Parthians in Nineveh: Nomadic Hypothesis


According 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.

Of 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).

The 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 [FIGURE 6].

Figure 6

Iron belt buckle.  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 long.

In 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].

Figure 7

Parthian 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).

Unlike 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.

The 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.

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