Trade and Trophy: Near Eastern Imports in the Sarmatian Culture

By: Oleksandr Symonenko, Institute of Archaeology, Kyiv, Glassman Holland Research Fellow

The main purpose of my project was the study of Near Eastern artifacts from Sarmatian graves. The Sarmatians were Iranian-speaking nomads who inhabited the territory stretching from the Altai Mountains up to the Danube from the 3rd – 4th centuries CE. The Near Eastern artifacts objects came to the Sarmatians in two main ways, as military trophies and as traded merchandise.

Spoils of war included Montefortino- and Pilos-type helmets and fragments of body armor found at Sarmatian sites. The helmets came to the Sarmatians during the Mithridates’ wars against Rome between 88 – 63 BCE. They were used by the Galatian soldiers of Mithridates’ army and were passed on from them to the Sarmatians. The Roman scale armors of the lorica plumata type, found in Sarmatian graves, were most probably seized by the Sarmatians during the war of 47 BCE in Asia Minor. Fragments of Parthian type armor were found in Sarmatian kurgans in the second half of the 1st  – early 2nd centuries CE. Such trophies fell into Sarmatian hands during their battles with the Parthians in 72 CE.

Perhaps the trophies of the Sarmatian raids into the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom in the late 2nd century BCE are the Parthian bowls and Achaemenid phialai with Parthian and Chorasmian inscriptions found in the graves of rich nomads in the Ural and western Siberia regions. Also several silver gilded bowls manufactured during the Late Hellenistic Period in Seleucid or Parthian workshops were found in Sarmatian kurgans. Judging from their dating, they could also have been seized by Sarmatians during the plundering of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom in the late 2nd century BCE.

Most of the Near Eastern objects, however, came to the Sarmatians as goods. Among the jewelry of Near Eastern origin were Egyptian gold finger rings and fibula with the crown of Isis and two Ptolemaic gold armlets with figures of Eros and Psyche, found in kurgans in the Ukraine. It is interesting that all of the Near Eastern jewelry from Sarmatian graves was made at least 100 years earlier than their burial date.

A group of large eye beads and degraded mask-beads of eastern Mediterranean origin were used as amulets on Sarmatian horse harnesses dated to the late 3rd  – early 2nd centuries BCE. The eye beads of some types dated to the late 1st century CE and faience amulets in the shapes of scarabs, lions, frogs etc., found in the Sarmatian burials, were made in Roman Egypt.

Some glass vessels from Sarmatian graves also originated in the Near East. They are the Achaemenid calix of the late 4th – 3rd centuries BCE; kantharoi of the Late Hellenistic types from workshops in coastal Syria; fragments of millefiori vessels, probably made in Alexandria, Egypt; faceted beaker of Eggers type 187 of the same manufacture; balsamarii manufactured in the workshops of Syria and Judea; eastern Mediterranean jugs of violet glass; and a faience dish considered to have been made in Egypt or Parthia.

These are but a few of the spectacular objects offering evidence of contacts between Sarmatians and the Near East. Their rarity and assortment indicate the indirect and sporadic character of these contacts. It is interesting that all Near Eastern objects found in Sarmatian graves are dated to the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. In the graves of the Late Sarmatian period (second half of the 2nd – 4th centuries CE) Near Eastern items are absent. Most likely, this is a reflection of the change of trade relations of the North Pontic cities, when most Roman imports derived from European provinces of the empire. I wish to thank the Albright Institute for the award of the Glassman Holland Fellowship which has afforded me an excellent opportunity to further my research.

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