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The Polovtsian Statues of the Eurasian Steppes

The Polovtsian Statues of the Eurasian Steppes

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The Polovtsians (derived from the Ukrainian word polovtsy, meaning blonde) were nomadic warriors of the Eurasian steppes during the Middle Ages. In the area that is now Ukraine, the Polovtsians came into conflict with the Kievan Rus, as famously depicted in Alexander Borodin’s opera in four acts with a prologue, Prince Igor. Although the Polovtsians were an influential force during the 11 th and 12 th centuries, the Mongol invasions of the 13 th century broke their power and forced them to migrate westwards. One of the material cultures left behind by the Polovtsians are numerous anthropomorphic statues made of either stone or wood.

The production of anthropomorphic statues is not a unique feature of Polovtsian culture, but belongs perhaps to the wider cultural sphere of the steppes. Such statues have been made since the Eneolithic period in the 4 th millennium B.C., and can be found across Russia, Ukraine (specifically in the eastern region), Germany, southern Siberia, Central Asia and Mongolia.

A Polovtsian statue from Luhansk, Ukraine

A Polovtsian statue from Luhansk, Ukraine. Photo source: Wikimedia.

The Polovtsian statues feature both men and women. Male statues that are standing are often portrayed as warriors ready for battle. Thus, a warrior statue would commonly be represented as wearing a helm of the Ruthenian type or (more rarely) a cap enforced with fur or metal plates, two oval breastplates on the front, a sabre and a bow, a quiver of arrows and a whip. Apart from his military gear, a warrior statue would also have everyday objects such as knives, flints and combs, which were held at the belt. As for clothing, a statue of a warrior would be depicted as wearing a shirt, trousers, kaftans, high boots and a belt. Interestingly, the statues wearing caps were meant to represent wealthy members of Polovtsian society. These statues are depicted as sitting down, having sacks, and without weapons except for knives. Objects carried by these statues show that the elite males gained their prominent positions in society not through warfare and military prowess, but through animal husbandry, trade, commerce, and tax collection.

Polostvian statues

Polostvian statues. Source: BigStockPhoto

As for the statues of women, they are commonly portrayed as wearing elaborate clothing and headdresses. Moreover, numerous ornaments, such as earrings, necklaces, and amulets can also be seen on these statues. Like the male statues, everyday items are also held at the belts. An iconic feature of these female statues is their bare breasts. It seems that this imagery was symbolically associated with strength and immortality. Like their male counterparts, the female statues consist of both standing and sitting types. The former are thought to be the wives of the warriors, while the latter are said to be the wives of the wealthy Polovtsians. Although the female statues represent the wives of prominent Polovtsians, there is one statue depicting a female warrior.

Although there are various types of Polovtsian statues, one of the biggest mysteries about them is that they all of them seem to be holding a type of vessel under the stomach. There are various shapes that the vessel may take, including dishes, pitchers, mugs and chalices. Just as these vessels have many different shapes, there are also many suggestions as to the way they were used. For instance, they may have been urns, symbolically containing the ashes of the ancestors, or sacrificial vessels, or ritual vessels were the soul might be kept.

olovtsian statue holding a vessel

Example of Polovtsian statue holding a vessel. Photo source: Hermitage Museum

Although these statues have been in existence for centuries, exposure to the elements is taking a toll on these objects. Thus, the preservation and protection of the Polovtsian statues have to be undertaken by archaeologists. There are, however, numerous problems, such as the lack of awareness and the lack of legal provisions for dealing with them. Nevertheless, these obstacles may be overcome eventually and the Polovtsian statues may be preserved and protected for future generations.    

Featured image: Three Polovtsian statues. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

By Ḏḥwty


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The statues may not survive the Russian incursion into the Ukraine.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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