N.V. Fedorova. West Siberia and the world of medieval civilizations: history of interaction on the trade routes[1] // Archaeology, Ethnology & Antropology of Eurasia 4 (12). P. 91-101.


The history of medieval northwestern Siberia has been traditionally reconstructed on the basis of archaeological materials. Written sources have been used only for testing certain hypotheses and they are very scanty, which may explain the situation to some extent. In fact, there are a few brief mentions of Yugra, which may be either northeastern Europe or northwestern Siberia, in Povest’ Vremennykh let (12th century Kievan chronicle) and in Novgorodan chronicles, as well as vague descriptions of northern marvels from Arab sources. Finally, there are Old Icelandic sagas mentioning a mysterious and so far unlocalized Biarmia, but none of the competent scholars has used them with reference to events in medieval West Siberia as yet. Due to the paucity of written evidence and to the insufficiency of archaeological records concerning northwestern Siberia (in terms of number of publications, especially integrative ones), certain stereotypical ideas have formed in historiography. Many of these concern cultural and trade ties of West Siberians with their close and distant neighbors. This, for instance, refers to the belief that 11th - 13th-century fur trade with the North was monopolized by Novgorod, and that the Novgorodans had, at that time, even penetrated as far east as the Trans-Ural regions. Another stereotypical idea is that trade with northern peoples was «mute», meaning that the merchant and the purchaser (or rather the two participants of barter) did not communicate directly. These and similar beliefs stem from the traditional views concerning the «backwoods» nature of West Siberian cultures, which allegedly began to form the benefits of world civilizations only after having been annexed by Russia. As the archaeological studies of the recent decades demonstrate, this view is utterly erroneous.

The problem

Nothing hampers research more than do hardened beliefs regarded as axioms. I would like to contribute my mite to the shattering of stereotypes, first, by suggesting a more realistic picture of interaction between various cultures and peoples on the trade routes of northeastern Europe and northwestern Siberia; and second, by showing that the notion of «mute trade» is irrelevant in terms of either period or territory. The time-span to be covered is AD 900 - 1300.

Novgorodans and Yugra: Aspects of relationships based on written sources and archaeology

I would first like to stress that I am not going to take part in debates concerning the whereabouts of the Yugra mentioned in the chronicles (hereafter the term «Yugra» is used with reference to both the territory and its inhabitants). Attempts at pinpointing the places referred to by medieval sources may prove futile after all, as evidenced by a long-lasting and ongoing discussion around the Yugra of Russian chronicles, or Visu and Yura referred to by Arab geographers, or Biarmaland of the Old Icelandic sagas. The principal factors to be taken into account are: (a) medieval mentality tending to amalgamate literary stereotypes, religious or mythological themes, trustworthy evidence, and ideas concerning the inhabited space and the time required to cross it; (b) archaeological data supporting or disproving existing hypotheses; (c) the practice of giving old names to «newly discovered» lands, as was the case with the name «Siberia», when Russian troops, moving further and further east, extended the territory to which this name referred up to the Pacific coast. Let us assume that Yugra was situated in northeastern Europe and, as the Novgorodan troops were advancing eastward, its borders probably shifted, eventually encompassing a portion of northwestern Siberia.

Yugra was first mentioned in the chronicles in connection with the famous story told by a Novgorodan called Gyuryata Rogovich. It was recorded by the annalist in Ladoga, and included in the Povest’ Vremennykh Let under 1096. Shakhmatov (1940: 25 -26) claimed that the fragment was an interpolation from the second edition of Povest’, composed around 1117. Aleshkovsky (1971: 12) dated it to 1119. The story is well known and has been cited more than once, making it unnecessary to relate it again in full. Notably, Gyuryata sent his servant to Pechora, «to the people paying tribute to Novgorod.» I believe that the tribute was not paid on a regular basis; more likely, this was done occasionally, after some successful military operation undertaken by the Novgorodans. Having visited Pechora, the servant set off «for Yugra; and Yugra are people speaking an incomprehensible language, and they border Samoyad in the northern lands... And the Yugra told my servant...» (Polnoe sobranie..., 1848, vol. 1: 107) (italics added). What can one infer from this passage? First, the Yugra and the Samoyad bordered each other «in the northern lands», that is, lived side by side, but the text gives no reason for placing Samoyad north of Yugra, as is often being done. Second, although the Yugra speak an «incomprehensible language», the servant did somehow understand it, as it also follows from the further text, relating the story of the «marvel», told by the Yugra. Third, because the annalist tries to pinpoint the Yugra relative to the Samoyad, the whereabouts of the latter must have been known to him.

The next mention of the Yugra and Samoyad is found under 1114: «Also, people in olden times traveled across Yugra and across Samoyad, and they saw these themselves in the northern lands...» (Ibid., 1848, vol. 2: 5). This is followed by a fairy tale about a cloud from which squirrels and reindeer fell, «as witnessed by the Ladogan governor Pavel and all the Ladogan people» (Ibid.). The passage contains no new information about Yugra and, like the first one, it was recorded in Ladoga.

The next mention of Yugra is in the first Novgorodan chronicle under 1187: «In the same year, some collectors of tribute from the Pechora and Yugra were attacked in Pechora, others beyond Volok, and about one hundred warriors were killed» (quoted after (Dmitriev, 1893: 49 - 50)). It follows that the unsuccessful attempt to collect «tribute» was undertaken by a party of over one hundred men (given that 100 were killed). The chronicle does not say whether these people had reached Yugra.

Next, under 1193, the same chronicle gives the most detailed account of a misfortune that befell a Novgorodan detachment in Yugra. This was a famous, albeit not a glorious, operation undertaken by Yadrey with his army. In brief, Yadrey captured one of the towns in Yugra and approached another one. The Yugra, having promised to offer silver and sable fur to the Russians, assembled a host instead and, with the help of a certain Novgorodan named Savka, enticed Yadrey with his bravest men into the town and slaughtered them all. Savks’s special request to the Yugran prince was to kill a certain Yakov Prokshinich lest he should bring a new army from Novgorod and take revenge. It took the eighty men who survived the massacre the whole winter to reach Novgorod with enormous difficulty. Having arrived, they killed three men who had been Yugra’s allies (Ibid.: 51). The fragment contains some data relevant to the situation. First, despite the mention of tribute paid by the Yugra, the Novgorodans needed sizeable forces to deal with them: some one hundred were killed, and at least eighty survivors reached Novgorod. Second, the tribute Novgorod received from Yugra consisted of sable fur and silver; apparently imported silver works of art are implied because silver was not mined anywhere in this area. Third, it appears that contacts with the Yugra were maintained not only by the official Novgorod, but also by some private persons, such as Savka and the three men killed in Novgorod, who evidently wished to avoid any competition, even with their compatriots.

While not a single military Novgorodan operation in Yugra was noted in the 13th century, two unsuccessful campaigns took place in 1323 and 1329. Both times, the Novgorodans were defeated by the Ustyug people. Before 1364, not a single successful operation in this territory was mentioned. In my view, this attests to the fact that in AD 1000 - 1200 Yugra was not included in the Novgorodan sphere of influence, let alone paying regular tribute. Also, expeditions across huge territories inhabited by people less than friendly to Novgorod were highly dangerous and the profits seldom outweighed the losses. Khoroshkevich (1963: 51), in a book addressing Novgorodan trade in 1000 - 1400, writes basically the same: «A comparatively small amount of sable fur in Novgorodan export suggests that the ties between Novgorod and Pechora were weak, because among the European territories, Pechora was virtually the only one where sables were abundant.»

If, as many researchers believe, the contacts between Novgorod and the northern territories both east and west of the Urals were close, do any archaeological facts document these ties? These facts must be few, because only metal, glass, clay or, less often, bone artifacts are preserved in cultural deposits. Some ancient finds from Komi were imported from northwestern Russia, specifically Novgorod. Most of these are small bronze and, less often, silver ornaments, such as spherical bells, certain types of pipe-shaped beads, hollow horse-shaped pendants, crescent-shaped earrings, and finger-rings (Arkheologiya Respubliki Komi..., 1997: 597 - 600). Certain iron artifacts found on the Vym’ sites may be Old Russian, too. The Novgorodan import to the region, which is now Komi, might have included cloths, from which nothing has remained. In other words, all artifacts imported from Novgorod or other northwestern Russian centers were mass produced - nothing to be compared with goods imported from regions such as the Volga Bulgaria or the Upper Kama Basin in terms of either quality or quantity.

East of the Urals, traces of such contacts are even more scanty. Most of the 24 items, which Mogilnikov (1987: 340, plate XCII) regards as «Russian import to the Ob area or local replicas» are either uninformative as to origins (iron axe and steels), or are indeed local replicas (cast pendants with imitated granulation) or had reached the Ob area via the Volga Bulgaria (beads, twisted bracelets, and a finger-ring with Bulgarian nielloed plaque). The least disputed items so far included a sword found at Preobrazhenka III, Chany District, Novosibirsk Region (Molodin, 1976: 125 -127), and a Byzantine bowl from Berezovo with an Old Russian inscription dating from the 1100s. The sword was found far south of the area in question, making it difficult to reconstruct its way from the place of manufacture to the West Siberian forest-steppes. In any event, it has no direct bearing on the issues discussed here. The bowl, indeed, was purchased in 1867 in Berezovo from a person belonging to a family that had migrated from Nizhni Novgorod (Sokrovishcha Priobya, 1996: 142). How and where the bowl was found, is not known. Neither do we know how and where the inscription was made. The find, then, may hardly be regarded as unambiguous proof of Russia’s trade with West Siberia in the 12th century.

Based on the chronicles, it can be suggested that the Novgorodans were attracted to the northern territories east and west of the Urals. Novgorodan merchants who maintained trade relationships with foreign countries needed goods that they might procure only in the north. These included primarily fur (squirrel, sable, marten, silver and red fox, ermine, beaver, polar fox, etc.). The most valued fur was sable, an animal which, unlike the related marten, is found mostly in Siberia. Its distribution area west of the Urals included the Upper Pechora (Sobol..., 1973: 25). In 1400 - 1600 sables lived all over the forest zone of the Ob area (Monakhov, 1995: 26). While inhabiting nearly all geographical zones of the North, including sub-tundra and forest-tundra open woodlands, and northern taiga, they prefer central and southern taiga, especially dense pine forests (Sobol..., 1973: 12). Evidently, the conditions for sable hunting in Pechora and Yugra were especially favorable from the late 1st - early 2nd millennium onward. Judging by paleoclimatic evidence, the summer temperatures in sub-arctic areas of the Urals and Siberia were increasing over the period of AD 700 - 1300, causing the northward shift of the border between forest and tundra (Vaganov, Shiyatov, Mazepa, 1996: 17). There is no information concerning sable hunting before 1500, but the amount of fur procured may be roughly assessed on the basis of indirect data. Thus, in 1586, West Siberians had to pay a tribute of 200 thousand sables (Monakhov, 1995: 27); during the rule of Alexey Mikhailovich (1645 - 1676), the number of sable skins shipped from one of the staging posts in Archangel, was 23,160; apart from that, 18,742 tails and thousands of other parts are mentioned (Sobol..., 1973: 144). Clearly, this was by far above the demand, so restrictions on sable hunting were introduced in the late 1600s. These figures explain why Yugra attracted the Novgorodans.

Apparently, northern and circumpolar regions of the Urals were the place from where hunting birds, such as falcons, were exported. Kutepov (1896) notes that the best hunting falcons were brought from the circumpolar Urals. They were highly valued at the courts of Russian grand princes and other European monarchs, and they were exported from Novgorod by foreign merchants despite transportation difficulties (Khoroshkevich, 1963: 158). Generally, falcons were valued throughout medieval Eurasia, from China (Sheffer, 1981: 131- 135) to Britain. From the 9th century on, falcon hunting was becoming one of the most popular themes in Islamic art from Khorasan to Moorish Spain.

These were hardly all the goods that made northeastern Europe and West Siberia attractive for the merchants. One should probably add mammoth and walrus tusks, walrus skins, castoreum, cedar nuts, etc. Given the above, the Novgorodans’ attempts to reach these areas, despite persistent failures, are easy to understand. Nothing indicates, however, that the northern fur trade was monopolized by Novgorod, and it is likewise highly unlikely that «from the late 1100s onward, the Novgorodans were beginning to settle in Yugra, forming something similar to trade factories» (Mogilnikov, 1987: 215).

The Yura of the Arab sources: Archaeological evidence of trade along the «Fur Route»

Northern trade begins to be mentioned by Arab sources in East Europe from the 10th century on (Ahmad ibn-Fadlan), possibly even earlier (Zakhoder, 1967: 59). These sources contain the first descriptions of the so-called «mute trade» where the participants of barter allegedly do not see each other. These descriptions refer to territories variously named Visu and Yura. As I have said, I will not try to pinpoint these territories. I will just mention that Yura is often believed to be the Yugra of the Russian chronicles (Puteshestvie..., 1971: 101 -105). It is quite probable that Visu was situated somewhere in the Upper Kama region, whereas Yura might lie north or northeast of it (Fedorova, 1984: 12). Ibn-Fadlan mentions that sables and silver foxes were brought from Visu (Kovalevsky, 1956: 138). More northern peoples are not mentioned. According to ibn-Fadlan, north of Visu lived the fantastic Yadzhudzh and Madzhudzh, who had been forced to live there by Alexander the Great (Ibid.: 138 - 139), a theme rather typical of medieval scholars both Oriental and Western (in the Russian chronicle, these characters are called Gog and Magog from Japheth’s generation). In the 1100s, the descriptions become more realistic. Al-Marvazi, in his compilation named Mental Capacities of Animals, written ca 1120 - 1121 (Zakhoder, 1996: 327), writes, «At a distance of twenty days of travel from them (Bulgars) in the northern direction, there is a country named Isu, and beyond it live people whose name is Yura» (Zakhoder, 1967: 61). Al-Garnati, too, writes, «...and beyond Visu, on the Sea of Darkness, there is a land known as Yura» (Puteshestvie..., 1971: 32). He also describes the stepwise trade with the northern peoples: «...the swords are brought from the lands of Islam ... then the Bulgars bring them to Visu ... then the people of Visa bring them to Yura...» (Ibid.: 34). Finally, there is a passage from a text by the famous 14th-century traveler ibn-Battuta, who had visited all the Islamic countries, but used reported information when describing the remote northern lands. The passage is about «mute trade»: « make a stop in the Land of Darkness, lay out the goods they have brought, and go to the place where they stay. In the morning, they return to the place where they have left their goods, and find sables, squirrels, and ermines, brought in exchange. If the merchant is satisfied with the deal, he takes the furs with him, otherwise he leaves them where they are, together with his own goods. On the next day, local people bring more furs, and the merchants take them, leaving their goods in exchange. This is the way they trade. Those who come there, do not know with whom they trade - whether these are humans or spirits; they see no one...» (quoted after (Istoriya..., 1999: 18)).

The goods imported to, and exported from, the North are inadequately covered by available sources, because those who wrote about northern trade mostly focused on northern exotics, whereas merchants who might give a more detailed account, have left neither documents nor memoirs, and of all the things they related, the writers gleaned only what might interest a medieval reader. Among the items of trade, mostly furs are mentioned, and possibly they were indeed the principal equivalent. Some sources refer to «ivory», perhaps implying mammoth and walrus tusks. Al-Garnati mentions male and female slaves. The imported items included arms («swords from the lands of Islam» according to al-Garnati), clay, glass, and crystal beads, and cloths. One of the graves at Saygatinski III burial ground contained a piece of woolen carpet together with remains of something that might have been delicious food and incense (Zykov et al., 1994: 67). However, the principal items of export to the northern markets, at least in terms of preserved objects, were silver vessels, silver ornaments, and silver details of clothing. According to most scholars, the import of silver to the Kama region began in the 800s and was prompted by the fact that huge amounts of Sasanian and Sogdian silver had stopped to circulate after the Arab conquest of Iran and western Central Asia. In the Kama basin, more than 100 hoards were found, each containing more than one silver vessel (Darkevich, 1976). Evidently, works of art, decorated with motifs alien to Islam, were bought by merchants for their scrap value, making it highly profitable to exchange them for precious furs. Understandably, al-Garnati does not mention this item of «export» to the North: in the 12th century, silver was no longer exported on a large scale due to the «silver crisis» in the Near East. Incidentally, it is quite likely that all this tremendous amount of Sasanian and Sogdian silver works of art was brought to the Kama basin during a very short period following the devastation of western Central Asia by the Arabs, and was part of the spoils of war. However, very soon after the emergence of the first Muslim states in Iran and western Central Asia, their rulers found it prestigious to derive their genealogies from the Sasanids. Most likely, the silver Sasanian vessels had become a rarity by that time, and their export had been greatly reduced.

Oriental silver works of art first appeared in the Ob region around the 10th century, later than they had reached the Kama. This is why the objects found in the Ob area are different. They include Iranian silver vessels made in 800 - 1100, Bulgar silver objects manufactured in 900 - 1400, examples of the Golden Horde toreutic art, etc. (Fedorova, 1984; Kramarovsky, Fedorova, 1991; Zykovetal., 1994). We will not touch upon the ways, which West European and Byzantine silver vessels made in late 1100s - early 1200s reached northwestern Siberia. The stepwise nature of trade mentioned in the written sources is well documented by the composition of import in West Siberian burial grounds and hoards: objects brought from far-off places are supplemented, as it were, by those manufactured by Bulgar jewelers and Kama artisans (Zykov et al., 1994: 66-67).

Such a developed trade having a longstanding tradition makes it unlikely that any deals were «mute». Merchants were well aware of the demand and capacity of the northern markets, even though this information might have been relayed stepwise. Bulgar jewelers, as I have written more than once, were perfectly informed not just about the material demands of their northern purchasers, but about their ideological demands as well. Motifs of representations on dishes and plaques were ideally suited to meet the northern people’s tastes. In fact, certain precious ornaments, such as numerous silver palmate pendants with granulation and filigree, especially those found in Saygatinski III and IV burial grounds and dating from 1100- 1400 (Ibid.: 108), were doubtlessly made to order.

Our review of Arab sources concerning trade with the northern people, and archaeological evidence thereof, strongly suggests that, in AD 800 - 1400, this trade flourished, making the tales of the «mute barter» utterly untrustworthy. These stories were apparently included in many accounts to make these more readable for the medieval public and possibly to scare away potential rivals.

Trade along the Northern Sea route: The problem

Al-Marvazi’s work, already mentioned, contains a passage which, unlike other parts of his book, has been ignored by later writers: «Beyond the land of Yura live the coastal dwellers, who sail without any need or purpose, just to glorify themselves by saying, ’look, we have reached this or that place.’ They are people marked by an extreme degree of stupidity and ignorance. For instance, should they sail across the sea, and should two of their ships meet, the sailors tie both together, draw their swords and fight; and whoever wins will own both ships. Further off there is Black Land, and in the sea, there live fishes whose teeth are used for making various things like dagger hilts, etc.» (quoted after (Zakhoder, 1996: 297)). Zakhoder does not comment on this passage, except by noting that while al-Marvazi’s text is an abridged version of the texts by ibn-Ruste and Gardizi, «Marvazi’s description of peoples named Isa - Yura is original and largely unique» (Ibid.: 327). The story looks rather strange in the context of other stories describing commercial successes of Arab merchants and the remote places they had seen. The aversion the writer feels for the people «sailing without any need or purpose», and the marked realism of his description, are paralleled by another passage, by Ibrahim al-Tarushi of Cordova, conveying his impressions of the trade fair in Hedeby, Denmark, specifically of the way the local people sing: «Never have I heard such an abhorrent singing; their throats emit a howl much alike that of the dogs, except by being even wilder». Interestingly, even the fantastic Yadzhudzh and Madzhudzh, forced to live in the north by Alexander the Great, were less repugnant for the Arab writers. Could al-Marvazi have described people whom he knew well? If so, he might have implied Norse sailors, who ventured out on much more distant and complicated voyages than previously believed. «It is known from reliable sources that around AD 970, the Norse Konurig by the name of Harald the Grey Skin reached the mouth of the Severnaya Dvina by Sea» (Glazyrina, 1996: 41), and the last voyage of the Vikings to the east or northeast (to Biarmaland) was undertaken in 1222 (Ibid.: 38). Al-Marvazi, who wrote his book in the 1100s, might well have been aware of these travels, the more so that Scandinavian merchants are known to have visited the trade fairs in Bilyar and Bulgar. According to some writers (Ivanov, 1998: 139), Norse artifacts in the Borre style, found at certain sites in the Upper Kama basin (Belavin, 2000: 154), might have arrived there via the Volga Bulgaria (Ivanov, 1998: 139).

Northern Russian sailors, specifically those from Novgorod and Ladoga, might also be considered «sailing without any need or purpose», although written sources dating from that period do not mention any voyages undertaken by the Novgorodans. Researchers distinguish two peaks in Novgorodan shipbuilding activities: 900 - 1100 and 1200 - 1400. «The earlier period coincides with intense contacts with Scandinavia and probably migrations, and the later with the economic heyday of the Novgorodan Republic and related increase in trade including the foreign one, as well as with the opening up and colonization of vast northern territories» (Dubrovin et al., 2001: 158).

Evidently, the trans-Uralian (West Siberian) people had long been familiar with boats and were skillful riverine navigators. The first reliable evidence for the use of hollowed-out boats dates back to the late 1000s. Toy boats from the cultural layer of Yarte VI settlement in Yamal and burials in boats at the Zeleny Yar burial ground near Salekhard make it possible to reconstruct their appearance. Archaeological observations agree with certain themes of Ob Ugrian heroic tales describing the heroes’ distant military expeditions. In some tales, boats are mentioned: «They got into a boat of deep draught with a submerged stern, in order to row with an oar having a finger-like rowlock» (Mify..., 1999: 145), or «Like an otter with a pointed body, he [the hero] wiggled in his deep-draughted boat with a submerged stern, side to side did he wiggle to show all the devices, all sorts of tricks» (Ibid.: 147), or «Both princes lower their oars at the bow and raise them at the stern» (Ibid.: 151). Some much later sources (17th-century petitions) contain information concerning the assaults of the «criminal Samoyad» on Russian troops. The Samoyad usually destroyed the koches (deck vessels with sails and oars) and took away whatever they were able to take, so that «animals, seines, nets, boats, cauldrons, anchors, and sails were taken away, and the koches were chopped to pieces» (Ocherki istorii Yugry, 2000: 167)[2]. The koches might have been destroyed for two reasons: first, the West Siberians did not know how to navigate large vessels, and second, koches symbolized the strength of the Russian administration. The first suggestion appears more likely.

A large boat is represented on a 12th-14th-century Bulgar silver headring found in 1876 somewhere on the Irtysh (Sokrovishcha Priobya, 1996: 102, 103) (Fig. 1). The ornament itself is not unique. Another headring, decorated with a herring design against a nielloed background, was found in Saygatinsky IV burial ground (Kramarovsky, Fedorova, 1991: 22). Nine such ornaments (five intact, four fragmented) were found in West Siberia. Silver head rings shaped like ribbons with narrowed ends are typical of West Siberian sites spanning the period from mid-2nd millennium to the 19th century. Doubtlessly, all of them were made by Bulgar artisans either to order, or at least with a view to satisfy the tastes of West Siberian clients. The central part of one of the head rings bears a unique representation of two boats (see Fig. 1). One boat is small. Inside, there is a man with an oar, and a dog sitting on the bow. In front of the boat, there is a fur animal and a fish of which only the tail is visible; and at the stern there is a water bird. Behind, there is another boat. It is large, its bow and stern are of the same height, the bow is decorated with a sculptured head of an animal, and on the stern there is something, which might be a rudder or part of the herring design. Inside the boat, there are five men, hands joined. There are neither oars, nor a sail. People have pointed heads, and stylistically resemble those shown on plaques representing horsemen surrounded by fur animals, dogs, and water fowl. Some plaques were evidently made by Bulgarian jewelers belonging to the same school as those who manufactured the head ring in question (Ibid.: 7). While the interpretation of the composition with a boat is a complex matter, and may hardly be adequate at present, the fact that this composition decorates an ornament made for a West Siberian client deserves attention.

Fig. 1. Bulgar silver headring with a representation of a boat.

In my view, it would be justified to address the Viking sagas mentioning the journeys to Biarmaland. The whereabouts of this place is disputable. Some writers locate it in the Kola Peninsula, others in the Northern Dvina. I believe that the debate is meaningless, and I agree with Glazyrina, who writes: Possibly, the name ’Biarmaland’ referred to the furthermost margin of the inhabited territory. This was the ultima Thule, a borderland between the real world and the legendary one. This is precisely what one of the geographers writes: «Beyond Biarmaland lies an uninhabited land» (1996: 43).

Moreover, it may be assumed that over 300 years of journeys to Biarmaland, the borders of this ultima Thule were shifting in the eastern or northeastern direction, toward the undiscovered territories. This is close to Glazyrina’s opinion, except that in her view, the border shifted from the Kola Peninsula to the Northern Dvina (Ibid.: 40-41), whereas I venture to suggest that the Scandinavian sailors might have reached even more eastern territories, more so that the warm climate in the late 1st - early 2nd millennium favored journeys along the northern sea route.

Perhaps the most detailed account of a journey to Biarmaland is found in Snorri Sturlusson’s Orbis Terrarum. In brief, the plot is as follows. Konung Olav sends his men, brothers Karli and Gunnstein, on a trade expedition to Biarmaland. A pool is arranged whereby each of the two parties (the konung and the brothers) owns one half of the goods and of the profits. A merchant ship is equipped, with a crew of 25. The plan comes to the ears of a certain Thorir the Dog, who owns a battleship. He thrusts himself upon the brothers and becomes their companion, after which he launches his battleship with a crew of 80. In Biarmaland, they begin by very successful trading and gain «a big fortune» consisting of squirrel and sable furs. When the barter is over, the Norse loot the sanctuary of the local deity, stealing the silver vessels, coins and ornaments. We omit further details, although some may be noteworthy for a historian. The most important things for us are these. First, «having reached Biarmaland by sea, they stayed at a trading place» (Ibid.: 204). Second, «when the deals had ended... it was announced that the armistice with the local people ended as well» (Ibid.). The text implies that there existed certain trade centers, in some way similar to the international trade fairs. Such trade fairs have been thoroughly studied in northwestern Europe as well as in Volga Bulgaria, Bilyar and Bulgar, which were visited by Scandinavian merchants; this, incidentally, was the region where the head ring with a representation of boats was manufactured. Evidently, trade centers must have existed wherever such trade was practiced, including northeastern Europe, and the territory east of the Urals. Third, the person who showed the Norse the way to the sanctuary was Thorir the Dog. It was he who told them how the treasures had arrived at the sanctuary, what might be stolen, how the sanctuary was guarded, how to misdirect the pursuers, etc. Most likely, although Thorir the Dog preferred not to announce this, he had visited Biarmaland before, otherwise it is hard to understand where he had gained such accurate knowledge of local religious practices and specific rites. For the Vikings, journeys to Biarmaland were an affair that might have glorified them for the rest of their lives, so those who had taken part did not conceal it. On the contrary, they were proud of it. The situation is somewhat akin to the Novgorodan one: there were officially organized troops, which carried out operations in Yugra, and these were recorded as glorious deeds by the annalists; on the other hand, certain persons pursued their own secret business with Yugra, and only tiny bits of information about them can be found incidentally among the reports of the official expeditions. Finally, Sturlusson’s account of Karli’s, Gunnstein’s and Thorir’s journey to Biarmiland contains a description of their ships. There were two: a merchant ship, likely of the knorra type, with a small crew of oarsmen, and a large battleship with a crew of up to 60 - 80 rowers. Vessels of these types were able to cover large distances in the open sea as well as to ply coastwise, enter comparatively shallow rivers, and moor virtually anywhere. Nautical properties of Norse vessels are well known, and thanks to them, marvelous geographical discoveries were made from Iceland to America. In other words, the Vikings were quite able to undertake distant journeys along the coasts of northeastern Europe and even West Siberia. However, can any evidence of these journeys be found in archaeological materials?

Generally, strange as it may sound, contacts between the Norse and people living east and west of the Urals have for some reason been neglected since the mid-50s, when the study by Bader and Smirnov (1954) was published. All facts concerning western trade links of the northern Uralians and northwestern Siberians were interpreted in such a way as if «western» meant «Novgorodan». Only the recent book by Belavin (2000) contains some considerations as to whether the Circumuralian merchants could have visited the Baltic countries or otherwise. Some Scandinavian artifacts were found far eastward of the places of their manufacture. Thus, an oval Scandinavian fibula is in the possession of the Yamal-Nenets District Museum (Sokrovishcha Priobya, 1996: 164). The fact that such finds are unique does not make the problem of contacts meaningless. In fact, finds of this type cannot be numerous since the principal items exported by Norse artisans were cloth and iron artifacts, which tend to decompose in archaeological deposits. That the contacts existed, is evidenced by mythological and folklore themes (Golovnev, 2001: 35), and by certain unusual motifs in the art of medieval Uralian and West Siberian masters. These motifs cannot be entirely local (Fedorova, 1984). A good example, although not the only one, is provided by the heads of bimetallic steels. In West Siberia alone about a dozen of them were found, including four in which the theme of one or two ravens is used (Zykov et al., 1994: 89 - 90; Semenova, 2001: 179). At least one specimen represents an animal with a head turned back and mouth wide open (Zykov et al., 1994: 91), resembling representations in the «ringerike» style. Because it is possible that all these artifacts were made by West Siberian craftsmen, Scandinavian motifs or devices could have been adopted only by means of direct contacts.

All the facts outlined in this section provide a basis for further interpretation, rather than for any definite conclusions. The evidence is still insufficient, but we should continue to analyze the ethnic relationships in North Europe and northwestern Asia. In addition, the next period, spanning the late 12th - 13th centuries, demonstrates a rather unexpected picture of direct trade links between northwestern Siberia and West Europe.

West European works of art in the northern Ob basin

In the mid-1980s, collections owned by the district museum in the village of Muzhi, Priuralsk District, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region, were supplemented by a hoard consisting of four bowls without lids and two lids from other bowls. One bowl had been made in the Byzantine Empire (Sokrovishcha Priobya, 1996: 149 - 161) (Fig. 2), and three in northwestern Europe (Ibid.: 165 - 197) (Fig. 3 - 5). All four vessels were exhibited at the State Hermitage (St. Petersburg) in 1996 and subsequently in foreign museums, where they were deservedly admired. Two more West European vessels, or rather a bowl without lid and a lid from another bowl found in the Ob region, have been owned by the Hermitage since the mid-1800s. Their exact provenance is unknown. The sixth West European vessel of this type was found at the Lower Ob region (for some time it was exhibited in Paris among other things from the Basilevsky collection, and subsequently transferred to the Metropolitan Museum, New York). All vessels are so similar that they must have been produced at the same center, or at different but very close centers. Moreover, all were found in roughly the same part of the Lower Ob basin. Evidently, they had been taken there by the same ship. The alternative explanation, that West European silver nielloed bowls, which are unique even in European and American museums, were imported to northwestern Siberia on a regular basis, appears utterly implausible. In the introduction to the Catalogue of the Exhibition Treasures of the Ob, Marshak cites a story from Lives of the Minstrels describing the generosity of «the young King Henry», brother of Richard the Lion-Hearted. A poor knight once saw a lid from a silver bowl and thought, «If I manage to steal it, then for many days will my relations be well provided for’«, so steal it he did. There follows a sentimental story of the generous king, who not merely allowed the poor knight to keep the lid, but gave him the bowl as well (Sokrovishcha Priobya, 1996: 25).

To understand the situation, one should consider that a mere lid was enough to guarantee the knight’s relations’ well-being «for many days». Clearly, bowls were a treasure by medieval standards. If such treasures were imported to West Siberia, it means that the local people were considered respectable partners rather than savages hiding in the backwoods and never seen by West European merchants. Also, in my opinion, the place where these unique works of art were found indicates that they were brought by sea, on a single West European ship. This is evidenced by the homogeneity of the goods and their excellent preservation. The land route, as it follows from Novgorodan chronicles describing the expeditions, entailed such dangers that this possibility should hardly be taken into account. The presence of a Byzantine bowl does not disprove the above because it most likely got to Siberia via Europe, and the same is true of several more Byzantine vessels found in the Lower Ob area.

Fig. 2. Byzantine silver bowl with a representation of Alexander the Great’s ascension. Photograph by Yu.A. Morozov.
Fig. 3. West European bowl found in the Lower Ob basin. Photograph by Yu.A. Morozov.
Fig. 4. Lid from a West European bowl found in the Lower Ob basin. Photograph by Yu.A. Morozov.
Fig. 5. Lid with an «apple» from the West European bowl found in the Lower Ob basin. Photograph by Yu.A. Morozov.

The history of Byzantine toreutic art in the Kama area and West Siberia might provide a topic for a separate study. In the present context, though, suffice it to note that the Northern Sea Route functioned in the Middle Ages, connecting West Siberia with West European trade centers. Visits of West European, specifically, English, sailors to northwestern Siberia were registered by 16th-century sources. Thus in 1584, merchants from Kholmogory told agent Antony Marsh, of the Moscow Company, that « olden times, your people reached the mouth of the River Ob by a ship that was wrecked, and its crew were killed by the Samoyeds, who thought that they had come to rob them» (Ocherki istorii Yugry, 2000: 99). This was evidently not the first contact between West European sailors and the Samoyeds, otherwise why should the latter have suspected the former of evil intentions?


It is evident, then, that the notion of «mute trade», used with reference to the trade between West Europe and northwestern Siberia in the early 2nd millennium, is misleading, in terms of either epoch or region. Developed contacts, well documented by the abundance of imported metal artifacts, demonstrate that the term is anachronistic and should not be used.

Among the directions of trade routes discussed above, the most documented ones are those from the Near East along the Great Volga Route via the markets of the Volga Bulgaria and the Upper Kama centers into West Siberia. By far less evidence are ties with Novgorod and Scandinavia. It has not yet been attempted to look for the remains of international trade fairs in northeastern Europe, nor northwestern Siberia. Connections between West Siberia and the world of medieval civilizations have been studied only in their static aspect, based on the number of imported artifacts and the geographical distribution of sites in the Lower and Middle Ob basin. Dynamic aspects of this process, namely, the ways in which the import functioned, remain to be analyzed. The study of routes by which West European silver vessels dating from the 12th - early 13th century may have arrived at northwestern Siberia, is the first step in this direction.

The profitability of northern trade engendered several phenomena. Both the Russian chronicles and the Old Icelandic sagas touch upon the conflict between «officials» making their way to fur treasures and private companies acting at their own risk: brothers Karli and Gunnstein, and Thorir the Dog; and Novgorodan troops led by Yadrey versus Savka with his men. Attempts at monopolizing northern trade were made by the Bulgar rulers. Ahmad ibn-Fadlan cites a story about an Indian merchant who planned to go to the north himself, but spent a long time trying to get permission from the Bulgarian ruler (Belavin, 2000: 31). Anecdotes about the «mute trade» and the horrors allegedly awaiting anyone traveling along the way north are commonplace in many texts by both Arab geographers and Russian annalists. The purpose of these stories may have been at least twofold. Firstly, they were likely motivated by a praiseworthy desire to entertain and educate medieval readers. Secondly, the reason may have been more pragmatic: to scare away potential competitors who might intend trading with the northern peoples.

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