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Norman J. Finkelshteyn

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Warrior Noble's Belt from Sarkel Fortress
By Norman Finkelshteyn

Information for the following came from the article "A Belt of a Noble Warrior from Sarkel" by T. I. Makarova, S. A. Pletneva.
I am making the assumption that the belt described there is the same one shown here. However, while every detail of the plates coincides, the number of plates differs substantially from the number proposed in the article.
Photographs were taken by Alexander Lemeshko at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Click photographs to open large versions

This belt was found at Sarkel Fortress during the 1949 expedition.
It was part of a collection of objects which had all been packed in a clay kitchen pot in the South Western corner of the fortress. In the pot were two belts, a number of coins, and some jewelry.

The coins found in the "treasure" date between 907 and 954. The whole had been burned, the pot burst and what remains of it are the base and charred remains of padding straw. Both belts had been tightly wrapped and the charred remains of the leather remained in position.
This is the richer of the two belts. The second, utilitarian belt (not currently under discussion), was minimaly 3 cm wide (over 1.2 inches) and consists of a buckle with plate, seven plaques, and a belt loop, all brass, gold plated on the outside.

Sarkel was one of the principal defenses of the Khazar Kaganate. It was taken and burned in 965 by Svyatoslav Igorevich of Kiev. The treasure was thus deposited at some point between 954 and 965, possibly in connection with that last battle.

Description of the Belt Parts

This belt was no wider than 2 cm (a little over 3/4 inch).
The parts of this belt are all silver, gold plated, and highlited with chern (a blacked silver treatment) in incised lines.

The decorations are all of a unified design which may be divided into three "sub-styles".
The first design is a "tree of life" with a vague animal shape discernable. A heart shaped "tree trunk" is a central feature.
The second, prevailing style is a doubled "face - tree" design -- with a three-branched "tree of life" aparent when the plates are turned one way and a face visible when the plates are turned upside down.
Both designs have dashed lines like those that can be most clearly seen in the detail photo on the lowest of the fully visible vertical plates as "chin" and "hair".
The third is a simplified version of the prevailing one - consisting of three "circular holed" plates and a cylindrical tube described below.

There is one buckle with plate, done in the prevailing design style. The buckle and plate are cast. The buckle is hinged to the plate, the plate was attached to the belt with three prongs.

There are two end plates, both likely used on the pendant straps, one in each of the first two styles.
The first, belonging to the predominant style (an expanded version of the "long face" design) appears on the rightmost (from the viewer) pendant strap in the photograph. It is 1 mm thick, cast, with seven holes by which it was likely sewn to the belt.
The second (on the left pendant strap of the three to the viewer's right) is in the heart-shaped tree trunk design, it was stamped and held to the belt with two prongs.

The plaques may be divided into 5 types:

  1. Vertical "long faces" (in detail above, on the pendant strap) - Makarova and Pletneva stated that there were 13 of these. The photographs show 24. As described by Makarova and Pletneva, they are cast, 1 mm thick, with two prongs for attaching (some have extra attachment holes).
    They have a sort of double image -- looking like faces when seen in one way and like trees when flipped around.
  2. Horizontal "wide faces" (in detail above, on the main belt) - There are 23 in the photograph. Makarova and Pletneva state that there are 21. They are made identically to the "long faces". Because of the horizontal shape, the tree predominates over the squashed face.
  3. Horizontals with a hole (in detail above, on the main belt - Three of these. The same as the above, but the face image has been eradicated by the hole.
  4. "Three leaf" (full belt image, center pendant strap of the three to the viewer's right) - Five of these. They are quite thin, likely stamped, with two attachment prongs. A somewhat different three-leaf vegetal design with a heart-shaped tree trunk, the whole plate somewhat reminiscent of a cat's face.
  5. "Circular holed" (full belt image, center pendant strap of the three to the viewer's right) - Three of these. Thin and stamped, with two attachment prongs, they seem to be very simplified takes on the "horizontal with a hole" - retaining only the vegetal image.

A final object in the set is a cylindrical, flattened tube (see full belt image, center pendant strap of the three to the viewer's right). It is a folded sheet decorated only on the "face" - the half that faces outwards. One edge has two holes, one at top the other at bottom, which were used to attach the sheet to the belt, after which it was folded around for the second edge to meet the first. The decoration consists of borders and a center strip of simple slashes with two S-shaped "branches" in areas framed by these borders (one in the upper, another in the lower).

Belt Layout and Function
The layout of plates in these photographs differs from that proposed by Makarova and Pletneva.
While some of the difference may be due to the extra plates (presumably uncovered after the article was written), the conceptual difference created by some of the changes is not necessarily waranted.

The main belt is indeed the same as proposed, as are the number and location of pendant straps. Differences are in the details of pendant strap arangement. I will describe the arangement proposed by Makarova and Pletneva, highlighting the differences with the photographs.

According to the proposal, the two straps to the viewer's left had held a small purse riveted below the last plaque. As such, the number of plaques for the two straps was equal. It was proposed that two plaques were placed on the main belt (as in the photographs) and then four were suspended on each of the two straps (for a total of eight pendant plaques). The photogrpah shows one more plaque on the strap at the viewer's outer left than its neighbor.

Makarova and Pletneva were of the opinion that the five plaques and end plate with the heart-shaped tree trunk design were the original set of plates which the warrior owned as a young man. This theory was backed as these six plates were uniformly more worn than the rest of the belt. They theorized that the original buckle and buckle plate had been too worn out to retain.
When the present belt was obtained later in life, this earlier belt was attached in whole as a pendant strap. The proposal placed this pendant strap as the one on the viewer's outer right.

The three "cirular holed" plaques were, according to Makarova and Pletneva, obtained at a third point in the belt's life, together with the cylindrical tube.
That tube held an animal's tail as a symbol of high office.
The plaques were made to go with the cylinder, in rough immitation of the strap holder plaques already on the belt.
The proposal thus had these four elements together and independant of others as the central of the three straps on the viewer's right.

In the museum's reconstruction, the five plaques of "the warrior as a young man" were mixed with the three "circular holed" plaques and cylinder, which had marked the warrior as a grizzled old general, on the central of the three straps to the viewer's right, while the youngster's end plate was retained in the rightmost strap -- now at the end of five of the "long face" plaques obtained during the warrior's middle age.

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