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Joseph McMullan on the Pazaryk Carpet

Joseph McMullan on the Pazaryk Carpet

In the summer Of 1957, I was privileged to view for a few short hours, the prehistoric carpet excavated by the U.S.S.R. archeologists Rudenko and Griasnor, which is now on exhibition in the Hermitage.

The carpet was extracted from kurgen number Five, a frozen grave located near the Tenesei River in the Altai region, together with a large variety of other artifacts, which exhibited certain characteristics of Scythian art, all dating from approximately 400 B. C.

Imbedded in solid ice, it has survived in almost perfect condition, as the ice apparently formed shortly after the burial was complete and the tomb covered over.

The rug is nearly square, approximately two meters in length and breadth. There are four colors, all clear and bright, little or no fading, namely, red, yellow, green and blue. With the exception of small areas eaten by insects or small animals, all of the wools seemed to be in excellent health. However, these spots did enable observation of technique, which otherwise would have been impossible.

l. to r. Joseph McMullan (kilt), W. Russell Pickering, H. McCoy Jones, Ralph Yohe.

The large central field, also one border, displays a lotus pattern practically identical with the well-known Khorsabad rock relief, Assyrian about 800 B. C. Two minor borders enclose within beaded squares with rounded corners, griffins of a type generally familiar in this era. However, the most significant figures are displayed in the two major borders. First comes a series of peacefully grazing elk, moving from right to left. The snub snout and broad webbed antlers of this animal bring it to close kindred with the modern American moose and the Ancient Irish Elk.

These animals are grazers, sometimes feeding under water. They are in sharp contrast to the sharp snout and skeletonized or spiked antlers common to most of the deer family.

The second pattern comprises a series of horsemen moving from left to right alternating with grooms on foot, leading spare mounts.

The elk shown in the primary border is native to Central Asia and Siberia. It is not found in Assyrian or in the subsequent art of the Iranian plateau or the Caucasus.

It is impossible to miss the close connection between the knights and their grooms in style costume and drawing and the Persepolis reliefs.

Omission of the elk from the design would strongly indicate Persian manufacture. This is still a possibility as a survivor of the Scythian penetration into Persia from about 700 B. C. but its presence cannot be overlooked.

Although executed with assurance and skill, a provincial origin is indicated in three distinct places.

  • Near the technical top of the fabric as the weaver was bringing her work to a close, she found difficulty in spacing basic designs.
  • In the outer griffin border, two small floral rosettes are inserted. A similar pair of rosettes, much larger in scale, appear in the horsemen border.
  • Finally, in the lotus border the weaver has inserted two rows of chevrons, drawn in two scales, one above the other.

Introduction of patterns entirely unrelated to the basic theme is a sign of provincial work. The weaver, not under rigid control of a court or commercial factory, inserted these figures in order to solve an awkward space problem, which permitted her to have the basic design elements to reasonably fill the corners.

Black and white illustrations available in publication bring to us clear representation of all the designs under discussion. No adequate or even nearly adequate color representation is as yet available.

Analysis pro and con will certainly continue as the rug, plus many other objects from this and kindred grave sites become better known.

Technique is quite another matter. Due to the early dating, it is of decisive importance. The sudden appearance of a closely woven carpet with a very short pile, presumably knotted, rather than with a cut loop, challenges most previous theories. A few scattered fragments such as those excavated by Sir Aural Stein are knotted, but so coarsely so, it seemed they may have marked the beginning of knotting.

As the carpet is enclosed behind a glass frontal, it was impossible to handle it. Concentration on worn or eaten areas disclosed a warp and weft of wool, and a pile of the same material.

Enough such places made it possible to observe the method by which the pile was secured by the foundation thus permitting an analysis. Pile roots are clearly visible. After examination by eye with good light in all logical places, it is quite clear this is true knotting, of the so-called Turkish or Ghiordes type.

It was difficult to secure an accurate knot count, but the estimate Of 240 knots to the square inch, as published by Rudenko, seems quite justified.

Respectfully submitted,
Joseph V. McMullan
Harvard University,
The Fogg Museum

Reprinted with permission from W. Russell. Pickering's, "don't forget to smell the flowers along the way"

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