Home < Symposium
(2015)Unearthed early silks from the Silk Road in Russia
Svetlana Pankova(State Hermitage Museum, Russia)

This paper will present general information about early Chinese silks found in archaeological sites in Russia as well as more detailed knowledge about those kept in the State Hermitage museum. The silks under consideration belong to the period from the 3rd century BC up to the 3rd– 4th centuries AD. Preserved samples come from the burials located in several regions: Crimea, Western Siberia (middle course of the river Irtysh), Tuva (upper Yenisey basin), Minusinsk hollow (middle course of the Yenisey river), the Altay mountains and Transbaical district. Unearthed silks from the Asian part of Russia are stored in Omsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology (Novosibirsk), Kyakhta Local History Museum, Khakassia national Museum of Regional Studies (Abakan), State Historical museum (Moscow), State Hermitage museum (Saint-Petersburg) and other institutions.
Archaeological collections of the Hermitage museum comprise a few pieces of early monochrome figured silks from Crimea, but much more numerous are silks from Southern Siberian burials: jin-silks as well as plain tabby weaves and embroideries. They are artifacts from elite level tombs at Pazyryk and Bashadar (Altay Mountains, 3rd century BC), silk pieces from Ilmovaya Padj burial ground, belonging to the Xiongnu (Transbaikal district, 1st c. BC–1stc. AD) and fragments from the Oglakhty cemetery (Minusinsk hollow, 3rd-4th c. AD). A collection from the Aimyrlyg cemetery in Tuva (2nd century AD), containing many plain silk pieces, has just recently come into the museum. 
Unearthed silks from the mentioned burial sites in Siberia refer to different ancient cultures. Points of the silk departure to Siberian regions were also different as well as the ways of their acquisition and use by local inhabitants. In the elite nomadic burials of the Altay Mountains silks served as decoration of locally made objects (headgear, horse cloth, saddle cloth) and were definitely luxury objects. They find their parallels among textiles discovered in Changsha and Mashan tombs of the Zhan-Guo period. In the Xiongnu graves in the Transbaikal region, most likely of the ‘middle’ social level, silks served mostly as inner and outer close-fitting covers of wooden coffins and might represent a loan feature taken from the Han funeral rite.

Oglakhty cemetery in Minusinsk hollow, that comprises ‘middle’ or ‘common’ level burials, is up to the present the northernmost site in which jin silks have been found. They served not only as decorations of the objects used during the lifetime but mostly as parts of the artifacts produced specifically for the funerals and the afterlife (burial ‘puppets’, a model of a quiver). The same was true also for the plain silk fragments which were placed under the gypsum masks covering the faces of the dead. Samples of both the plain and polychrome silks have recently being studied in the Hermitage Laboratory for a scientific and technical expert evaluation in terms of their weaving technology, fiber and dye analyses. The information obtained adds a lot to the results of the previous investigations undertaken in the 1970s by K. Riboud and E. Lubo-Lesnichenko. Most of the counterparts for the Oglakhty silks originate from the burials near Loulan and Niya in the Tarim basin.

There is a common situation when silks unearthed from the same burial site but excavated in different times are kept in different museums. The fact makes it necessary to study both parts of the collections in line.

A lot of the silks mentioned above have been already partly studied and published. However most of available silk finds still need further investigation and detailed colorful publication.


Institution Members

Individual Member