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Kazakh Gold

By Renato Sala and Jean-Marc Deom

During the first millennium BC, the Eurasian steppes from Hungary to Manchuria were blessed with a cool, moist climate that proved a fertile home for nomadic groups famed for three cultural elements: horses, weapons and gold. Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Eforus, Diodorus, Posidonius, Strabo, Pliny the Younger, Ptolemy, Dio Cassius and Marcellinus all referred to the presence of these nations, as did inscriptions on Achaemenid Persian monuments. They were tribes of mounted and armed shepherds, prospering on a diet of milk and meat, patriarchal but very respectful towards women, organized around military leaders of aristocratic lineage and often uniting in large confederations to plunder distant bounty. When their chiefs died, they were buried with weapons and harnessed horses in huge funerary mounds (kurgans) aligned majestically with the undulations of the steppe, together with a staggering amount of golden jewellery, appliques and horse trappings, shaped and adorned with animal motives in Scythian-Siberian animalistic style.

Today, the treasures of the early nomads displayed in Kazakhstan and at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg represent only the remnant of tons of golden objects dug from tombs and smelted during the 17th and 18th centuries, and indeed during millennia prior to that.

Why precious metals?

Huge treasure troves of precious metals hidden as hoards appeared among settled peoples in the Middle East and Europe during the Early Bronze Age, and by the second millennium BC were being converted into accumulative commercial capital through trade. However, among the pastoralist peoples of the steppes, wealth was mainly represented by herds of animals. These also had an accumulative potential: they grew quickly when wider ecological niches were exploited through mobility, but were highly perishable when immobile or badly managed. Additionally, they were very sensitive to environmental and political changes, determining quick changes in fortune.

As a result, when in the hands of mounted nomads free to move in open spaces by social alliances or military superiority, herds played the role of "pastoralist capital"-wherever they were at any given time was the centre of power. Given this geographical shifting, the function of funerary monuments broadened to become a vital element in land claims, used as signs of genealogical association and tribal identification. With this socioeconomic background, the nomads came to view precious metals not as treasure or a means of exchange, but more indirectly as a status symbol, a seal of alliance and confederation. This explains their extraordinary abundance in funerary monuments in the form of items endowed with canonical traits.

Silver and gold are ideal for metalwork due to their high malleability. In the steppe region they were abundant and could be worked to a high standard using techniques already well developed in the Middle East since the third millennium BC. These included the production of sheet metal and wires; relief work by hammering out a traced leaf of 0.1-0.3mm from the reverse side on a negative mould (embossing), or by beating down its right side to the ground of a positive mould (chasing, eventually by double positive- negative mould); engraving a design on leaves of 0.8-1.2mm by removing material with a sharp tool (chiselling); one-sided casting by pouring hot metal into an open mould, or two-sided casting through a double-mould and lost- wax process; welding together different metal pieces; enamelling of holes in the metal with vitreous substances; and the setting of precious stones (lapis lazuli, turquoise, emerald, garnet, carnelian, sardonic, chalcedony, quartz and agate) with a cabochon cut. All these techniques have been found among Kazakhstan's ancient metal relics.

What was their purpose?

The golden artefacts of the early nomads were of a functional, ritual or strictly decorative nature, but were all expressly produced to be elements of the funerary assemblage. They consisted of body ornaments (diadems, hairpins and combs, earrings, necklaces and pendants, armlets, bracelets, rings), articles of clothing (plaques and beads, fibulae, breastplates, belts and masks), trappings for horses, cups, weapons (arrowheads, spearheads), hilts and sheaths of daggers and swords, handles of mirrors and whetstones, and appliques for wooden objects (ritual vessels and ceremonial goat-horns).

All of these had an equivalent for daily use in poorer materials (ornaments, cups, weapons, mirrors, whetstones) but, when created in or adorned with silver or gold and buried with the dead, their symbolic meaning was emphasized, connected with the culture's world-views and heraldic functions. Metal has in itself an alchemic significance due to its ability to be fashioned into specific forms from its hot liquid state, while gold also exhibits incorruptibility. Body ornaments and necklaces were endowed with symbolic power through clenched, protective forms; weapons provided defence, with whetstones to sharpen them; and mirrors and masks duplicated reality.

Style and form

Many artefacts were shaped and engraved with forms of animals typical to the steppe environment. Figures of lions, deer and reindeer were characteristic of the ancient steppe north of the Black Sea; wolves, bears and stags in the Urals; leopards, horses, camels, mountain goats and bighorn sheep in the Kazakhstan steppe; and tigers and elk in the southern Siberian regions. Also represented were wild boars and hedgehogs, eagles and griffon vultures, wild geese, ducks and swans. As well as animals, fantastic chimerical creatures such as griffins (a combination of a bird, a land predator and a hoofed animal), horned horses and camels with jaws, as well as some human images have been found.

Geometric and floral forms and simple metonymic elements like horns were used to decorate small plaques or peripheral edges. Generally speaking, during the 7th-4th centuries BC in the western steppes, decorations using single animals were abundant; during the following classic era (4th century BC-2nd century AD) and always in the southern Siberian regions, complex compositions depicting predators attacking and overthrowing hoofed animals were more commonly found. Different animals were chosen for different metal objects: predator-prey scenes decorated breastplates and belts; heads of ovicaprids decorated the top of hilts and handles; predators decorated the edges of incense burners or coiled up around a ring.

The predator-prey composition and the so-called "animalistic" style of its artistic realization were the main aesthetic features of the artistic tradition of the early nomads. This is manifest in both the rock art and metalwork of the region, but it is within the latter, in adapting to the limited space of the metal objects, that it reached its highest expression. There are three main stylistic features: the dynamic, tense, realistic but hyperbolic forms of animal bodies; their realization through an assemblage of fixed stylized iconographic elements valid for different species; and their dramatic contortion and complex composition in order to fill the whole surface of an object. The European steppes and the southern Siberian regions represent two radiating poles of the so-called "Scythian-Siberian animalistic style": the former offers more classic features inspired by the Greco-Hellenistic world, while the latter presents the most original and exaggerated variants, with the introduction of metaphoric forms and sometimes bizarre constructions.


As a whole, the subjects and styles of Kazakhstan's ancient gold artefacts reflected the world-views of the military elite of the early nomadic mounted warriors. Power and swiftness were essential qualities of life, underlined by a reverence for very aggressive or highly dynamic animal species. Conflict was an immutable law of nature; sacrificial animals such as stags or bighorns with bent legs reflected the positive presence of death within the circle of life. A triadic partition of the world (quite evident in the decorations of the hat of the Golden Man of Issyk) was represented by different species: birds for the sky; ungulates for the Earth's surface; predators, hedgehogs and mysterious carnivorous animals for the underworld.

Some animals constituted a bridge between these three spheres. For example, the link between earth and sky was provided by some ungulates playing the role of sacrificial animals endowed with psychic powers: stags, because of their tree-like antlers; bighorn sheep and mountain goats, with annually growing horns, measuring the yearly cycle of the sun; horses as the speediest carriers. So we also find metaphorical stags with beaked muzzles and horses with wings and stag or ibex horns. Predators were menacing underground forces, but in some cases could become protectors: dogs, being the toughest fighters, plunderers, killers and, together with vultures, eaters of corpses, were symbols of military groups. The link between the forces of the underworld and the earth's surface was provided by the wild boar, half carnivore and half-hoofed, sometimes curled and sometimes elongated, and by the camel, ungulate but potentially furious and malicious.

Key sites

In Kazakhstan, significant golden objects of the Scythian-Siberian tradition have been discovered in dozens of sites. Four of them have provided the most impressive finds: the "Golden Man" of the Issyk kurgan in Semirechye (early Iron Saka period, 5th-3rd centuries BC); the appliques on horse outfits of the Berel barrows in the Altai region of East Kazakhstan, attributed to Saka tribes of the 5th-3rd centuries BC; the Kargaly diadem in Semirechye (a detail of a man riding a griffin, early Iron Wusun period, lst-2nd centuries AD); and the Aral-tobe "golden warrior", attributed to the Sarmatian tribes of the lst-2nd centuries AD. They have all provided heraldic emblems for the newborn Republic of Kazakhstan, and are now displayed in the Museum of Gold and Precious Metals in Astana.

Archaeologists Renato Sala and Jean-Marc Deom have lived and worked in Kazakhstan for more than 10 years. They are members of the Laboratory of Geoarchaeology, part of the Institute of Geologo-Geographical Research, Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan. For more information on their important work visit