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Forget ‘Borat’ - D.C. exhibit shows the real Kazakhstan

WASHINGTON -- The first question might be, where is Kazakhstan? The second is, why go see an exhibit about it?

The answer is simple. Kazakhstan is basically unknown to Americans outside of the 2006 movie “Borat,” and has more to offer.

“Nomads and Networks,” which opened Saturday at the Arthur M. Sackler museum in Washington, D.C., provides a snapshot of this vast country and its ancient history.

Found to the south of Russia and the west of Mongolia and China, Kazakhstan is slightly less than four times the size of Texas. One third of it is steppe grasslands, where nomadic tribes tamed horses and were formidable mercenaries in antiquity.

The exhibit concentrates on Iron Age Kazakhstan from about 8th to 3rd centuries B.C.E. There aren‘t many written sources of that time outside of Greek historian Herodotus, who “refers a little bit of what is going on there,” says archeologist and curator Alexander Nagel. Herodotus wrote in the 5th century.

“Nomads and Networks” give us insight into the nomadic culture that dominated the wide steppes. It starts two large stones carved with petroglyphs. One glyph has two ibex, a curly-horned mountain goat, obviously an animal very important in this ancient culture since it re-occurs often in the exhibit. The other has some kind of man.

As usual, the dead tell the most about life thousands of years ago. Archeologists are now opening some of the “thousands of kurgans -- burial mounds -- all over Kazakhstan,” says Nagel.

“In the fourth millennium B.C., they drank horse milk, they used horse bones for houses. Horses were very important for this culture.”

Out of one kurgan came two coffins, an older woman and younger man, and thirteen sacrificed horses. One was decked out with an elaborate leather mask with ibex-style cedar horns, and a tiger attacking an elk-patterned felted “saddle cover cloth.” Nagel says that whether the horses actually wore them during ceremonies “has not been answered yet.”

Ornamental horse tack items include a bit for a bridle. Out of a kurgan came a number of tiny “Snow Leopard masks” made of turquoise and gold that could be sewed on clothing. In the mineral-rich area, “Gold was readily available all over the place.”

Many of the kurgans were well preserved by permafrost. “As long as they are in the earth, they’re safe,” Nagel says, but he doesn‘t know if they have been affected by the global warming.

It wasn’t all tiny items for the nomads. One kurgan had a slender gold diadem with a horned deer, chimera, wild geese and a horned dragon. Huge cauldrons, decorated with curved-horned antelopes, were used either ceremonially or just cooking the nightly meal.

In February 2012, Kazakhstan signed UNESCO convention against illicit traffic in antiquities laws. “Kazakhstan is fully aware there is a market there,” says Nagel. “In the case of Kazakhstan, I haven‘t heard about anything” being sold.

The Sackler has added extras such as landscape photographs of Kazakhstan to the original exhibit from New York. On the museum’s website, “Nomads and Networks” plans to link to a running blog to archeologist Claudia Chang, who currently is excavating in Kazakhstan.

Nagel was a letterpress operator in East Germany but was able to study archeology in his mid-20s, and has worked in Greece and Iran before coming to the Sacker as an assistant curator.

He‘s very enthusiastic about the exhibit. “I love Kazakhstan. The people are so interested in sharing their knowledge with other cultures.”

By Tish Wells

(McClatchy Newspapers)