Russia, Perm region, Perm Animal Style (Permian Animal Style), ca. 5th to 11th centuries CE. A gorgeous and rare ancient weapon. The blade, long and straight on the upper side, unsharpened, with a curved, pointed edge and a sharpened lower side, is made of iron. The handle is a highly polished cast white bronze (a copper alloy with a high percentage of tin). The handle is decorated and terminates in a in-profile view of a bird of prey with wings folded and low-relief areas giving it a texture of feathers. The bird is shown as they always are in this style, pecking at something it has hunted. It was made as two halves and put together around the iron blade, and was originally stuffed with leather, wood, and other perishable materials to making the fit of the blade tight. Some remains of the original stuffing are still visible here, and the wear to the handle probably speaks to a long period of use. Similar handles are known from the taiga zone along the banks of the Ob River, in modern day west-central Russia; other examples come from cemeteries in the same region and especially further north, all the way to the Yamal Peninsula, on the Arctic Sea. The sitting bird of prey motif is the most commonly found knife handle from this little-know culture. Size: 6.75" L x 1.3" W (17.1 cm x 3.3 cm)
The Perm Animal Style is associated with a loosely culturally connected group of people known as the Finno-Ugric peoples who lived in west central Siberia, from modern day Perm north to the Arctic Sea. They freely took artistic influence from those who came before them, like the Scytho-Siberians, and from colonists from the west, like the Vikings, but developed their own clear style that archaeologists know from graves scattered throughout the taiga. Birds of prey, ungulates like reindeer, and bears abound in their iconography; human representations are also common. These zoomorphic designs seem to share some common culture with the fantastical animals of pagan Viking art, but with some major stylistic differences. Notably, like the Scythians who occupied much of this landscape before them, they tend to focus on individual elements of animals - beaks, feet, claws, mouths, and eyes. Imagining the lifestyle of people in the vast regions of the north - both in taiga and in forest - animals hardy enough to live through the dark winters would have been of great interest and probably played major roles in their folklore as well as being human companions and fellow hunters (birds of prey), food sources (reindeer), and threats (bears). This iconographic style had remarkable uniformity of design across a vast region and long time period. Although nearly all of our knowledge comes from grave goods, these items seem to have been extensively used in life based upon wear patterns (unlike some other cultures, where goods are produced solely to be placed in graves). They were probably worn on the belt of their owner in life, at a time (which continued into the medieval European period) when flashing, jingling decoration was in fashion. Today, as climate change causes the melting of the permafrost in Siberia, many of these archaeological sites are thawing (and threatened), presenting an opportunity to learn more about these elusive ancient people.
For further understanding of similar bronze artifacts featuring images of birds see the catalogue for the historic exhibition entitled, "The animalistic Style of Western Siberia" at the Fine Arts Museum of Surgut (2000).
Provenance: Ex-Private LA County collection
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