The Great Pectoral from Tolstaya Mogila

In 1971, excavations in a kurgan (grave mound) named Tolstaya Mogila – big barrow – in the city of Ordzonikidzhe in the southern Ukraine brought to light a spectacular golden pectoral in the underground grave of a warrior, dating to c. 300 B.C. After being shown in 1975 in the United States during the exhibition, From the Land of Scythians, it is now in its permanent deposit at the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kiev.

This grave mound belonged to a Scythian aristocrat and is typical for this type of burial. Scythians buried their leaders with all their possessions in such a subterranean tomb, over which they constructed a monumental earthen mound. The largest of these royal tombs, only some 20 miles away from Ordzonikidzhe is the Certomlyk kurgan. This site – where a huge silver-gilt amphora was found – is responsible for the naming of the anonymous goldsmith whose work will be discussed here.

These gold objects from Southern Russia known today are but a few survivors of a systematic looting of Scythian graves over the past millennia, and they represent only a small portion of what once was an overwhelming wealth of gold jewelry in these burial chambers. To date, less than a dozen objects of the Certomlyk Master’s studio have been identified, although certainly there existed many more. Among those remaining, the great pectoral (Figure 1) from the Tolstaya Mogila is clearly a grand oeuvre. It remains one of the most astounding pieces of gold jewelry to survive from the classical world, on a par with works by such masters as Cellini or Fabergé.

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This article presents the first results of research on the master and his studio, focusing upon the pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila, the object that best demonstrates the style and mastery of techniques.

 – Wolf Rudolph

The Great Pectoral from Tolstaya Mogila
Pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila, Ordzonikidze, Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev, gold, front view. All figures are after Galania & Gratsch, Scythian Art

Visitors should be aware that most recent information suggests the pectoral on display in Kiev is, in fact, a cast copy that does not convey all the nuances and subtleties of the original.

The Pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila

 The pectoral (Figure 1) was formed from pure gold of apparently over 20k. The rich, yellow golden color of the surface and the absence of noticeable impurities suggests that it was treated to achieve this effect, possibly by means of depletion gilding. It measures 30.5 centimeters across and weighs 1145 grams (c. 40.4 ounces). A number of smaller components, now missing, would have brought the weight to approximately 1200 grams. This damage is the result of the active wear that this trinket endured, because traces, especially on the floral frieze, suggest that it might have been worn in battle, where it was seriously damaged. Subsequently, it was taken apart to be repaired to the state in which it was placed in the tomb.

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The pectoral has three friezes, labeled A, B, C, from top to bottom. To complete it, more than 160 principal elements were incorporated into the design, not counting the assorted decorative wires. A short survey of its parts gives some idea of the enormous complexity of the planning and production process – for the closure: two lionhead finials, four box settings, 32 short lengths of loop-in-loop chain, two large hinges; For the front section: two trapezoidal box settings, four twisted, hollow hoops (labeled 1 to 4, from top to bottom), one sheet of gold, cut in a lunula shape, one double-T strip, 50 cast figures of humans, animals and two gorytoi, typical Scythian bow-and-arrow containers. In addition, at least 44 floral elements for frieze B were cast, coupled with more than 20 – an undetermined number is missing now – cut-out flowers, most of them double-tiered.

Pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila, Frieze A, central scene: two chieftains

Almost all of these parts, in turn, required complex preliminary production steps. The twisted torques, for example, were built from long, convex strips of sheet-gold, with their convex sides up, which were twisted into elongated spirals and then joined at the seams. Into the groove between the strips a continuous line of beaded wire was mounted. The torques increase gradually in diameter from torques 1 to 4. The large diameter of torque 4 required an additional stabilizer that was provided in form of an I-beam strip mounted on its top (see Figure 3).

The Certomlyk Master cast the figures in open molds. These were modeled in slightly higher relief, so as to appear almost three-dimensional. To fit the contours of the human body better, the backs of the figures in friezes A and C were worked accordingly. Along their outer borders runs a narrow, fattened band; from there, the back is partly hollowed out like the interior of a fruit. By leaving the framing band along the edges, the areas where the sculptures were soldered onto the torques remained relatively strong, but the hollowed back portion assured less friction.

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Techniques

The techniques used were straightforward yet extremely effective, including sheet-gold cutting, soldering, mold making, casting and extensive cold working, as well as production of varying wires, such as plain, beaded or spiral twisted. Stamping has been used for the tongue pattern on the frontal side of the double-T bar on torque 4, and glass inlay occurs on the flower leaves. Except for the large granules in some of the rosettes in frieze B, there was no granulation.

Pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila, Freize C, right side: stag being felled by painter and lion

Iconography

In each of the three interstices between the box-mounted torques, a frieze was placed. Friezes A and C carry figurative scenes, while B displays an exuberant growth of tendrils and foliage, in whose center five doves are perched in the thicket. Frieze B refrains from telling a story and thus remains neutral to serve as a mediator between the upper and lower ones, between the depiction of growth and that of destruction. In frieze A the peaceful togetherness of suckling mother animals with four human figures among them is the dominant theme. By contrast, fierce fighting prevails in frieze C, as animals of all sizes and mythic griffins battle each other, the stronger ones wreaking relentless havoc and death upon the weaker ones.

All of the nearly 50 cast figures are remarkable for their exquisite execution: miniature sculptures of such nuance and detail are very rare in the history of goldsmithing. In the central scene (Figure 2), for example, the keen observation of the two chieftains’ faces and bodies makes them individual portraits. The face on the left is rounder than the one on the right; the wavy hair of the first contrasts with the cork-screw locks of the second. Even the varying facial bone structures have been depicted, such as the arches of the brows, cheekbones and noses. The left prince, in addition, wears a head band, a highly unusual insignia among Scythians and certainly a status symbol. Similar detailed observations hold true also for the two young milkers.

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Pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila, Frieze A, left side: milking of sheep

As with the humans, the treatment of the animals reveals the artist’s intimate knowledge of certain species in their often hostile coexistence, demonstrated in the almost personal, snapshotlike characterization of each animal. Such is the case with the wild boar or the hapless stag (Figure 3). The latter is just being brought down by a panther and a lion. The minutia of the stag’s pelt and antlers include a strip of skin dangling from the antlers over its forehead. This constitutes a shred of the fine epidermis that covers the regrowing antler during the yearly regrowth. Thus, this deadly fight takes place in spring or early summer, which also would account for the presence of the young animals in frieze A. Here, again, the nuanced depiction of the slight age differential between the two calves – one already more massive of body and hence longer fed, the other bony, of stalky, angular folded legs, very recently born – as well as the “sheepness” of the milked animal on the right side (Figure 4), is conclusive evidence of a genre at its best, based on keen observation of everyday detail.

The Certomlyk Master, however, accomplished more than a series of brilliant individual studies, he successfully blended the separate parts of each frieze into a unbroken compositional flow. He also instilled a special atmosphere through the intimate interaction of the two kneeling men sharing in the sewing of a sheep-fleece garment, a sweat absorbing undershirt to be worn under metal armor.

The Design Plan

To compose the pectoral, the Certomlyk Master had to overcome the quandary of the inexorably diminishing size of the figures from the center to the narrow corners, made even more difficult by the necessity to space them convincingly on a circle. To solve this problem satisfactorily, he had to have carefully planned the design of the pectoral with an apparent focus on frieze B. This is evident by the fact that the floral scrolls are placed in intervals relating to the center of a circle, placed on the middle axis of the pectoral. On axes radiating from the circle’s center the cores of the vine scrolls in frieze B are placed at precise interstices determined by a series of angles that diminish regularly from the center towards the sides. The following diagram gives the sequence for one-half of the symmetrical pectoral. The vine tendrils are labelled A through K for the right body side and I, through U for the left. In the diagram they are placed together according to their size.

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Beginning from the center with a 24° angle, the angles diminish by a 2°-step down to 6°. The whole system is based on a sequence of 12°, or fractions thereof, since adding together the degrees, starting at opposite ends and moving inward (A+K, B+I, etc.), shows each sum of two angles always to equal 30°= 2.5 x 12. A 30° angle, in turn is one-twelfth (1/12) of a full circle of 360°.

The duodecimal system applies also to the decorated section. Each half (A through K, L through U) measures 150°, for a total of 300°. From these, however, has to be subtracted one unit of 12°, since it was counted twice in the center, once each for K and L. This leaves 288° which is the sum of 2 x 144 = 2 x 12 x 12.

This system explains, at least in part, the manner in which the Certomlyk Master planned the pectoral. There seem to be other regular numerical relationships between portions of the pectoral, which remain yet to be clarified in detail. But it is already obvious that this precision and sophistication of planning is a phenomenon that occurs in other works of the studio. Beyond the sheer mathematics, this master’s highly developed sense of composition and rhythm gave life to his creations. An additional contribution to this effect is the use of ornament and colored glass inlays to emphasize surface patterns.

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Silver Amphora from the Certomlyk kurgan, Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, front view

The Certomlyk Master and His Studio

The pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila is the most complex of the surviving objects from the Certomlyk Master and his studio. It is also the best and most explicit example of his personal style and genius for creating miniature sculpture. From this pectoral, along with a number of other gold objects, a picture is emerging of a jeweler’s workshop operating during the height of Scythian power and wealth. The exclusive appearance of these gold objects in what best is described as royal tombs suggests that the goldsmith and his atelier worked for the ruling upper class who were commissioning such objects for their own use. Given the Scythians love of gold as described by the Greek historian Herodotos in the fifth century B.C. and gold’s documented association with high class status, this is not surprising.

This anonymous goldsmith of the early Hellenistic period brought to the established art of Scythia a distinct vision, manifest especially in his emphasis on a naturalistic portrayal of humans and animals. Stylistic, iconographical and technical attributes show him to have been the outstanding master within a group of gifted craftsmen, whose working area extended from the Ukrainian steppes to the Caucasus. The Certomlyk Master’s personal style emerges most clearly in the sculptures, but it can be detected also in the lively, relatively natural rendition of the floral frieze B. Other, slightly differing styles suggest additional pairs of hands within the studio.

At first glance, the formal esthetic language of the studio seems thoroughly that of classical Greece, and the repertoire of forms comes, indeed, from the art of the late Classical and early Hellenistic periods. But not only are the topics unmistakably Scythian, this artist developed also an unquestionable personal style that had little in common with the idealizing art of Greece, especially that of Athens. In his methods of mingling established forms with works bearing his own artistic stamp, he succeeded in holding before the horse-loving chieftains a mirror in which they saw, probably with great satisfaction, their own world. They found their environment wrought with genre images without frills, immediately recognizable and appreciated.

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Through the distinctive blend of established Greek art forms with prominent personal and distinct studio styles, archaeological research has been able to identify this master. It was totally unexpected to discover a previously unknown and anonymous master goldsmith, a major talent in the history of jewelry making. With his artistic gift he translated into visual language an impression of the world around him. Even though he lived in what is considered by many just the “provinces,” the far region of the Greek world, the Certomlyk Master is emerging as one of the first original miniature sculptors who flourished during the heyday of the Hellenistic period. This makes him an important figure for jewelry making as well as for this particular period of Greek art.

The overall style of the Certomlyk studio can be called eclectic. The floral ornaments on the body of the silver amphora from Certomlyk (Figure 5) were executed by another goldsmith whose preference lay with a less lively and organic rendition of the foliage, “quoting” elements – such as leaf shapes – from the late fifth century, some three generations earlier. By contrast, the temperament of the Certomlyk Master himself emerges on the shoulder of the torque with the high-relief figures of horse tamers, where, again, he demonstrates his talent for close observation and natural rendering. A different hand also executed the small pectoral from the Bolschaya Blisnitza (number 5 below), whose animals were formed with fewer anatomical details, even though the willful liveliness of these young creatures is captured beautifully.

The appearance of such varying styles within one studio may have had several reasons. Aside from eclecticism, the influence of those who commissioned the jewelry could well have dictated a stylistic preference. The working period of the studio spans the time from c. 350/340 B.C. to c. 300/290, leaving the possibility open that, in fact, the oeuvre represents more than one generation of goldsmiths, among whom the Certomlyk Master was the most outstanding and independent.

Most important objects identified to date

  1. Pectoral from the Tolstaya Mogila, Ordzonikidze, gold, enamel (Scythian Art, Figures 118-121): men, animals, and griffins represented in two sculpted friezes, plus one floral frieze with birds. (Certomlyk Master)
  2. Amphora from the Certomlyk kurgan, gilded silver (Scythian Art, figures 265-268): men and horses represented in one sculptured frieze, body with floral with birds, animal and griffin fights on shoulder, three plastic spouts on lower body. (Certomlyk Master and studio)
  3. Torque (necklet) from Kul Oba kurgan, gold, enamel (Scythian Art, figures 126-127): Scythian riders on horses protomai (front halves only). (Certomlyk Master)
  4. Comb from the Solocha kurgan, gold (Scythian Art, figures 128-129): three Scythians fighting, one mounted, two on foot. (Certomlyk Master)
  5. Pectoral from the Bolschaya Blisnitza kurgan, tomb of the third lady, gold, enamel (Scythian Art, figures 255-256): young animals. (Certomlyk studio)
  6. Pair of bracelets from Bolschayan Blisnitza kurgan, bronze, gold foil, enamel (Scythian Art, figure 234) two suckling lionesses jumping. (Certomlyk Master and studio)

Identification of other items by the Certomlyk Master and his studio and analysis of the work – both metal plate and gold jewelry – continues. Like any great master of his craft, the Certomlyk Master created the vessels as well as personal adornments, and as can be seen from the silver amphora from the Certomlyk kurgan, he was a genius at both.

Acknowledgements

 I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Renata Rolle, Göttingen, and her assistant Wilhelm Herzig, as well as to my colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology at Kiev. Juliette Graver, Bloomington, graciously helped test the mathematical design.

Further Reading:
  • A. Minns, Scythians and Greeks (London), 1913 (reprinted 1969)
  • Ludmilla Galanina and Nonna Gratsch, Scythian Art (Leningrad: Aurora), 1986 (here quoted as: Scythian Art)
  • R. Rolle, The World of the Scythians (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1989, translated from the German

Wolf Rudolph is an associate professor of Classical Archaeology at the School of Fine Arts, Indiana University, Bloomington.

By Wolf Rudolph
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