Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“Nomads and Networks”

Horse tack with feline representation, tin and gold overlay

For the last six weeks I have been lecturing on luxury, its origins and evolution through history, including the business strategies that yield greater market share for luxury goods companies. The experience has reinforced my view of luxury as something timeless, universal, and gender-less.  Unexpectedly, I found proof of this view in the exhibition currently on display at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (ISAW

“Nomads and Networks” explains the nuances of Eurasian nomadism in which horse-riding warfare was central to its elite. In fact, in the two rooms dedicated to the exhibit the viewer gains familiarity with the developments of that particular culture all the way to the late Iron Age (3rd and 2nd century BCE), at which point the customs and practices of horse-riding warfare spread across the Eurasian steppe. It is the proliferation of exchange and the importance given to luxury goods held by the elites and their personal relationships that resulted in the wealth of material culture currently on display.

The exhibit begins with a display of magnificent finds from Berel, an elite burial site of the Pazyryk culture located near the border with Russia, Mongolia and China.  The horse had a central role in Pazyryk culture, which is evidenced by the fact that each burial at the site contained at least one horse, and sometimes many more. The exquisitely crafted items that formed the horse’s ornamentation stun with their imaginative designs, precious materials (including gold and precious stones), and the extent of the practice. The schematic guide presented in the first room explains where and how the horse bore its ornaments and the importance these attained as items that distinguished the particular horse and most importantly its rider as a member of the elite. The room is filled with masterfully carved appliqués in wood—occasionally with remnants of tin and gold overlay; two sets of wooden horns that attest to the importance given to the horse’s decoration; a bridle ornamented with plaques that have been carved with real or mythical animals and floral elements; a saddle with superbly embroidered and appliquéd felt, all of which very well preserved due to the phenomenon of “permafrost” (=the phenomenon of soil in temperatures below the freezing point for at least two years, usually in high altitudes, and without ice trapped in it.)

The second room showcases objects of ritualistic nature (cauldrons for example), items for warfare (exquisitely crafted daggers decorated with gold), or objects for personal adornment (necklaces, beads, earrings) all of which demonstrate the extent of the exchanges and interactions between the nomadic people and their sedentary neighbors.  This is how the nomads were able to acquire valuable luxury goods. Luxury goods occupied a central role in the hierarchy of the nomadic society and served as markers of prestige that distinguished powerful individuals within the community. Not surprisingly, these goods influenced the artistic vocabularies used in objects produced by the nomads themselves (trickle down effect) the same way luxury goods function in our society today.

© Thomaï Serdari