Opening of New Permanent Exposition 'Moshchevaya
Balka: A Monument to the North Caucasian Silk Road'
On 7 December 2007, in the Caucasian Halls a new permanent exposition was opened 'Moshchevaya Balka: A Monument to the North Caucasian Silk Road’.
Unusual in many respects - the archaeological site of the Moshchevaya Balka burial ground (8th-9th century) is located high in the north west of the Caucasian Mountains, in the upper reaches of the Bolshaya Laba River (a left tributary of the Kuban River). A deep, narrow ravine leads to the Laba pass, leading through the Greater Caucasus to the south, to the Abkhazia Range (ancient Apsilia) and further on to the Black Sea. The burial site is located on curtain terraces at a height greater than a thousand metres above sea level. The name of the river and burial ground are derived from the Russian word moshchi meaning "relics": the Russian population which came to work the region in the 19th century evidently came across mummified burials which they associated to holy relics.
The peculiarity of the burial site is the unusual dryness of the ground. This as well as the custom of tightly walling up the burials (in caves and stone tombs), often led to the mummification of the interred bodies, but most importantly ensured that burial items made from organic material were largely intact, an extremely rare event in archaeology. The exposition features fabrics, fur, leather, wood, and entire costumes, etc. Their appearance differs so markedly from ancient finds that the first archaeologists who gathered items here at the beginning of the 20th century, (N.I. Veselovsky and N.I. Vorobiev), did not say that they were archaeological artifacts when giving them to two St. Petersburg ethnographical museums. Half a century later these items were united at the State Hermitage Museum by the efforts of the director, I.A. Orbeli, but even then, these items remained a mystery about which little was known.
It was at the State Hermitage Museum that research was begun which continued for many years into these artifacts and the problems associated with them. Thanks to the work of the collection’s curator À.À. Ierusalimskaya, a doctor of history and a senior researcher at the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum, that Moshchevaya Balka is today considered an archaeological site of international significance. Her work began with the old museum collections which led onto a small State Hermitage expedition to the actual site at Moshchevaya Balka. Particular attention should initially focus on "unusual" finds which have opened up to us for the first time the daily life, funeral rites and various belief systems of the local Adygean and Adygean-Alan tribes of the early middle ages. The direct connections of the archaeological finds with those of the traditional items of the peoples in the northern Caucasus is often impressive.
There is also another subject which arose in the process of studying Moshchevaya Balka and that is the Silk Road, the ancient trade route in ancient and mediaeval times, which first connected the West with the Far East. Huge interest has been caused by the amazing collection for mediaeval times of silk fabrics: more than 300 examples have been found (several of them being classified as some of the finest examples of weaving from antiquity). This phenomenon at first seemed inexplicable: silk and silk carpets were after all considered to be as valuable as gold at this time. They were exclusive to the highest levels of society.
The explanation came from studying the textiles themselves and information from written sources: it lies in the geographic location of Moshchevaya Balka. Wars had been fought for control of the roads linking the western countries with the main suppliers of silk and valuable fabrics - China and Central Asia and silk had been an item for the diplomatic negotiations. The main barrier to direct contact between the West and the Far East had been Persia which had control of the western part of the Great Silk Road. Consequently western countries had continually sought routes around the Iranian barrier. One of these routes went through the Laba Pass and several other western Caucasian passes.
The longest route from West to East went along the Caucasus, through Khazar, to the Volga River and after crossing the Volga curved down to the south, which led down to the capital of Sogdiana, Samarkand. This route could either be completed at Sogdiana which had famous silks (Sogdiana was one of the most important exporters of silk to the West), or continue on to the main track of the Silk Road, towards the Far East into Turkestan and China. The archaeological finds of imported trading goods at Moshchevaya Balka (as well as several other burial sites, including àt Khasautsky) confirm this hypothetical reconstruction.
The imports exclusively consist of Chinese and Sogdian fabrics, from one side, and Byzantium and eastern Mediterranean on the other (there are no finds containing goods from Persia). Finally, the intrinsic connection of life in the Northern Caucasus with the Silk Road is authenticated by the Chinese Trader, with his personal business letters which make his visit to Moshchevaya Balka in the 8th century unquestionable.
The passage of the trade route along the northwest of the Caucasus doubtless had its influence on the local population - it was an important factor for the appearance here of several technical innovations (for example, the lathe). But the world of those people who came to this location, mainly with silks, being with them complicated artistic forms and foreign religions, as a rule, did not find a place in this unique society with their own traditions, clothes, beliefs and highly developed craftsmanship (which focused mainly on wood and leather).
Numerous other rare finds are being displayed for the first time here, enabling viewers to have a glance into the unique world of tribes on the Northern Caucasian Silk Road.
At the exhibition a woman’s burial in clothes from the beginning of the 9th century, and who has been subject to natural mummification is displayed for the first time (State Hermitage Museum Expedition 1974). All such finds have revealed many of the features of daily life, funeral rites and belief of the local tribes in the early middle ages. The woman’s burial was located inside a vaulted cave, slightly altered with iron adze with a wooden haft (included in the burial). The buried woman, whose clothes have been preserved, was laid out in a sleeping pose, with her head on a cushion. Her linen clothes (with sewn on pockets for carrying items), is modestly decorated with silk, typical for the women’s dresses in the area. The outer fur clothes consist of a cape and skirt with a knife affixed in a wooden sheath. The clothes have fur sewn onto the inside, the outside is decorated with textured patterns.