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The Pazyryk Carpet: The Oldest Rug

February 19, 2016

 

Nearly 2500 years ago the oldest known hand-knotted oriental rug was made. This rug, known as “The Pazyryk Carpet” (Pa -Zar Key), embodies ancient history. The carpet was excavated from the Altai Mountains of Central Asia in 1948 by Russian Archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. The Altai Mountains are a mountain range where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together.

 

The Pazyryk Carpet was discovered in a semi-frozen Scythian Burial mound in the grave of the prince of Altai near Pazyryk. As custom, the prince was buried with all of his possessions including the Pazyryk Carpet. Shortly after the burial, the grave mound was robbed, but the rug was left behind. Ironically, the thieves are to thank for the preservation of the 2500 year old rug. After robbing the grave mound the thieves left the site open to the elements and the rug was semi-frozen. The combination of low temperature and precipitation within the tomb froze the carpet and preserved it in a thick sheet of ice.

 

When we pull the camera back and look at this beautiful wool pile carpet in its historical context a rich story emerges and gives more meaning than the carpets design. The detail of the carpet, the dyes and complexity of knots reveal the carpet most likely had made the journey from the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great in Persia.

 

Cyrus the Great was a very important and influential historical figure. Cyrus, (born 580 - 529 BCE), was the first Achaemenid Emperor. He was responsible for founding Persia by uniting the two original Iranian Tribes, the Medes and the Persians. Under Cyrus the Great, the empire expanded to the ancient Near East, conquered most of Southwest Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean in the west to the Indus River in the East the Achaemenid Empire reach further than any before it.

 

Cyrus ruled by allowing for freedom of religions, outlawing slavery and inclusion of peoples conquered. His empire opened up and developed huge trade routes. He also declared the first Charter of Human Rights which influenced writers of the US Constitution. Cyrus laid the foundation for the empire to expand under Darius the Great two generations later. Many tribes and nations traveled to Persia to pay tribute to the Achaemenid Empire including the Armenians, Babylonians, Egyptians and more.

 

So what does all of this have to do with an ancient carpet? For one, it provides a historical context for the Pazyryk Carpet. The Pazyryk is a reflection of one of the most advanced ancient empires of that time. The design of the carpet helps tell the story and has given scholars a living history to understand.

The whole rug is made of wool. The number of knots is approximately 3.600 per sq. decimeter,

 

more than modern designs. The rug is approximately 1.83 x 1.98 m, consists of an inner field and a number of borders. The center shows 6 horizontal and 4 vertical rows of squares in which a cross-like ornament appears with 4 flowers with a little square in the center and 4 diagonal leaves.

 

The small, first, inner border consists of small squares in which eagle-like griffins appear on a yellow ground. The head of the griffin looks backwards and the tongue is visible in the opened beak, their bodies are red and the feathers of their wings are dark blue and white.

The second inner border is a row of bucks all facing to the left, on light blue background. Their bodies are red with yellow spots. Six bucks are shown on each side of the rug. At first one might think them to be elk, but a detailed study of the figures has shown that they are Middle Eastern bucks, the male counterpart to the spotted deer. The widest border shows riders on horses alternating irregularly with horses that are led in the opposite direction to the bucks. The riders are depicted very schematically. The ones on foot walk left of the horses and the right hand with the bridle lies on the back of the horse.

 

On each side of the border 7 horses appear. Their figures are on the vertical strip a little shorter than on the horizontal one. On one vertical border the last horse is considerable shorter than the others to allow a design to appear of two rosettes or circles. Similarly also on the top end another unusual ornament appears on the border between the bucks and the horses, that is the narrow border showing the flower design.

 

There is much debate as to the exact origin of the carpet. For example the rug appears to be made with an Armenian double knot. One authority of ancient carpets, Ulrich Schurmann is quoted, “from all the evidence available I am convinced that the Pazyryk rug was a funeral accessory and most likely a masterpiece of Armenian workmanship".

 

Interestingly at the ruins of Persepolis in Iran the same horse design from the Pazyryk carpet is seen in the relief depicting Armenian delegation paying tribute to the Achaemenid Empire. This gives us an idea of how far this carpet may have traveled and how far reaching was the Achaemenid Empire.

 

 

 

 

The Artistry of Hand Woven Rugs

January 27, 2016

 

Acquiring a hand woven oriental rug, including fine Persian rugs, is more akin to acquiring a fine piece of art than simply purchasing a beautiful floor covering. In fact few areas in the art world combine the rich historical and cultural context as do the variety of oriental rugs. Originating from Persia (modern day Iran), fine rugs have woven into them the aesthetic, cultural ideas, history and tradition of an entire people. Hand woven oriental and Persian rugs are more than a financial investment, they are heirlooms that can be passed down from generation to generation.

 

The process of creating these beautiful hand woven rugs starts with shearing of wool. Only 40% of the wool sheared is used. After the wool is separated it is washed in a process known as scarving. The separated wool may go through the scarving (washing) process up to 4 times before being hand spun.

 

Hand spinning of wool is an art mastered and passed down - typically only by women. The hand spun wool is never even which keeps the natural true texture of the material. Spinners spool the wool into balls for dying.

We’ve all experienced having our hands accidentally dyed from beets or other color rich plants and fruits. It is this ancient process of extracting color from vegetables, plants and fruits used for dyeing the wool. Skilled artists create the color pallets, sometimes over 500 different shades. The process of creating the color dyes is a well guarded science usually known only by a few select locals.

 

After colors are selected craftsmen dye the wool in large caldrons fueled with wood. The wool cannot be mass dyed requiring fine attention to each bunch of wool treated. From there the drying process begins. Similar to the spinning of the wool the hand dyeing process is never even with some places lighter and some darker. Uneven dyeing helps gives each rug a truly unique and natural look. Dyed wool is dried in the sun and open air for up to 3 or 4 days.

 

Another critical step involving a true artist is the design of each rug. Unique designs are drawn by hand on paper by the artist. The design is then transferred to a larger piece of graph paper the size of the actual rug. Designs and patterns reflect the region and culture of the artist and may require many hours to complete.

From the pattern design on graph paper, weavers use looms with hand hooks to methodically shape the colors of wool into the vision of artist. This is perhaps the most time intensive and laborious process. For example to creating a 6 x 9 rug can take up to 4 months to complete with 4 weavers working the loom every day. To the expert hand woven rugs are easy to spot based on the types of knots used. Knot types can also help determine from which region the rug was produced.

 

Woven rugs are compressed in the weaving process ensuring their longevity and durability. The completed rug is then sheared, washed and dried multiple times. The final process is known as blocking to pull the hand crafted rug to the correct size proportions. Understanding the true value of a hand woven Oriental rug transports us through time and space, tradition and history, aesthetics and artistry. From the color and texture to the design and style, this thousands year old art form is a unique way to enrich your home.

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