THE NOMADIC HYPOTHESIS
to Gilbert (1975: 54) there are four basic criteria for defining
a group as nomadic: a) maintaining domesticated animals; b)
habitual exploitation of marginal lands; c) yearly migrations
corresponding with seasonal changes; d) a tribal political
structure. These rules refer to the group as a whole, and do not
reflect sizable minorities within the group. Even nomads need
such things as agricultural products and metals, items
associated with sedentary communities, and there is solid
evidence for interaction between these groups.
the ethnographic parallels that may be applied to the Parthians,
one of the most convincing are the Cossacks. While at
first this term conjures images of a primarily male community,
united by custom, religion (Russian Orthodox), and the Russian
language, the term is best used to describe a group of peoples -
including Mongol, Turkic, and diverse European groups - that
shared a similar life-style. There was also a number of
religions represented, from Moslem, Christian, Lamaist, or
Shamanist. What united these people is that they were
generally mounted warriors, but here too there was considerable
variability. In order to exploit the available opportunities
provided by a given region, there were mountaineers, river
pirates, and agriculturalists. They were well known for offering
protection to any fleeing punishment (Seaton 1985: 37).
clothing of the Cossack was primarily functional, which
finds some parallels in what is known of Parthian dress.
The main requirement was mobility. Baggy trousers were standard,
as was a fur cap that covered the ears. A coarse rain resistant
felt cape, or cherkesska was also donned in winter (Hindus 1945:
84). This equipment is not unlike the well known clothing
found on Hatrene statuary, a region that was allied with the
Parthian state called Adiabene, which included the territory
about Nineveh (Teixidor 1968). A distinctive feature of their dress was the belt, often with elaborate buckles, which were decorative in themselves and used to support weapons. A ‘Hatrene’ style buckle has been recovered from Nineveh
This iron buckle finds parallels in Hatrene art, where elaborate
belts with prominent buckles can be seen on sculptured
figures. Birmingham City Art Gallery 784’79. 4.5 cm
the earlier period, when there were few families around the
lower Don, the Cossacks took wives from the Tatar, Caucasian,
and Turkish captives. While the Don Cossacks remained
Christian, the women of the lower Don retained cultural
peculiarities transmitted from Islam. They continued to
favour Oriental style clothing, and kept to themselves more than
women from the north (Seaton 1985: 55). This is a
significant observation, as the historical nomadic group -
primarily male at first - often took wives from sedentary
societies. The effects of this practice were evident
generations after, as the women of the household maintained a
distinctive culture that was revealed particularly in their mode
of dress. When looking at the archaeological evidence from
the Parthian period, a similar pattern emerges. Figurines
from Nineveh show a clear division of male and female cultures.
Most males are dressed in the Parthian style, but all females
appear in Greek dress. This clothing style has little in
common with what one would expect of nomadic clothing, at least
when one considers how women in nomad households dress today.
While there is no evidence to suggest that these figurines are
of gods, it was during the Parthian period that the Iranian
reluctance to depict gods in human form began to wane. As
a result there are a number of figurines that depict deities of
Greek derivation, as Iran offered little precedent for depicting
anthropomorphic deities (College 1986:14). But there may
be other issues to consider when one looks at styles of
figurines. At Nineveh, Greek style figurines of women are
the most common type from the Parthian period, and there were
very few male figurines in the Greek style. Nineveh is not
atypical of other sites. The Parthian period at Nippur can
be characterized by Greek figurines, both male and female, but
the most common were female (Keall 1970: 89). Of the
female figurines recovered from Nineveh, the most common pose is
that of a woman standing upright with her right arm across the
body, with her hand holding her hooded cloak (or himation) as it
passes over her left shoulder [FIGURE 7].
figurine of a woman. In dress this ceramic figurine,
like other female figurines from Nineveh, follow a Greek
model. She is clearly wearing an ‘urban’ fashion,
in contrast to the typical costume of Parthian men, who
sport ‘rural’ riding clothing. Birmingham City Art
Gallery 415’61. 8.5 cm high.
The other hand
slightly gathers up her skirt at the side of her body.
This pose may be a typical ‘walking’ pose, as is seen in
Islamic countries today. Walking is facilitated by
slightly raising the skirt, while the other hand can be used for
adjustment of the veil. A similar pose is also encountered
on the Greek mainland, as at Tanagra the most popular type of
figurine during the period 250-200 BC was the standing female
(Higgins 1986: 120).
many western works that outline various modes of subsistence,
from nomad to agriculturalist, modern ethnographic
observations suggest otherwise. The author has observed Turkmen
and Qashqa’i (see also Tapper 1979) nomads in connection with
textiles. Nomads have supplies of wool available, and the women
in particular have free time that can be spent weaving items for
use around the camp as well as for trade with sedentary
communities. Romantic concepts of the purity of the ‘nomadic
life’ are not sustained when one studies their handy-crafts.
The Marri Baluch also exploit a number of different occupations.
Land for farming can be held by individuals or communities, and
may be held more or less permanently by an individual line or be
subdivided at intervals. Many large landowners lease their
land for others to work. As a result of the nature of land
ownership, individuals or families may be sedentary for a
period, only to engage in a nomadic lifestyle at a later time.
The residence of the tribal chief may be either a collection of
semi-permanent dwellings, or a settled village with a fortress
and houses for his headmen (Pehrson 1977: 9-11). The
picture that emerges is one of individuals exploiting the
opportunities available to them at any given moment.
Basseri of the Fars province in Iran have a similar
organization. They are primarily a Persian speaking tribe
with smaller numbers of Turkic and Arab speakers. The
ruling chiefs of the tribe and their immediate family cannot be
classified as nomads. While they usually own considerable
flocks, they leave day to day administration to local overseers.
They live in Shiraz and are engaged in politics at a national
level. One of their most important functions is to
represent the tribe in cases against sedentary communities
(Barth 1961: 74-76). Qashqa’i khans lead a similar
lifestyle. While they may celebrate their nomadic heritage
and receive their nomadic subjects in tents - weather permitting
- their mode of life is sedentary (Barfield, 1993:112).
This is not to suggest that the nomadic lifestyle is regarded as
inferior to a sedentary existence. On the contrary, for
the majority of the tribe, a forced settlement means the loss of
status, which comes from life as an independent herder.
While most nomads owe allegiance to their chief, they have
enough capital to remain effectively self-employed. If
they were to settle, the majority do not have sufficient capital
to purchase enough land to give them comparable status as a
self-sufficient landowner (Barth 1961: 108-109). It is for
this reason that two groups out of the nomadic population are
likely to settle. The wealthiest chiefs find sedentary
comforts enticing. The poorest nomads - who through
natural disasters or mismanagement - have no security or status,
find more secure work in a sedentary community.