far as Southern China and Japan: traditions, therefore, that crossed ethnicities and languages. She even finds echoes in classical Persian monumental bas-reliefs, and provides evidence that the Central Asian motifs predate the Persian ones, showing that influence went from the steppe to the established metropolises rather than the other way around. She deduces that the origins of this artistic style is to be found in the bronze age “deer stone” monoliths.

So popular was it that the sedentary societies around the periphery also got into the act although, perhaps predictably, China made the most of it:

 

Beginning around the fourth century BCE, the nomadic market was already starting to present an increasingly alluring possibility to many political players across Eurasia… Ultimately, however, only China could maintain meaningful trade relations with the nomads over a long period of time… Indeed, zoomorphism was already so entrenched into the visual vocabulary and design strategies of Chinese artists that catering to the tastes of nomadic clients was not difficult to maintain in the long run.

 

The tradition began to be diffused with other (and in many cases, Chinese) elements in the last century or two BCE, although the style echoed well into the second millennium CE and even, she argues, into present-day Central Asian shyrdak felt carpets.

 

Andreeva advises not reading too much into these shared traditions:

 

animal-style imagery was not indebted to widely shared religious beliefs. How likely is it that the Iron Age Thracians and the Bronze Age Siberian people shared a system of spirituality which resulted in the same approach to syncretic antlers?

 

Andreeva’s case for what was going on—what the designs meant and what purpose they served—is deeply grounded in theory:

 

the history of nomadic image-making was defined by tensions or fluctuations between these two polarities – the wish to respect, even celebrate the fauna around them and the simultaneous desire to keep a safe conceptual distance from the beast through excessive stylisation or metonymic expression.

 

But although this and her extensions on the socio-political relevance and purpose seem reasonable, without written records or any direct evidence, they still seem speculative. Since we can’t get into the heads of the people who lived, we’ll never know for sure.

Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea is an academic text and Andreeva makes few concessions to the lay reader; nevertheless, her descriptions and comparisons are so clear, that even a quick read will make the next museum visit that much more enriching and comprehensible.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.