Encounters with the Golden Deer: Kazakhstan 101

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house curator of the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, opening August 11.

Golden metal statue of Horned Deer with legs folded under and touching at hooves to form base.
Horned Deer with Folded Legs, Two-Sided; Zhalauli (Kegen district, Almaty region), 7th–6th century BCE

For me, Kazakhstan is first of all a beautiful and stunning landscape: wide open, green grasslands; glittering, crystal-blue rivers and lakes; and high mountains in the east and the Caspian Sea in the west. A country four times bigger than Texas and almost the size of India, Kazakhstan is rich with history and home to wild tulips, oil, nomads who still hunt with golden eagles, and more than one hundred nationalities. Bordering Russia to the north and China to the east, Kazakhstan is today the world’s ninth largest country and has emerged as one of the most fascinating places in Central Asia.

Brown green hills in foreground, blue lake in background.
East Kazakhstan, Lake Markakol, © Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington, DC

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler from August 11 through November 12, 2012, features spectacular finds from recent excavations that provide a unique window into the archaeology and cultures of Kazakhstan. The exhibition invites viewers to think about the ways nomadic and more sedentary cultures lived together. How did members of the elite represent themselves through burials of their leaders? Why was the horse so elaborately dressed and valued as a friend and partner?

The exhibition was conceptualized, developed, and organized by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in collaboration with the Ministries of Culture and Information and of Science and Education, Republic of Kazakhstan, and four major national museums in Kazakhstan and the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, DC. It marks the first time that ancient artifacts from the very heart of Asia will be displayed in the nation’s capital. We will complement it with related special programming including gallery talks, lectures, a concert, ImaginAsia family programs, and films.

On Bento, we will cover some of the exciting discoveries made in Kazakhstan. Claudia Chang, professor at Sweet Briar College and one of the preeminent US archaeologists working in Kazakhstan today, has been exploring the sedentary places of the ancient people living in the Talgar region since 1994. This summer, Claudia excavates at the site of Tuzusai in eastern Kazakhstan, near the old capital of Almaty. Beginning next week, she will regularly blog her experiences in the field.


  • Thanks so much, Veronica. Could not agree more. The Histories, Archaeologies, the many Cultures and Heritage of Eurasia, ancient and modern, are fascinating and our team is really excited to show “Nomads and Networks” at the Smithsonian. Traveling throughout Kazakhstan and learning more about the wonderful people of modern Kazakhstan is easy and an organized tour would be a dream. Hope so much you visit the exhibition and learn more about the life of nomads and networking in Eurasia.

  • Smithsonian Journeys should organize a trip to Kazakhstan, or the central Asian republics more generally. Congratulations on what promises to be an exciting exhibit!

  • Many thanks for your comment! Traveling throughout Kazakhstan to learn more about the many histories in an organized tour would be fantastic. We hope to inspire visitors to think about the many facets of ancient mobile live styles, the many ancient cultures and vast heritage of Eurasia, steppe cultures, and then perhaps even reflecting on modern networking and nomadism. Hope so much you come to DC and visit the exhibition!

  • The “Horned deer…” description should be restated as the “Antlered deer…” There is a big difference between horns and antlers.

  • Thank you so much, Robert. Antlered deer it is, not horned deer. Antlers are shed and horns have a core made of bone and are not shed. This came courtesy of our mammal expert from the Smithsonian, Suzanne Peurach, who stated that based on the mammals found in Kazakhstan, the piece in the exhibition is probably a red deer, Cervus elaphus, the same species as what we call an elk or wapiti here in the United States. Thank you, again, Robert, for paying close attention!

  • Irish mythology is one of the oldest extant mythologies in Europe – 3000 years. This literature claims that Ireland was populated, or invaded, by a wave of migrations of various tribes of a “priestly and magical people”, and expressly states that their origin was from Scythia, now known as Kazakhstan. I think this has never been investigated because it just sounds so outlandish, but why would they claim such a bizarre and specific thing? There were many celtic tribes in Kazakhstan, and red-haired traders have been found buried in Western China. While there is no direct archaeological evidence to prove an opposite migration westward, it seems to me that there is one compelling link: the incredibly fanciful gold ornamentation of the otherwise very primitive Irish. It’s complexity, form, and imagery seem amazingly similar to Kazakh goldwork. And how did such a primitive people develop such a high art? I think a comparative study is justified of ancient Irish and Kazakh goldwork, as a way of possibly lending credence to this historically claimed migration. There are many other literary mentions from ancient historians of visitations to Ireland or Hibernia, which at the time was believed to be a magical and spiritual place at the “edge of the world”, a celtic Valhalla of sorts, the merging point of heaven and earth. A people as ever-wandering and determinedly unrooted as the Kazakhs would eventually develop a belief that they were not earth-bound, that their true home could only be in a spiritual realm. Maybe a group of these landlocked people heard of this magical place in the ocean at the edge of the world and decided that that was where they truly belonged?

  • Nomads and Networks is so exciting intellectually as well as visually; To see this part of the world opened up to the West as more is discovered archaeologically reframes our current understanding. Hope that this exhibit will be the beginning of many which will show the historical connections and the legacy through Central Asia.

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