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VARANGIAN WATCHDOGS

Дата публикации: 01 ноября 2021
Автор(ы): Vladimir KULAKOV
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS)
Источник: (c) Science in Russia, №2, 2013, C.69-73
Номер публикации: №1635766652


Vladimir KULAKOV, (c)

by Vladimir KULAKOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Archeology, Moscow, Russia

 

A hot summer day of 2009. We camped out for archeological diggings in a lovely spot near Zelenogradsk, a resort town on the Baltic shore. For many days we had been digging in a ground burial mound on a highland off the seashore, under the canopy of a dense age-old forest. A thousand years ago the upper slope of that hill was the habitation site of tribes who founded a major trading-post, or torg - "Kaup", as Scandinavians and Prussians named it. Amber was brought there from all over Sambia, now Kaliningrad Peninsula (the original native land of Prussians) to be further shipped down the rivers Neman and Dnieper as far as Smolensk and Kiev. Kaup was populated by many ethnic groups, where merchants and artisans were playing first fiddle. By treaty they were guarded by Scandinavian warriors. On that sultry day we did not expect any big surprises. It was ordinary, routine work. And yet...

 

All of a sudden I heard Alexei Chop, one of our field party, crying out, "Holy cats! I hit upon something hard and flat!" The guy was picking in a regular burial that, like so many others, had nothing special about it. I made a beeline to Alexei to take a look. At first I was unable to see anything in the maze of small roots and fragments, in poor shape, of an equine spine*. But taking a closer look, 1 could make out flat rectangular tablets placed at the bottom of the grave across the steed's backbone. A couple of touches

 

* Prussians would send off their dead to the other world in company of a steed placed on the bottom of the grave.-Auth.

 
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of a brush-and here you are! The surface of several tablets showed a geometrical ornamental design cut through. Only later we were able to find out that these plates made of equine or bovine bones were meant as overlays for the pommel, not for the harness or horsecloth. Such overlays were alternating with those made of silver.

 

We came upon a rather more intricate saddle in another grave in which an equine skeleton was in no ideal condition either. But thanks to the good work of our young archeologists it became possible to set right the arrangement of the wondrous finds. So we were able to restore the outer and the inner look of the pommel that must have been trapezoid in shape. Judging by our reconstruction, the wooden groundwork of the pommel had been so tightly packed with so many bone overlays decorated with a fine cut-through ornamental design that we could not see the base underneath.

 
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In spite of the seeming simplicity of their ornamental compositions, such saddles made in Baltia are unique in a way: each plate had to be straightened out (for bones in animals are not at all linear) and polished, and then, using a sharp cutting tool, one put on a definite and-rather intricate-ornament on the smooth surface, without any preliminary marking-off (a la prima, as artists say). The overlays (dozens of them for each had to be heated many saddle) times for softening. The smell in the saddle-making workshop must have been "stronger but worse than that of the rose", as Gargantua, a hero of Francois Rabelais' famous satire, used to say.

 

Most different designs were put on. Those were largely "wattles" in a variety of forms typical of Scandinavia and Baltia of the 10th-11th centuries and symbolizing the interwoven parts of the sublunary world. Now and then the wattled design defied the cutting tool on bone, and the master, unable to make it neat, lapsed into a geometrical, "broken" ornament.

 

There were many pictures of a snarling dog on pentagonal overlays fastened to the pommel. But the snarl

 
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did not look threatening, it had a hint of a smile. Those pictures portrayed an ancient breed of listening dogs, the vakthundar (with short hair, wide neck and mighty jaws), similar to the present Rottweilers.

 

Studying the canine images, I spotted a quaint curl on a watchdog's nape. But it looked quaint at first sight only. Similar portraits of hounds are known to archeolo-gists from many materials of the Vikings time. Comparing our finds with others recovered all over Europe, we saw them sharing two common pictorial features-the snarl (baring the fangs) and the curl on the nape. You don't have to be a cynologist expert on dogs to guess that artists creating for the Vikings sought to limn a brisk growling hound, his fangs bared, keeping watch over an item on which he was depicted. Vakthundar snarled at the outside, hostile world; that is why they were fixed at the edges of an article they were guarding. They were voodoo charms to ward off evil.

 

Norse myths illustrate the great significance attached Norsemen of the early Middle Ages to their quadruped guards. One tells about two fierce dogs (wolves?), the Brothers Harma and Fanrör. The former guards the gate to the abode of Death, Hel, lying amid icefields in the faraway northern cave Gnipahellir. Should this mythic watchdog break loose from his chain (he kept gnawing at it, dripping bloody froth), it would mean the last day of the Universe, Ragnarök (Götterdämmering, twilight of gods). Harma's role in the Nordic Armageddon is significant in many ways: before his death he should throw down the bellicose god Tyr. Fanrör would go further than that: he is out to bite to death and tear to pieces the supreme deity, the god of gods Odin (Othin). A sweet pair like that graced quite a few things essential to the Vikings. In some graves at Kaup we found the remains of real dogs looking like basset hounds (Dachs-hunde) rather than Rottweilers. Buried left to the steed (as it belongs to a bloodhound running left of its master), they kept guard over the repose of the dead in the nether world.

 

In none of the burials with pommels within did we find any weapons, be it most primitive ones. The set of tools interred shows that Prussians were people of peaceful trades, artisans and merchants for the most part. One cannot escape the impression that the nameless masters, digging into the rich imagery of heathen Norsemen of the 10th century, carved bone wonders for their private use. The ornate saddles were absolutely no good for riding (the sharp angles of the overlays were a nuisance clinging to anything); they were displayed but once-in an interment ceremony. The steeds with these saddles on (that noone had ever used) were sacrificed and buried. The fine masterpieces could see the light of day only in the 21st century to amaze archeologists and guests of the Kaliningrad Regional Museum of History and Arts.

Опубликовано на Порталусе 01 ноября 2021 года

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