The magnificent Umutkor ornaments can be related to a tradition of high-status dragon and beast terminals made from the late 4th century onwards. These were introduced to the west by groups of horse-riding nomads from the east, known as the Huns, who moved into the region northeast of the Black Sea in the late fourth century. Allying themselves with warriors from local tribes such as the Alans, they raided the agricultural settlements and cities on the northern shores of the Black Sea, eventually forcing large numbers of Germanic-speaking peoples to flee to the safety of the Roman Empire. This was the beginning of a period when Hunnic confederations, often composed of people from different ethnic backgrounds, were major political powers.
Torcs, necklaces and armrings with beast-head terminals have been found from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Black Sea and Carpathians. In the few cases where the finds have context, it is clear that these ornaments were worn by people of the highest social status. Two dragon terminals, for example, were found at Kara-Agač (southeast of Astana in modern Kazakhstan) in a kurgan burial with a stone-lined chamber (Werner 1956, pp. 65-66, pl. 31.5-6). The person in the tomb, buried alongside a horse, wore personal ornaments that included a diadem of stamped gold sheet with bells/pendants mounted on the upper rim, an amber necklace and a single earring. Also near the skull were ornamental terminals in the form of fantastic dragon heads. Each of these has a wide open mouth and a projecting forward-curving horn set above garnet eyes. Individual amber-coloured glass cabochons alternate with triangular clusters of granulation down the openwork tube of the terminal end. A long granulated bead and four stemmed green glass cups were also found in the burial. The presence of amber beads and a diadem (found only in female Hunnic graves) suggests this was a high-status female burial.
A single dragon terminal, found near Stavropol (Karjaskom settlement) in the northern Caucasus is related to the Kara Agač pieces (Skalon 1964; Zasetskaja 1975, nos. 17-18). It is decorated in a similar polychrome style with garnet cabochons and tightly packed triangular clusters of fine granulation. It has an open mouth with bared teeth and, instead of the horn-like projections on the Kara-Agac pieces, the Stavropol terminal has two wolf-like ears raised above its head with a loop-in-loop chain running from the ears backwards to a cup bezel. Like the Umutkor collar it has a loop in the mouth for securing the ends. Other finds in the same vicinity have parallels in Alanic material from the fourth and fifth centuries and the style of polychrome decoration found on the terminals from Kara Agač and Stavropol is dated by Zasetskaja to the second Hunnic period, from circa 378 – 420/430 AD (Zasetskaja 1994, figs. 13, 25).
Werner, who interpreted the Kara Agač terminals as bird heads, thought that they might be headdress ornaments of the type known as kolty, but Skalon showed they related to torc and bracelet terminals (Skalon 1964). Less fantastic versions of fanged beasts, for example, form the terminals of a rigid hoop torc from Kerč in the Crimea, with hook and loop attachments in the mouths fastening the hoop. These have a wolfish air, as do the creatures on heavy gold armrings found at Taman. The terminals in a jewellery hoard of the second half of the fifth-century found at Şomeseni in modern Romania are in the form of generic beasts (Horedt and Protase 1970). These have been clipped from the ends of a thick loop-in-loop chain and, like the Umutkor collar, were secured through ties attached to loops in the mouths.
As the Kara Agač and Stavropol dragon terminals lacked metal hoops or chains, it is possible that these were originally attached to a textile braid or trim of an overgarment such as a kaftan. These would correlate to the woven wire strap of the Umutkor collar worn with a robe. The length of the collar would encircle the neck so that the would rest on the upper chest region of either a man or woman.
Returning to the cloisonné of the Umutkor terminals, the workmanship is typical of many Hunnic-period ornaments where craftsmen had access to garnet stones of excellent quality, quite possibly from garnet deposits in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan (Adams 2011). It is typical of Hunnic workmanship that goldworking techniques such as granulation are superbly controlled but the workshops had few lapidary skills and relied upon traded stones, pre-cut to certain shapes such as the rectangles on the Umutkor terminals. The cloisonné patterns on the tail ends of the terminals, incorporating a central circle, have parallels in Eastern Roman and Byzantine cloisonné made over a long period of time from the first half of the fifth to the middle of the seventh century (Adams 2000). The flexible strap of the Umutkor collar finds a parallel in Byzantine straps woven of silver chains incorporated into the silver harness found on a sacrificed horse in Qustul Tomb 3 in Nubia (Emery 1938, pls. 59 and 61). This royal burial dates to the late fourth century (Török 1987, p. 154).
Economic and cultural exchange between east and west characterised the Hunnic period and was enhanced during the period of Attila’s control of the Carpathian Basin (circa 430-455) when the Byzantines paid gold tribute to keep the Hunnic confederation at bay. By the middle of the fifth century, some exceptional pieces of cloisonné appear in eastern contexts. These include the gold and garnet cloisonné mounts from a dagger scabbard from Lake Borovoye (now Lake Burabay) in northern Kazakhstan (Zasetskaja 1993). These are usually dated to the late fifth or first half of the sixth century when the Hepthalites were at the height of their power. These Huns, who spoke an eastern Iranian language, ruled from their strongholds in Tokharistan (modern north-east Afghanistan) and by ca 500 AD their influence and control extended into adjacent territories of Central Asia. A dagger and scabbard found in Tomb 14 at Gyerim-ro Tomb no. 14, Gyeongju South Korea is directly comparable in form (but not cloisonné decoration) to the Borovoye dagger. The Koreans date the Gyerim-ro tomb to the fifth century AD, suggesting the dagger was made either in a Central Asian or Black Sea workshop (Silla: 2013, National Treasure no 635). Finally, we should note the garnet stones decorating the gold death masks found in eastern Hunnic tombs at Boma in Xinjiang in western China and at Shamsi in the Kyrgyz Republic, dated to the late 5th or early 6th century AD (Attila 2007, pp. 134-44).
As Werner pointed out many years ago, the grave goods in the Kara Agač burial reflect privileged access to goods in transit on the Silk Route, with amber beads traded from the Baltic and Near Eastern glass cups that find parallels in vessels found in the famous Gold Crown Tomb (Geumgwanchong) in South Korea (Werner 1956, pp. 65, 74). This may have been the burial of King Isagi, whose name appears on the scabbard of a ring-pommeled sword found in the tomb. Assuming the Umutkor terminals were found in the region of the modern Kyrgyz Republic where their nineteenth-century owners lived, these important high-status jewels stand at the crossroads of the Hunnic-period cultural continuum from Black Sea to Central Asia, across western and northern China to the Korean peninsula and Japan.
Adams, N. 2000: “The Development of Early Garnet Inlaid Ornaments”, in Kontake zwischen Iran, Byzanz und der Steppe im 6.-7. Jarhhundert, C. Balint, ed., Varia Archeologia Hungarica 10, Budapest, Naples and Rome, 2000, pp. 13-70;
Adams, N., Lüle, C. and Passmore, E. 2011: “Lithois Indikois: Preliminary Characterisation of Some Garnet Seal Stones from Central and South Asia”, in ‘Gems of Heaven’: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, ca. A.D. 200-600, C. Entwistle and N. Adams, eds., British Museum Research Publication 177, London, 2011, pp. 25-38;
Attila 2007: Attila und die Hunnen, B. Anke and H. Externbrink, eds., exh.cat. Historischen Museum der Pfalz Speyer, 2007;
Emery, W. B. and Kirwan, L. P. 1938: The Royal Tombs of Ballana and Qustul, Mission Archeologie de Nubie, 1929-1934, Cairo;
Silla 2013: Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom, Lee, S. and Leidy, D.P. et al., exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, 2013.
Skalon, К.М. 1962: “Изображение дракона в искусстве IV-V веков (The dragon image in art of the IV-V centuries), Сообщения Государственного Эрмитажа XXII, 1962, pp. 40-43.
Török, L. 1987: Late Antique Nubia. Antaeus Communicationes Ex Instituto Archaeologico Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Budapest, 1987;
Werner, J. 1956: Beiträge zur Archaologie des Attila-Reiches, 2 vols., Bayerishes Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophische-historische Klasse 38 A-B, Munich;
Zasetskaja, I.P, 1975: Золотые украшения гуннской эпохи. По материалам Особой кладовой Государственного Эрмитажа, [Golden Ornaments of the Hun Period: On the Basis of the particular collections of the State Hermitage Museum], Leningrad, 1975;
Zasetskaja, I. 1993: “To the Dating of the Dagger from Borovoye Lake find in Kazakhstan”, in L'armée romaine et les barbares du Ille au VIle siècle, F. Vallet and M. Kazanski (eds), AFAM, Rouen, in association with Saint Germain en Laye, Musée des Antiquités nationales, 1993, pp. 437-444;
Zasetskaja, I. 1994: Культура кочевников южнорусских степей в гуннскую эпоху (конец IV-V вв.) [Nomadic Culture of the southern Russian steppes in the Hunnic period, late IV-V centuries], Saint Petersburg, 1994.
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