Deer or Horses with Antlers? Wooden Figures Adorning Herders in the Altai

Abstract

Among the burials of horse herders who lived in the 4th–3rd centuries BCE Altai Mountains of South Siberia were some that contained small wooden figures of four-legged hoofed animals that represent horses, deer, or hybrid creatures. They decorated headgear buried with select commoners of the Pazyryk Culture. Although the people, material possessions, and horses of the elites were frequently ornamented with imagery often associated with the so-called Scytho-Siberian animal style, these figurines are generally more realistic and less stylized representations of natural creatures, either cervids or horses. There is, however, ambiguity in these representations; in some cases, figures that are horses have inset recesses on the tops of their heads, in addition to holes for ear inserts. This recalls the elaborate headdresses on some horses outfitted with large displays of antlers or horns made of wood, leather, and felt buried with the Pazyryk leaders. The implication of this ambiguity is explored here. Horses were “cultural capital and tokens of clout” (see Andreeva Introduction, this volume) in the Pazyryk Culture, as well as the base of the economy. Deer were foundational to older belief systems in Siberia. The commingling of horse, mountain goat/ibex, and deer features in Pazyryk Culture imagery has inspired this study

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