February 16 – Art, Archaeology and the Sogdians

///February 16 – Art, Archaeology and the Sogdians
February 16 – Art, Archaeology and the Sogdians 2018-01-07T14:25:17+00:00

Class Plan

  • Guest lecture by Sören Stark, Assistant Professor of Central Asian art and Archaeology, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU (BGC Fifth Floor classroom)


Boris Marshak, Legends, Tales and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002). (BGC | NYU)

  • Skim the whole book, reading the introduction, chapter 1 and the conclusion especially carefully. To think about: What characterizes Sogdian art? How does it relate to the broader artistic traditions of the period? What are the major themes it presents?
  • Are there objects or images in this book that are NOT in our Omeka collection already that you think belong there?

Sören Stark, “Luxurious Necessities: Some observations on foreign commodities and nomadic polities in 6th to 9th century Central Asia,” in Complexity of Interaction along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in the First Millennium AD, ed. J. Bemmann and M. Schmauder (Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 2015), pp. 463-502. (BGC | NYU)


  1. eneill February 16, 2016 at 3:38 am

    Marshak makes a point of differentiating between the ideal and the real in the Pendjikent murals: “After studying mural paintings, one might conclude that Pendjikent was atown of knights, because horsemen in full armour are frequently represented on the walls of its house; but in fact no stables were discovered. This can be explained if we proceed from the supposition that the murals often reflected the ideals of their owners rather than their real social position” (p. 14). Can we extrapolate this idealization of Sogdian identity and iconographies to other examples of their material culture? Is there a way to establish “accuracy” in works that were not meant to be photographic in nature? How can we find opportunities to work with everyday material despite the fact that the material evidence is by its nature skewed towards the higher-class?

    Conversely, Marshak notes that in early studies of Sogdian art, scholars attempted to explain isolated works of art based on fragmentary texts and analogies: “after many mistakes, we see that it is impossible to interpret correctly a single object in isolation… Study your own material first of all, no parallels before its systematization” (p. 20). Is it possible that the three grades of importance for murals, or even the four hierarchical groups, are part of scholars’ attempts to fit Sogdian culture into previous ideas? Taking the example of the “cult scenes” that have been variously interpreted as scenes of worship and royal enthronement scenes, how can scholars interpret these murals without imposing their preconceived ideas about hierarchization and religious practices?

    Both Marshak and Stark mention luxury goods and their meaning in Sogdian contexts. As Stark points out, “besides their display value, it was their redistribution that turned them into political capital” (p. 473). This emphasis on redistribution confuses cut and dry assignments of cultures and functions to objects. As we have seen in our object list, often Sogdian objects are labeled with other cultures or geographical areas. Their own nature, as a crossroads and mercantile relay of goods, suggests that objects were not either Sogdian or not Sogdian, but rather accrued varying degrees of significance as they traveled along the routes today called the Silk Road. What are the constants in these exchanges, specifically in regard to luxury goods? Is there an overall hierarchy of value, or can it be seen more as a shifting scale?

  2. jbyrne February 16, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Stark emphasizes the role of gifts in the balance of social power: “In a world where social and political prestige was very much based on and expressed in personal bonds between ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ gift-giving was of paramount importance to create, secure, and increase political power” (474). How does the gift culture relate to the murals found at Pendjikent? Can we view the depiction of ‘heroic tales’ as an expression of gratitude for the generosity of specific nobles?

    Marshak makes passing mention of a living Sogdian dialect: “Only the inhabitants of a remote valley of the Yaghnob, a minor tributary of the upper Zarafshan basin, still use a Sogdian dialect to this day.” (p. 3). Do any oral traditions survive? How do these modern people understand their history as it relates (or does not) to the myth of the silk road?

    In his description of the houses at Penjikent, Marshak tells us that the “windows of the ground floor rooms were small and placed high above the street” (p. 17). This made me wonder about the balance of privacy with the desire to display one’s piety or wealth. How public were the lives of the people living in these homes? What were the images that were projected to the outside world versus those that were kept behind closed doors, or reserved for honored guests?

  3. clee February 16, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    “To understand the historical psychology, it is useful to look at types of social orientation. The first is based upon commoners who realize that the difference in behavior of upper and lower classes in their society is and has to be stable. In this case, a historian can focus on specific sub-cultures at every social stratum. The classic example is the self-isolation of the French nobles in the fourteen century”(5). Does this explanation from Marshak apply to major situations when we look at the Sogdian culture and works? The following article does explain how Sogdian arts reflect their cultures from different classes in details. Can we even apply this statement to those isolated works that was mentioned: “…when only isolated works of art had been discovered and scholars tried to explain them, basing their explanations on quotations from some fragmentary texts and analogies with the art of other countries. After many mistakes, we see that it is impossible to interpret correctly a single object in isolation, and sometimes the erudition which supplies a research with tempting analogues is even more dangerous than ignorance”(18)?

    Marshak described how the Sogdian tradition disappeared in Islamic culture: “When the Sogdian nobles became vassals of the Arabs, they found themselves to be equals of the Persians whose Western Iranian language was different from their own Eastern Iranian mother tongue, but whose culture was similar to their own. Later on, Sogdians became Muslims but did not enter into the society of Arabs, They were included in the community of the earlier Islamized Persians, and adopted their language and literary traditions. Gradually, the native tongue of the Sogdians was abandoned first by the city-dwellers, then by villagers and then by inhabitants of the highlands”(3). How can we exhibit this gradually disappeared culture that was replaced by other similar ones?

    Marshak emphasizes the murals which reflect the status rules of Sogdian culture, while Stark points out the roles of gifts that reflect the social power in Central Asia. “Marshak once noticed that these objects, made of a total of 4.4 kg of solid gold, were far too valuable to be freely traded. Instead, he suggested, they might have directly originated from the Sogdian royal treasury and were part of the ‘magnificent presents’ with which the Persians bought peace from Heraclius in CE 628 (Sebeos/ tr. Thomson 1999, 86) and which were subsequently left to his ally, the Western Turk qaghan (Zalesskaia et al. 1997, 92)” (470). The two emphasis can put into an interesting exhibition of the Sogdian culture.

  4. Leslie February 16, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Throughout the readings we’ve had on the Sogdians, I’ve thought a lot about what we know, what we “know,” and what we don’t know about them. When reading Stark’s piece, I was struck by the following passage: “The same ambiguity remains with regard to a precious pallash found in the Uyghur period burial of Kurgan 9 at the cemetery Dzholin-1 in the Russian Altai (Kubarev 1992; 2005, 100–101): it features a Sogdian inscription in gold damascene, mentioning a certain Katghun as the owner of the sword (Livshits 1998), thus suggesting that this precious sword was made by a Sogdian master for a Turkic customer (Kubarev 2005, 101)” (466). Words like “suggesting,” “could be,” and “most probably” have dotted our readings because there isn’t a definitive way to say, “Yeah, that’s Sogdian, which leads to this and that and so on,” in many cases. So that leads me to a few questions:

    We are students. We are not experts like Stark, Marshak, and company. Most of us are just now learning about the Sogdians for the first time. How do we write with authority on the subject, especially considering that this is a Freer Sackler project?

    My friend who is a PhD student at the University of South Carolina was talking to me about how a lot of her work feels like guesswork. Her primary source material is mostly legible and more than just fragments. Is some history just more traceable than other history? How do we grapple with this when doing our object studies? (I know Abigail gave us an awesome walk-through on how to go about doing one last week, but I’m still intimidated.)

    In Reality Hunger, David Shields writes, “In the reconstructive or restorative arts…people make the best educated guess as to what “really” happened” (71). In this class, we are trying to tell the “Sogdian story,” through investigation and educated guessing. Just the term “story” seems to bring a fictional aspect into the project. How do we communicate to our audience these are educated guesses (not fiction, but also not necessarily 100% accurate)? Do we post a section about research methods or the history of the project? Is there a way to bring the audience along this research journey in the final presentation of the project?

  5. mdischner February 16, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    In these readings and in previous ones, we have seen a great deal of religious flexibility on the part of the Sogdians. However, there still seems to be an omnipresence of Zoroastrianism. Can we read Zoroastrianism as compatible with other belief systems, or should we see this as a flexibility of belief on behalf of the worshippers? Do we continue to see this as Islam begins to spread into the area?

    Stark mentions a sort of economy of gift giving between a lord and his retainers. This is actually a fairly common practice in other parts of the world during this time frame. Even in the backwater of Anglo-Saxon England, one of the main euphemisms for lord was “ring-giver.” I doubt there is any true physical connection between these two societies, but what can we gleam from this style of relations between ruler and ruled? It seems to me a system that is not designed around longevity as far as regimes go.

    Stark shows a relationship between the Chinese and the Turks with the Sogdians sometimes showing up in between. How important were they actually in fostering and sustaining this relationship. The Sogdians clearly had good ties with both groups. Was this due simply to geography and trade? I’m hesitant to read anything more into it than that, but there was still a point where I was trying to figure where the Sogdians fit politically between all of these larger powers.

  6. solsen February 16, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    While reading Marshak I was puzzling over his account of the comparative levels of wealth between excavated households at Pendjikent and how to account for the perishable or textile goods that do not survive to be recovered archeologically which would have served as excellent measures of Sogdian wealth.

    Stark, on pages 465-466, describes 3 ways in which the partly gilded statuette of a deer could have made its way into the Turkic courts: it could have been made in Soghd, made in the Sogdian colonies, or made by a Sogdian master working in the Turkic court itself. Is there a way for us to capture the multiple ways in which Sogdian goods were produced and made their way into the possession of their nomadic neighbors?

    Stark presents a complex picture of the relationship between the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe and the Sogdians. How did these nomadic neighbors then use Sogdian people or goods to increase their own legitimacy? (i.e. use of goods Sogdian goods as important trappings of power.) And what of the use of Sogdian language inscriptions on Stele? What does that say about the relationship between the Sogdians and their neighbors?

  7. achaffin February 16, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    Boris Marshak notes, “only the inhabitants of a remote called of the Yaghnob, a minor tributary of the upper Zarafshan basin, still used a Sogdian dialect to this day” (3). Do we know how many dialects of Sogdian there were? Can these people be of any help looking at the past?

    Marshak also notes, “Frequently the ‘Puritans’ are more or less predominant and their way of life is adopted by some part of the upper class too. In these cases, ‘modest’ garments and dwellings, without any conspicuous consumption, become typical even for some groups of the most powerful part of the society. In Central Asia this became more or less typical after islamization because of the Islamic prohibition of silks, gold and silver vessels and personal ornaments” (5). Can we see this in what’s known of the Sogdians?

    In reference to art, Marshak comments, “in Sogdia the local king was not the model of valour and greatness” (21). Earlier he comments that, “the culture of the rural lords, city oatricians and townsfolk was not divided into separate sub-cultures, and as a whole we can call it the culture of Sogdian city-states” (15). Given comments like these, it seems like Sogdians were less concerned with status as other communities. What caused this?

    After posting my questions I read the other questions and realized another student posted a question very similar to my first question. Clearly it is an intriguing point.

  8. amalik February 16, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    With sogdian tradition changing so much, eventually leading to an adoptation of Islam without joining Arab society – how can we truly understand the Sogdian culture? I have personally found myself confused with so many different integrations of religion, culture, or language. It leads me to question how I can personally write about anything Sogdian without truly understanding what exactly is Sogdian.

    If the Pendjikent murals are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ what is a good resource to delve further into this subject? And does looking into it with more depth just make it all more confusing??

    Would the incorporation of the various maps and diagrams in Marshak be helpful in the exhibition?

  9. Maria February 16, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Stark mentions (page 466) that some metal ware objects were attributed to Sogdian masters, this attribution based on a Sogdian inscription. He then underlines that it isn’t possible to tell if they were manufactured in Soghd or abroad. Why is it so difficult to distinguish between the two, and what would be the features, except possible inscriptions, which could provide us with more precise information about the object’S exact provenance?

    There seems to be a great deal of confusion in distinguishing between Chinese and Sogdian objects (for example, textiles, p. 477). Does that mean that they were using the same materials, shapes and designs? If that were the case, who– Chinese or Sogdians—were the primary inventors who influenced luxury fashions at the time?

    What conclusions one can draw from the fact that Sogdian inscriptions have been found over such a large territory (from Belgium to Japan, Marshak, p. 2-3)? Does this speak more in the favour of the diversity of Sogdian trading roads, or rather of their importance as cultural disseminators, or the both?

  10. Julie Bellemare February 16, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    On page 2, Marshak argues that mural paintings were not directly connected to literary narratives, but were instead stock images taught from master to apprentice within professional artistic traditions. How did Marshak come to this conclusion about workshop organization in Sogdiana? Couldn’t there also have been narratives transmitted orally that were drawn from, for which the evidence has vanished?

    On page 101, Marshak lists the rooms for which murals would have been commissioned, such as the reception hall, lobby, ivan, and the room for family gatherings. Maybe he addresses this in another portion of the text, but how would the decoration be adapted to each of these’s rooms social purposes and occupants? Also, what was the relationship between the murals and the furnishings of the rooms?

    On pages 474-5, Stark posits that since Mongols distributed single-colored robes to their officials, this practice could also have been found among the Türk. Since a variety of metalwork was also produced in the same areas, namely by Sogdian masters, could it be possible that different values and ranks were attributed to different metals, such as gold, silver, or damascened work?

  11. Christina February 16, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    Marshak’s book focuses on the Pendjikent paintings and he discusses the stories depicted by them. Where else are these same stories painted? Are they all painted the same way/ is there a standard/template for how they are painted? Are the same stories painted together? What does the stories paint say about the building’s owners/inhabitants?

    Marshark shares that another scholar Henning notes one of the depictions as similar to that of Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11:30-39), as well as other stories parallel to those in Sogdian text (and art) (pg. 62-64). Can the “original” source of this stories be identified? Can these fairytales or fables be followed across cultures and time? How are Sogdian representations and tellings different from others cultures or times?

    On pg. 473, Stark notes the the Chinese comment that the Turk “all plundered riches belong to the officers and soldiers while the Qaghan recieves nothing” is an exaggeration. In other readings we have had, we have learned that many of the texts about the Sogdians are not Sogdian, but from neighboring empires. How are non-Sogdian texts about the Sogdians used to interpret the Sogdians? Are there times when we have Sogdian and non-Sogdian texts on the same subject? If so, are there differences between them?

  12. Sarah Fisk February 16, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    When describing the AD 740s mural paintings at Pendjikent, Marshak speaks of a group painting in which the men depicted wore rich silk garments, a belt with gold plaques, a dagger, and a black purse attached to his belt. (p. 14) He infers they are merchants due to their physical attributes and the fact that the painting was in found in the house of a rich merchant. The way of life for Sogdian ‘merchant-princes’ was similar to nobility. With our object list how can we highlight this ‘merchant-prince’ lifestyle?

    Stark asserts, “Social and political power was very much based on and expressed in personal bonds between ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ gift-giving was of paramount importance to create, secure and increase political power.” (p 474) He also references Menander’s account of an abundance of luxury goods and silver at a Byzantine banquet – the function being to impress visitors – perhaps also the goods were distributed among nobles, allies, and retainers. Stark emphasizes the challenge of not knowing (functions of an object for example) and the risk of making anachronistic conclusions. I think not knowing and straddling a middle ground of mystery is not something to be feared but rightfully acknowledged.

    Marshak uses a lot of line drawings, illustrative maps, and reconstructed drawings which I found quite helpful. Since these are not exactly objects, how can we incorporate these kinds of visual aids?

Leave A Comment