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A. Baulo. Silver Plate from the Malaya Ob // Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia. - 2000. - № 4. - P. 143 - 153.



In 1938, in the upper reaches of the Loz’va running through the Urals the outstanding explorer of the ancient cultures of Siberia V.N. Chernetsov (1947, 126 – 129) wrote down a legend about a silver plate which had been fished out of the Ob with a sweep-net and later brought to one of the Mansi sanctuaries. In 1985 I.N. Gemuyev (1988) succeeded in finding this plate: it did serve as one of the chief fetishes at the worship place located not far from the village of Verkhne-Nildino on the Severnaya Sos’va. The Nildino plate turned out to be the double of the Anikovo plate discovered in 1909 in the Upper Kama region and now kept in the Hermitage (Darkevich, 1976, 28 – 29).

It is of interest that the first version of the legend written down by V.N. Chernetsov read that among the fish caught with a sweep-net there were “seven plates, all of them alike” (Istochniki…, 1987, 265). The Anikovo plate may have come from this set as well, since at the end of the record the rest of the plates were said to have been taken to the other worship places.” The words “all alike are hardly to be understood in the sense of “with the same subject”. They might mean the size, shape and other outward characteristics.

Again according to V.N. Chernetsova (Ibidem, 200), in the 1930s another “silver plate with images of seven people” was in possession of S. Sampil’talov in the settlement of Yany-paul on the Northern Sos’va. In 1997 I was told about a “shaman’s place” in the upper reaches of the Yalbynya (the left tributary of the Northern Sos’va). Placed near a small worship barn were three stones on which there was a large time-darkened silver plate with four horsemen depicted on it (Gemuyev and Baulo, 1999, 83). Alas, the latter two plates have not yet come to be studied by experts.

When visiting different Khant and Mansi settlements of the Lower Ob region I would always show the photograph of the Nildino plate hoping literally for a miracle. In 1999, an old Khant, when examining the photo, suddenly brightened up and said that at the local sanctuary there was a similar “Byzantine plate”. And soon we were there, near the little barn. At a meter and a half from the entrance lay three boards (a “table” and two “benches”). The place custodian took the plate wrapped in a red kerchief. The plate is to be filled with pieces of sacrificial bread which may be taken only by the elders or guest orphans.

“Seven plates, all of them alike”… I had the luck to hold in my hands both the Nildino plate and that of the sanctuary on the Malaya Ob. They are really alike as regards their shape, diameter, weight, metal and manufacture technique.

Description of the plate

The plate is 24 cm in diameter, 3 cm in height, and it weighs 1 kg. It has no hang-up ear. The ring-like support is soldered to the bottom. Its diameter is 10 cm. The plate is cast of silver. The ornament is drawn with a chisel and puncheons. The background of the images is gilded (Fig. 2).

The embossed rim of the plate is edged with a narrow band of ornament. Its main element appears to be a conventionalized image of an awl representing the upper part of the bird’s body with its raised wings and its head turned right to the plate center. The owl images are separated by round pearls, each with a little hollow in its center.

The central part of the plate is delimited by a relief wreath of heart-shaped leaves with two hollows. The wreath consists of eight parts separated from one another by eight rosettes of two kinds. A rosette of the first kind is a flower in the shape of a square with four joined rhombi laid on it. A second kind rosette is also made as a square-shaped flower, but with twelve petals and a the heart. The wreath leaves converge towards the first kind rosettes and diverge from the second kind ones.

Distributed in a round between the relief rim of the plate and the wreath of heart-shaped leaves are 20 images of animals: below there are two birds (sea-gulls?) facing each other, their wings raised high. The birds are standing on the edge of dry land shown as a broad inclined pseudo-twined piping; under the edge there is a conventionalized picture of a segment of water surface. The way of depicting water is traditional enough for Eastern silver (Darkevich, 1976, 66, 70, etc.). Depicted on either side of the segment are bushes consisting of three stems with flowers at their ends. The lower pairs of flowers are shown half-faced, the upper flowers full-faced. The leaves are long, pear-shaped, with hollows at the base.

The images of animals include both really existing species and mythic characters. Represented in the left-hand column (from bottom to top) a maral (1), lions (2, 6?, 10), a camel (5), dzeren (7), mountain goat (9). The right-hand column (from the bottom upwards) encloses a hare (1), an elephant (2), a ram (6), a lion (7), a red deer (8), a винторогий козел (10). Among the other creatures there are three birds of prey. All the animals are depicted in profile, the heads of the third and tenth figures in the left-hand column are turned three-quarter.

The images of animals are arranged according to a definite scheme. In the left-hand column from bottom to top the lying figures alternate with the sitting ones, and this regularity can also be observed in the right-hand column, except for the figure of the elephant which is never depicted in the sitting posture. One can also assume a different variant: herbivorous animals interchange with carnivorous ones (except for the hare).

The main characters of the plate are located in the circle delimited by the wreath. They are in the hall of a palace. The vault rests on two columns the base of which consists of a pyramid covered with a slab. The trunk ball enveloped by three leaves stands on a pedestal in the form of a truncated cone with hollows. The trunk is separated from the capital by a narrow ridge and is markedly narrowed from the bottom upwards. The main part of the trunk is smooth, the lower part is ornamented with a grid of rhombi and triangles. The upper part of the capital has two volutes. The abacus is decorated by six circles with a point in the middle. The archivolt is represented by rows of round pearls and petals. The arches are separated by rosettes in the form of a circle with a large point in the center and two rows of petals. The architectural structure is crowned by eleven pentadent pyramids.

In the arch opening there stands a throne representing a broad seat with a high back and two elaborate side columns with six-petal rosettes at the tops. The throne rests on the heads of two standing winged lions whose faces are turned three-quarter. Their tails are raised high, and their mouths are opened. The lions’ wings are executed in the same manner as the wings of the tsar’s crown.

The main part of the throne back is decorated by five rows of squares with a point in the center, the upper part, by elongated semicircular arches. The lower part of the throne including the horizontal beam is ornamented by a rhombic grid, in the first case with a point in the centers of the rhombi. The seat is covered by an oval carpet with a festoon fringe. The carpet edges are decorated with pyramid-shaped flowers.

Sitting on the throne is a tsar. The presentation is frontal, the legs are bent at the knees and parted, the toes are turned apart. The tsar has a long face, large, wide-set eyes, large ears. Ringlets represent a roundish neatly cut beard; the hair gathered at the back of the head fall down on the shoulders (the latter part of the hair-do is hatched with lines). The flat nose is slightly uplifted, which, however, may be a defect committed while casting the plate. In the open mouth on can see the tongue: the tsar is singing.

On the ruler’s head there is a big crown with wings each feather of which ends in a separate curl. The crown is topped by a crescent with a globe enclosed. The tsar’s head and shoulders are encompassed by a halo in the form of a wide band the inner edge of which is decorated with round pearls. Engraved inside the halo is a vegetable ornament (acanthus) against a gilded background.

The tsar is magnificently attired. Over a long “shirt” falling in waves on his legs he is wearing another shirt with its hem gathered in folds. His attire is completed by a buttoned-up short belted jacket with a mantle thrown over it. The mantle is fastened on his chest with strings. The plate maker has taken pains to accentuate the soft folds of the clothes.

On the throne seat to the left of the tsar is a musical instrument resembling a kithara by its design and manner of playing (The instrument is described by G.Ye. Soldatova). Its body represents a long rectangular frame along which there are five strings of the same length running parallel to one another. The strings are fixed (possibly tied) to semicircular lugs of the cross-pieces. There is no special resonance box or sounding board. The upper part of the instrument is ornamented with a massive pommel. The instrument is depicted when playing. It is held in a strictly vertical position. The musician’s left hand is bent at the elbow because with his shoulder he supports the instrument stand. His right hand is straightened. The sound is extracted by plucking the strings, with both hands, the melody being performed with the right hand which can move more freely compared to the left one. Judging by the proportions of a human body one can estimate approximate dimensions of the instrument. Assuming the man sitting on the throne to be of average height (175 cm), the total length of the instrument must amount to about 73 - 75 cm and the width to 19 - 20 cm.

In the left-hand (for the onlooker) aperture formed by the arch there is an image of a standing man with his head turned three-quarter, his right hand on his hip and the left one with two folded fingers raised. His face is round, with a big aquiline nose, a curly shock of hair, beardless, with large ears and large. wide-set eyes. His mouth is shut. His head and neck are surrounded by a continuous round halo. His head is covered by a crown carrying closed wings and topped, just as in the first case, by a crescent and a globe. Interestingly, the crown, as distinct from the face, is shown facing front. The artist seems to have deemed it more important to emphasize the symbol of the royal power rather than the personality of the standing man.

The man’s attire consists of two shirts of different length made in the same style as those on the central man’s figure. The jacket is of a different cut: the collar is with lapels, the central part of the jacket is ornamented with a large triangle filled with semicircular scales; from under the belt one can see the semi-circular bottom of the jacket with a festoon edge.

In the right-hand aperture formed by a semi-arch there is an image of a standing woman. Her head is turned three-quarter towards the central male figure, the arms are folded below the breast, the wrists are hung down. Her face is rounded, the nose is big, the ears are large, the eyes are large and wide-set. Two thin curled tresses are shown, as well as an ear ring representing a ball (with a hollow inside) on a long rod. On her head the woman is wearing a crown the upper part of which has the form of three oval dents ending in small balls (each with a hollow in the middle). Fixed to the back part of the crown is a band of veil with a spruce-like ornament. The head is surrounded with a continuous round halo.

The woman’s attire consists of a short (coming down to her knees) one-piece (worn unopened) tunic-shaped dress, from under which one can see narrow trousers. The attire is completed by a long mantle ornamented with rhombic patterns. One can assume the woman’s neck to be decorated by a grivna with a pear-shaped pendant.

Characteristic of the faces of all the represented personages is the stylization of nose and brows as a T-shaped ridge.

It should be noted that the above description of the garments require further correction by experts.

Depicted in the upper segment of the central part of the plate are two hovering angels facing each other. Their arms are brought together on the chest with the palms closed. Their heads are outlined with narrow bands of haloes, on their backs there are wings. The angels are wearing short jackets and wide, loosely draping, belted trousers. Their faces are round with big noses and large eyes.

The plate also carries some contour linear images made later with a sharp cutting tool, so-called cut-in drawings. They were made later in Siberia (see below: Later Engravings).


I believe that on the obverse (upper side) of the plate the artist has depicted a scene connected with the legendary rulers of the Israel-Jewish kingdom David and Solomon.


The man sitting in state on the throne is most probably David, the ruler of the said kingdom (the 10th c. BC), the hero of the Old Testament narration, with which the subsequent Jewish and Christian traditions connected the Messianic aspirations: the Gospels According to Matthew (1:20 – 21) read that Jesus was David’s direct descendant. On the plate the latter is depicted as a venerable old man which is in agreement with the biblical text: “David was 30 years old when he came to the throne; he reigned 40 years” (2 Kingd. 5: 4).

One of the main arguments in favor of this version is the fact that the tsar is depicted with a musical instrument in his hands. According to the Bible, David became famous for composing and performing psalms “on the eight-stringed” (Ps. 6) or “on string implements” (Ps. 55). In medieval art David frequently appears as a musician with an instrument (usually a harp) in his hands. As usual literature reading-book examples one can mention the book miniatures of Psalters by Khludovskaya, the 9th c. AD, and by Parizhskaya, the 10th c. AD (The Myths…, 1987, 345) as well as David’s image on the reliefs of the Protection Temple on the Nerl, of the Dmitry cathedral in the city of Vladimir, of the Mother of God’s Nativity Temple in the town of Bogolyubovo (Vagner, 1969, 19, 23, 73).

The image of David playing among beasts and birds goes back to the ancient image of Orpheus to which some features of the image of the Good Pastor have been added. Birds and lions near David are also encountered in the medieval miniatures (Ibidem, 134). There are two plates (Kilikia, 1200), in the central medallions of which David and Muse are depicted in the midst of wild animals and birds (Marschak, 1986, Abb. 153, 154).


Depicted to the right of David is Solomon, the third tsar of the Israel-Jewish state (ca. 965 - 928 BC) who is described in the Old Testament books as the greatest sage. On the plate he is shown as still a young man, but as already David’s crowned heir. Their crowns are made practically in the same manner with the only difference that Solomon’s wings are closed while David’s are opened. Comparing the latter’s wings to a still unopened flower bud the artist has thereby been able to emphasize the heir’ youth and his father’s senility.

The represented scene is successfully supported by the biblical text: “Having become old and sated with life, David elevated his son Solomon to the throne to rule over Israel’ (1 Par. 23). Moreover, it appears quite probable that in accordance with the artist’s design David is singing here the psalm about Solomon in which he is foretelling him dominion over vast territories:
He will possess from sea to sea
And from river to world’s end.
Desert’s folk will fall before him
And enemies will lick the dust.
The tsars of Pharsis and the Isles
Will pay him tributes.
And all tsars will bow to him;
All peoples will serve him.
(Ps.72 – 71 8 – 11)

It is no accident that there are also images of angels on the plate. There is a well-known song of praise by David, "The safety of him who sets hopes on God", the text of which can also amphasize the father’s address to his heir:
For He commanded His Angels
To protect you on all your routes.
They will carry you on their arms
That you may not stumble over stones.
You will trample on vipers and basilisks,
You will tread lions and dragons under foot
(Ps. 91 - 90: 11 - 13)

Attention is drawn to the fact that Solomon is shown with his left hand raised and its fingers specifically folded. Undoubtedly, here we are dealing not with the sign of the cross or blessing, but with a way of presenting a person as one speaking. According to the well-known historian of the church Ye. Golubinsky, the hands with specifically folded fingers represented in icons and other holy images began to be regarded as blessing ones not earlier than the eleventh century AD, and as one making the sign of the cross, not earlier than the middle of the fifteenth century. The custom of using the hands with folded-fingers as the symbol or conventional sign that the depicted person is speaking had been introduced by pre-Christian artists and had been borrowed by them from reality. Thus, in his work "De institutione oratoria" Quintilianus the lists gestures most frequently used by the Greek and Roman orators. One of them - the ring finger and the little one are bent and pressed to the palm, the middle finger and the forefinger are stretched out, and the thumb is pressed to the latter two (Golubinsky, 1905, 179 – 180, 182, 184) – is Solomon’s jest. "Prophets who have up till now been depicted in icons with their hands stretched out and the fingers folded are neither blessing nor praying, but prophesying, i.e. their hands with folded fingers are the sign that they are depicted as prophesying (Ibidem, 182).

In the art of the Ancient East there are many personages depicted with a raised hand and folded fingers. As an example one can mention the portrait of Iran’s high priest Karter in Nakshi Rajab (the 3rd cen. AD) who declared himself to be a prophet; the woman depicted on the silver plate feasting with Tsar Ezdigerd II (439 - 457): the Zoroastrian priest singing prayers at sick man’s bedside(a scene in the paintings on the ossuary from Merv, the 6th c. AD); Azade, the beloved of Bahram Gur (silver plate of the 7th c. AD) (Lukonin, 1977, 189 – 190, 209, 217 – 219); the horsemen in the paintings in the caves “Maya” and “with a fire-place” in Kyzyl (Dyakonov, 1954, 152 – 153), etc.

Thus, Solomon’s jest accentuates his significance as a prophet, on the one side, and serves as the sign that he is depicted as speaking, on the other. That the raised hand is the left one can most probably be accounted

For by Solomon’s position relative to the other two figures. On the Nildino plate the second-from-below horseman in the left-hand row is also depicted with the two stretched fingers of his left hand, just as also the woman on the plate of the 7th c. AD discovered in the Perm gubernia (Marschak, 1986, Abb. 16). On the front wall of the ossuary from the settlement of Bia-Naiman the third-from-the-right man is leaning on his sword hilt with his right hand while his left hand with two folded fingers is raised high (Dyakonov, 1954, 133). It should also be mentioned that in the works of Eastern art for millennia from the Sasanians to the Osmans many of the Eastern marksmen were left-handed (Sokrovishcha…, 1996, 37).


It is hard to identify the woman depicted on the plate. David and Solomon’s histories are associated with many female personages, but the most prominent of them are three: David’s wifeVirsavia (1), the pharaoh’s daughter (2) and the tsarina of Sava (3). Let us consider all the three versions. Virsavia, David’s favorite wife and Solomon’s mother played a significant part in the official elevation of Solomon to the throne while David was still living. In the Books of Kingdoms, in describing a heir’s coming to the throne mention is always made of his mother, in rare cases of his wife. Due to the practice of polygamy the position of the tsarine-mother was stronger. Solomon rendered Virsavia all the assumed homage: “And Virsavia came in to see tsar Solomon… The tsar stood up before her and bowed to her sat down on his throne. A throne was placed for the tsar’s mother too, and she sat down on his right” (3 Tsar. 2:19). In the case at issue Virsavia’s presence on the plate might underline additionally her role in passing the throne over to Solomon.

It is noteworthy that the plate maker has represented David and the woman wearing cloaks while Solomon has no cloak on. This fact might point to an old age of the first two personages and thus counts in favor of Virsavia.

Now as for the pharaoh’s daughter. If the plate maker strove to create the image of an ideal tsar, then it was logical to strengthen this image by the fact of Solomon becoming related with the pharaoh, Egypt’s tsart, the representative of an older dynasty. In this case the heir’s raised hand might mean that he is greeting his fiancйe or delivering a speech to her.

The tsarine of Sava came to Jerusalem with a large wealth; camels were loaded with fragrances and a lot of gold and precious stones (3 Tsar. 10: 2). It was about her that David spoke in the above psalm dedicated to Solomon:
…the tsars of Arabia and Sava
will bring him gifts.
And all the tars will bow to him.

The tsarine of Sava was the first of those equal to Solomon who recognized his wealth, strength and wisdom. A group of three statues – of tsar Solomon, tsarine of Sava and tsar David – decorates the portal of the Saint-Etien Cathedral of the twelfth century in Bourges (France) (Mify…, 1988, 396).

However, it is also possible to identify this personage using a different approach. According to S.V. Polyakova, In general it is characteristic of medieval art to represent the future in the background, the fore ground being naturally associated with the representation of the present (Uspensky, 1973, 140). In this case the woman’s figure may represent either the tsarine of Sava or the pharaoh’s daughter. But if the plate maker has shown the scene only in the framework of the present time, then it is Virsavia whom it is logical to see next to David and Solomon.


The representation of animals on the plate can be accounted for by two reasons. First, their presence might emphasize the performance by David of one of the best-known psalms: 150, “ Let all that lives praise the Lord”:
… praise Him on the Psalter and psaltery…
praise him on the strings and the organ…
Let all that breathes praise the Lord! (Ps. 150: 3 – 6)

Secondly, the representation of animals might be connected with Solomon’s image who (according to the apocrypha) knew the language of all animals (Vagner, 1976, 272).


By the subject represented on it the silver plate discovered at the Khant sanctuary is the first of its kind. As has been said above, by its main dimensions, the technology of manufacturing it and the manner of applying the decor it is comparable in the greatest degree to the Anikovo plate (dating it by different investigators varies in the range of the sixth through tenth cen. AD (Darkevich, 1976, 28) and the Nildino plate. Apart from the characteristics enumerated above these plates they are brought together by a number of other points: a relief wreath which consists of converging and diverging heart-shaped leaves separated by rosettes of various shapes; architectural elements in the form of pentadent pyramids; two personages (a horseman and Solomon) with uplifted left hands with specifically folded fingers; stylized noses and brows in the form of a T-shaped ridge.

Some features bring the plate from the Malaya Ob close to a number of silver articles from Eastern Iran (The first two of the plates listed below are referred by M.M. Dyakonov and B.I. Marschak to Sogdiana (Marschak, 1971, 23, 73)).

First of all, it is the plate with the image of a tsar hunting lions ( the late 7th – early 9th cc. AD): the background of the figures on this plate and on that from the Malaya Ob is gilded, there is also much similarity in representing both the tsar’s and David’s beard and hair, in either case there are haloes. Also depicted in a similar manner are the bellies of the lions that are under David’s throne and the belly of the lion located in the left-hand part of the Iranian plate.

The plate with the scene of a tsar’s feast (the late 8th – early 9th cc. (Ibidem)) is united with the Malaya Ob one by the following coinciding features: the halo, the winged throne with Crescent and Globe, the beard shape, the tsar’s hair bound at the back of his head and falling freely on his shoulders (in two waves in the first case, and in one in the case of David), the lions supporting the throne.

In Iran, a plate was found with a throne scene depicted on it (the late 7th - the early 8th cc.). The tsar is standing in an arch aperture, the upper part of which is crowned with four small dented pyramids: the throne is supported by two lions; there are two figures shown on either side of the ruler (Marschak, 1986,Abb. 194).

Referred to Eastern Iran (the boundary between the tenth and the eleventh centuries) is a plate with the image of a tsar on the throne between two servants discovered in Yamgort (Darkevich, 1976, 46). The features common to the Yamgort and the Malaya Ob plates are the coinciding shapes of the throne carpets, the two figures of lions supporting either throne and the winged crown with the Crescent on the head of either tsar.

The rhombic grid with a large point in the rhombi centers covering the lower part of the thron resembles the broad ornamental bands decorating the dress hems of the women depicted on the silver pitcher (Eastern Iran, the late 8th – the 9th cc.) (Ibidem, 41, Table 7).

The Place of the Plate Manufacture

Thus, the plate from the Malaya Ob bears the strongest resemblance to the articles manufactured in Eastern Iran and Central Asia in the 6th - 9th cc. AD. The silver plates of Eastern Iran, Sogdiana, Semirechye and Eastern Turkmenistan are close to one another in many aspects. The reason for the resemblance of subjects, iconography and style was the interchange of cultural values on the Great Silk Road passing through Central Asia (Darkevich, 1976, 71). Reflecting on whether the silver articles came from Sogdiana or from Iran, B.I. Marschak (1971, 12)admitted that the similarities could be understood as Iranian features in the art of Sogdiana (considering the silver to originate from Iran) or, on the contrary, as Sogdianian features in the art of Post-Sasanian Iran.

It can clearly be seen that the artist also made use of some earlier elements that reflected the traditions of the Sasanian epoch. Predominant in all the other arts of Ancient Iran was the canon: images of gods, people, animals, their poses, types, compositions, styles were strictly regulated. The main idea of the canon (from the accession of the Sasanians up to the middle of the 4th c.) was to demonstrate the sublimity of the idolized power, to work out a typical ideal of the “tsar of tsars” (including the throne scene with the participation of family members). The sovereign’s figure is always bigger in size than the others, he is always in the center of the composition, wears investiture symbols: a crown, decorations, etc. (Rempel, 1973, 162 - 163: Lukonin, 1977, 4 - 5). It is from these rules that the plate maker proceeded when depicting the main scene on the Malaya Ob plate. Besides, to the Sasanian features reflected in the Malaya Ob plate can be assigned the encirclement of the composition, the gilded (rather than punched) background, the three-quarter turned muzzles of the lions, the soveregn’s curly beard (Darkevich, 1976, 40, 75) as well as the element of royal iconography developed by the end of the 5th c.: a rhombus formed by the sitting figure’s legs with their knees apart (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, 180). The halo may be considered as the heritage of the Sasanian (or, according to B.A. Marschak, as the influence of the Buddhist) iconography. The halo symbolizes the “Divine Grace”, overshadowing the sovereign (Darkevich, 1976, 40).

The following set of features may in the same measure be assigned to the traditions of both Eastern Iran and Central Asia.

The heads of two personages of the plate are turned three-quarter, which correlates with the Post-Sasanian monuments (Darkevich, 1975, 161). A crown with wings appeared in Iran under Varahran II (276 - 293 AD) (Darkevich, 1976, 40). In the paintings of Varakhsha and Pendzhikent at the 7th - 8th c. boundary as well as on a number of East-Iranian plates of the 8th - 10th cc. The tsar’s crowns have wings each feather of which ends in a separate curl. This canon resulted from the transfer to the feather of the manner of treating tail feathers which was widely used at the end of the Sasanian epoch (Marschak, 1971, 39; Darkevich, 1976, Table 6, 4 - 5)

In the architecture of Eastern Iran and Central Asia wide use was made of small dented pyramids. They crown the central relief of the Apadana stairs in Persepolis (the late 6th c. BC), the vaulted faзade of the great grotto Tak-i-bostan (the time of Khosrow II’s reign, 591 - 627 AD) (Lukonin, 1977, 67, 184), the Parthian temple of Bela in Palmyra (the early 1st millenium AD) (Shlumberzhe, 1985,74 - 77), they are contained in the architectural motifs of constructions represented in the wall paintings of Pendzhikent of the early 8th c.(Marschak, 1986, Abb. 213,1).. In Sogdians and (7th c. AD) and Semirechye ossuaries have been discovered depicting a scene of kindling a sacred fire in a temple (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, Table 107, 1 – 3) The little dented pyramids crowning the composition are identical to those on the plate. The earliest ossuaries of Merv (Sasanian time) reproduce a round building with a cupola and a dented parapet (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, 28). On the Malaya Ob plate the palace cupola is conventionally shown as a segment with two angels represented in it.

Many details of the plate composition are related to Central Asia. According to A.M. Belenitsky (1959, 30), the representation of the Crescent in the tsar’s crowns of Sogdiana was the outward expression of the worship of the lunar deity. The tsarine’s trident crown resembles the head-dress of the female deity on the Sogdian 5th - 6th century icon (Meshkeris, 1977, 62, Fig.6, 1). In the latter case the face is also noted for its heavy semi-round broad chin, a big nose and wide-set eyes.

The tradition, well-known in the art of Central Asia of the early 8th century, which consisted in depicting women with two plaits (and girls with five plaits) may testify against the version that the female depicted on the Malaya Ob plate was the pharaoh’s daughter, Solomon’s bride, (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, 74)

In most columns of Central Asia architecture the upper part ended in tapering. From the 8th - 9th cc. the acanthus is transformed into the blades (leaf-shaped blades), which are characteristic of medieval columns, These blades envelop the “apple” on the four sides. The bottom parts of the columns on the plate resemble those of the columns on the small hearths of the 9th - 10th cc. in Samarkand (Pugachenkova, 1950, 25, 31 – 32).

The predominant element in the decorative design of Sogdian 7th century funerary vessels was the arched division of the wall surfaces in ossuaries (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, 76; Table 36, 5, 8). One of the Samarkand ossuaries is decorated with a composition close to the one we observe on the blade. The funerary vessel wall depicts a vaulted room divided by two columns. In the extreme arches there are figures of religion ministers, in the central arch there is a sacrificial altar. The vault is crowned by dented pyramids of the above said kind. Depicted above them, in a closed triangular space, there are two standing figures facing each other (Ibidem, Table 36, 3). An impression is produced that the plate author has imitated the ossuary composition, but instead of the sacrificial altar in the central arch he has placed David’s throne, and instead of the figures in the triangle, the angels.

Of widespread occurrence in Sogdiana in the 6th century were small icons, quite a number of them representing a deity in a temple bay On one of these icons there is an image of a man sitting on a throne with a kithara or lyre in his left hand. On his head there is a winged crown with a Crescent on two small circles in the middle (Ibidem…, Table 30, 3). He is probably David, and if so, then his image on the plate is not unique for the region in question.

On the Plate Dating

The problem of dating the plate is no less complex than that of the place of producing it. One can trace two ways of solving it. The first one consists in separating the already dated features referring to the medieval cultures of Eastern Iran – Central Asia (see above). The second way is to compare the Malaya Ob plate with Anikovo and Nildino ones that are closest to it.

The first way brings us to rather a broad chronological range: the 6th - 8th cc. The second one, unfortunately, is complicated by different views on the Anikiovo plate which are most completely listed by V.P. Darkevich (1976, 28 – 29). The latest published versions belong to B.I. Marschak and G.A. Pugachenkova. According to the former, the plate was manufactured in the 9th - 10h cc. in the state of Christians - Karluks in Semirechye (Sokrovishcha…, 1996). The realities reflected in the chasing date back to the 9th - 10th cc., while those communicated by the molded relief, to the 8th c. (Darkevich and Marschak, 1974, 217). The technique of manufacturing the plate (casting) and applying the decor with the help of a chisel and a puncheon distinguishes it from most Sasanian and Byzantine silver articles (Darkevich, 1976, 100, 103). G.A. Pugachenkova has found no reasons for stating the Nestorian-Semirechye origin of the Anikovo plate. In her opinion, it was rather created in one of the pre-Arabian centers of artistic handicraft within the zone of the Zeravshan - The Amu Darya - the Murghab (Pugachenkova, 1981, 60 – 61). In her earlier work G.A. Pugachenkova (1950, 51) referred the plate to the Sogdian specimens of the 6th - 7th cc.

Additional information on the place and date of manufacturing the Malaya Ob plate can be obtained through the Nildino plate. Although it is considered to be the double of the Anikovo one, they have some differences in depicting military armor, horse gear, priest clothing, architectural details, etc. (Gemuyev, 1988). It is also of significance that in the Anikovo article one can observe “traces of the initial engraving f the original smoothed in the process of molding” (Darkevich and Marschak, 1974, 217) (the gate-posts, the collar of one of the horses) while on the Nildino plate these details are executed with a chisel and a punch. All this can testify that the Nildino plate is older than the Anikovo one, and may have served as a pattern after which the latter was molded.

Of interest is also another thing. The investigators of the Anikovo plate solved the problem of the place and date of its manufacture largely based on the assumption that the architecture represented on the plate comes from Central Asia. But they overlooked an evident detail: the upper part of the castle with warriors on it is executed after a sketch influenced by the scene of seizing the fortress of Sugunia by Salmanasar III’s army. The scene is represented on the well-known Balavat Gate now kept in the British Museum. The case in point is not that The Anikovo and Nildino plates are far older, but that the art of Central Asia is saturated with elements of much earlier more southern traditions whose roots stretch back into the past through Iran to Assyria. That is what at one time V.G. Lukonin (1977, 3) spoke about, to wit: “ proto-Iranian art lies wholly in the images and compositions of the art of the Ancient East, mostly of Assyria and Elam, but also of Urartu and Asia Minor.”

I intend to consider the Nildino plate in a separate paper. But in the context of the present work I assert that it should be dated back to the 7th – 8th cc.

Thus, most of the Malaya Ob plate features considered above make it possible to assume that it was made in the period between the 6th and the 8th cc. in Central Asia.

On the Christians in Central Asia

The subject of the plate from the Malaya Ob involves important Old Testament events. It is for this reason that the plate is an exceptionally rare monument dating back to the early period of Christianity in Central Asia.

The migration of Nestorians to the East started after Nestorius was deposed at the 3rd Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. His views gained support in Syria and influenced the Persian Christian Church. In 499 among the Persian Christians Nestorianity was enunciated officially. The Nestorian communes of Iran enjoyed the patronage of the Sasanian tsars, and later of the Arabian rulers as well (Darkevich, 1976, 100, 103). By the early 6th c. there was a Christian-Nestorian commune headed by a bishop in Samarkand too. Its significance in the next century increased, and early in the 8th c., instead of a bishop, a metropolitan was appointed there (Belenitsky, 1954, 37). The Turkish king Arslan Il-Tyurgyuk (766 - 840), who was ruled over Semirechye, requested the patriarch to send a Nestorian metropolitan to the “country” (stretching from Syr-Darya to Balasagun) (Senigova, 1968, 65). In Merv, Christianity started to spread in the 3rd c.; incidentally, the name of one of the local metropolitans (early 6th c.) was David (Bader, Gaibov, and Koshelenko, 1996, 91). In Khoresm, colonies of Christians existed in the 7th - 8th cc. (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, 26, 46). In Pendzhikent, a Syrian inscription was found dating back to the early 8th c., which contained fragments of verses from two psalms. According to A.V. Paikova and B.I. Marschak (1976, 34 - 38), this find Testifies that in the town there lived Sogdians-Christians, and that there was a Christian-Nestorian school there.

The sufficiently ample evidence on the existence of Christian communes in Central Asia are poorly supported by material monuments. At best, there are ruins of temples which by a number of signs the investigators refer to the Christian ones, there are crosses, scarce inscriptions, etc. In this set of monuments the plate from the Malaya Ob occupies a unique place. In this case the Old Testament plot and its main personages are represented in the framework of Sasanian traditions in the interieur of the early medieval Central Asia architecture. David was quite naturally represented as “the tsar of tsars” in full conformity with the Iranian canon, since by the time the plate was manufactured the legends presented him precisely in this capacity. As G.A. Pugachenkova (1981, 59) has aptly remarked, a characteristic feature of the early medieval art was the representation of plots, even those of the most legendary nature, in the situation and attire that were contemporary with the author. This remark applies in full measure to our plate too.

The Malaya Ob plate may become a weighty argument in the controversy as to whether the subject of the Anikovo plate refers to some events of the Book of Jesus by Navin. This opinion was expressed by B.I. Marschak (1971, 11) and supported by V.P. Darkevich (1976, 28), but later it was disputed by G.A. Pugachenkova (1981, 60 - 61). Today, B.I. Marschak’s version does not seem to me to be logical in everything either, however - and this should be particularly emphasized - his reasoning is corroborated by the subject of the Malaya Ob plate. Recall that the present paper started with the Mansi legend according to which seven plates, all “alike”, were fished out with a sweep-net. The Anikovo, Nildino, and Malaya Ob plates are “alike” not only for the Ob Ugrians. If the plates are united by the Old Testament subjects, then B.I. Marschak is right! In this respect I dare to come out with a cautious assumption connected with one of the main problems arising in analyzing Eastern silver: What were these articles designed for? It seems to me that quite a number of plates with biblical scenes were cast for a group of Christian missionaries starting for Siberia with a merchant caravan. Very few plates of this kind have been found so far. Apart from the above plates one can mention the Grigorovo plate (the 9th - 10th cc.) and the plate-paten which represents angels on either side of a cross (the 6th c.) (Darkevich, 1976, 26; Sokrovishcha…, 1996, 70). It will be recalled that at the Mansi sanctuary the plate played the conventional role of a plate-paten: it was used to put sacrificial bread on it.

If one considers the plate from the Malaya Ob without any association with the Anikovo or Nildino plates, one may assume it to have been made for some solemn occasion. For instance, for the ceremony of the above mentioned David from Merv taking up his post of metrpolitan. The event might also be connected with elevating one of the Central Asia tsars to the throne from a Christian medium. An assumption has already been made in the literature that Christian rulers had once come to power in Khoresm for a short time (Srednyaya Azia…, 1999, 46). In this case the plate subject would have underlined both the legality of the power passed by right of succession and its divine sublimity.

Later Engraving

A similar drawing was earlier discovered on a plate from the Upper Kama region (Leshchenko, 1976, 185, Fig. 29)On the front side of the plate, between the left-hand male figure and the relief wreath there is an engraved image of a wolf, while to the right and left of the tsar’s halo there are two stretched zoomorphic figures with their heads directed downwards. On the reverse side of the plate, within the ring bottom support there is a bigger (about 5 - 5.5 cm long) stylized image of a warrior in a spherical helmet with eye-shields and a nose-piece. The artist has also depicted the warrior’s torso and hips, but there are no arms or legs. On his chest there is a cavity of a stretched rhombic shape emphasizing the divinity of the depicted figure. The warrior’s posture resembles the Altaic stone sculptrures.

According to a number of researchers, the so-called graven drawings occur on silver vessels made from the 7th to the 8th cc. Anthropomorphic figures and images of elks prevailed in the 9th - 10th cc. (Leshchenko, 1976, 180; Sokrovishcha…, 13).

Depicted on the plate most realistically and at the same time in the traditions of the “skeletal” style is the image of the running wolf (dog). Its mouth is shut, the tail stretched, the chest shaded with three semicircular longitudinal lines and one transverse straight line.

The warrior’s image in the spherical helmet with eye-shields and a nose-piece has a number of analogs among the articles discovered in North-Western Siberia. Among the most spectacular ones mention should be made of a bronze oval tracery plate with a figure of a warrior (the 5th - 8th cc.), a silver name plate with images of three helmeted men (the 9th - 12th cc.) (Sokrovishcha…, 1996, 54, 78), a name plate with three warriors from the Shaitan Cape (Soloviev, 1987, 63), a bronze anthropomorphic mask (the 6th - 8th cc.) (“Ushedshiye…,” 1998, 33, 66), a bronze three-headed idol with a crown of three heads (Неясно, что здесь трёхголовое – идол или корона) (Gemuyev and Baulo, 1999, 109). To these can be added an anthromorphic figure on the plate from the Upper Kama region (Leshchenko, 1976, 186, Fig. 33) and a wooden idol from the worship site of the Mansi on the Lyapin River – "wearing a helmet with a half-mask" (Gemuyev, Sagalayev and Soloviev, 1989, 87). In A.I. Soloviev’s (1987, 62) opinion, the semi-circular notches for the eyes on a battle head-dress near the nose-piece appeared in the late 1st - early 2nd millenia. The graphic material yields only single and so far rather conventional indications of a helmet with a round dome-shaped crown, a nose-piece and a half-mask.

Analysis of the later engravings is beyond the scope of the present paper, but it is obvious that they were performed by a Siberian artist within the framework of the local realistic and mythological notions.


In the summer of 1999, at the Khants sanctuary, a unique silver plate was discovered. Its central scene is connected with the Old Testament tsars and prophets David and Solomon. In manufacturing the plate the master was basing himself on the arts traditions of Sasanian Iran and Central Asia. The plate can be dated back to the 6th - 8th cc. and is certain to have been manufactured at one of the handicraft centers of Central Asia.

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