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Russian Perm Animal Style Bronze Knife Handle - 10th C.

Russia, Perm region, Perm Animal Style (Permian Animal Style), ca. 10th century CE. A bronze knife handle in the form of an ungulate - a female Siberian musk deer? - perched atop a long, slightly widening handle with geometric decorations. This ends in a trio of narrow bands and leads down into a smoother section (see condition description). Aside from its obvious beauty - the animal is lively and well depicted, and the form is aesthetically pleasing - the piece is interesting archaeologically and culturally. You can see the remains of leather or some other organic material inside of the lower part of the piece; other, similar finds have had leather packed inside the hollow bronze handle. The animal subject is also fascinating - as I discuss below, most of these functional pieces of art from the Perm culture focus on predators in the act of eating or sometimes hunting their prey. This piece shows a prey animal that seems to be caught in the act of running from a predator - legs close together, caught in mid leap, clearly moving with speed, but with the head twisted around to look behind it and see whatever is chasing it. Scholars have interpreted the use of predators on personal items to indicate that the people wearing these items identified with their power and prowess; what would it mean to the person who owned this knife handle to want to show a deer in the act of being hunted? Comes with custom stand. Size: 4.55" L x 1.3" W (11.6 cm x 3.3 cm)

The Perm Animal Style is associated with a loosely culturally connected group of people known as the Finno-Ugric peoples who lived in west central Siberia, from modern day Perm north to the Arctic Sea. They freely took artistic influence from those who came before them, like the Scytho-Siberians, and from colonists from the west, like the Vikings, but developed their own clear style that archaeologists know from graves scattered throughout the taiga. Birds of prey, ungulates like reindeer, canines, and bears abound in their iconography; human representations are also common. These zoomorphic designs seem to share some common culture with the fantastical animals of pagan Viking art, but with some major stylistic differences. Notably, like the Scythians who occupied much of this landscape before them, they tend to focus on individual elements of animals - beaks, feet, claws, mouths, and eyes. Imagining the lifestyle of people in the vast regions of the north - both in taiga and in forest - animals hardy enough to live through the dark winters would have been of great interest and probably played major roles in their folklore as well as being human companions and fellow hunters (birds of prey), food sources (reindeer), and threats (bears and wolves). This iconographic style had remarkable uniformity of design across a vast region and long time period. Although nearly all of our knowledge comes from grave goods, these items seem to have been extensively used in life based upon wear patterns (unlike some other cultures, where goods are produced solely to be placed in graves). They were probably worn on the belt of their owner in life, at a time (which continued into the medieval European period) when flashing, jingling decoration was in fashion. Today, as climate change causes the melting of the permafrost in Siberia, many of these archaeological sites are thawing (and threatened), presenting an opportunity to learn more about these elusive ancient people.

Condition: The decorated part of the handle has a slight loss to the back of the animal's head, but is otherwise in good condition, with very clear form and design showing through a smooth green patina. The undecorated part of the handle seems to have been slightly miscast or recast and the bronze has an interesting shape. This tapers to an area of rougher patina with the remains of leather inside (see below).

Provenance: Ex-Priavte LA County collection

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