Kazakh Nomadic Way of Life Influenced Modern Metalworking Traditions

By Dmitry Lee

1Modern metalworking in Kazakhstan is a broad subject spanning jewelry, arts and crafts, weaponry and metal export to global markets. EdgeKz dug deeper into history and investigated the circumstances and traditions which have influenced various skills and patterns.

“The main motifs of cultural metal working patterns and ornaments are zoomorphic,” said Zhambyl Artykbayev, doctor of historical sciences and professor at Lev Gumilyov Eurasian National University in Astana. “We are talking about 4,500–4,000 B.C., the beginning of the horse breeding era. This is the period of the new model of the Eurasian steppe culture, where horse breeding is the pivotal point.”

Kazakhs maintained their horse breeding traditions nearly 7,000 years until the 20th century. The Eurasian steppes were well-suited for domestication and breeding.

“At around the same period Kazakhs started processing non-ferrous metals, anything that was easily obtained on the surface and above all, copper. The Eurasian steppes left Kazakhs struggling and surviving. This is not the north with its freezing winters limiting people’s abilities and even thoughts and this is not the south with its subtropical climate, where nature, thanks to the warm weather, helps people survive by providing food. Here [in the Eurasian steppes], people are partners with nature. People need to constantly study nature and at times humans can dictate their own terms, provided we have a developed society,” said Artykbayev, adding all these processes gave birth to metallurgy in the steppes.

Metal working and production were important not only for Kazakhs, but also for the neighboring settled civilizations up to Egypt.

“Copper, in particular, was traded in the steppes and bought by other civilizations. These trading routes have also influenced the Kazakh culture. In general, speaking of patterns, ornaments and designs we can see today in jewelry, for instance we observe three types of ornaments: vegetational, which come from the south with its agricultural roots; zoomorphic, as I mentioned earlier and geometric motifs. Perhaps it comes from the Andronian culture, where people saw various shapes and images, for instance the ceramic arts,” he said.

The struggle for metal coincided with the need to develop military power.

“This is not a depleting resource like stone, for instance. People could make as many sharp arrow tips as they needed and then trade them or sell them. They saw the profit and advantages,” said Artykbayev.Zhambyl Artykbayev_photo credit_enu.kz

Metal thus became a source of numerous conflicts between clans in the Kazakh steppes.

“Especially we can emphasize the fights between clans in the eastern parts of Kazakhstan. Some clans even had their names derived from metallic-associated words like Karluk, which actually is the best type of damask steel. Later in history, they went on to found the Qarakhanid Khanate,” he said.

Soviet Influence, Modern Times

Artykbayev added there were no further drastic changes in forms or shapes until the formation of the USSR.

“Take for instance the cold weapons of the early nomads of the 7th century B.C. and those of the 17th century warriors. They would still have similar patterns distinctive to our regional shapes or decorations,” he said.

The major change in ideology was reflected in arts and crafts.

“If you take a look at the clothes before the 19th century, you would notice that nomads wore very colorful and bright outfits with red, dark green and violet dominating outerwear, etc. and not only clothing but arts, crafts, etc. But the dark ages in the history of the Soviet Union, like wars, repressions to the Kazakh steppes and famine, stained the lives of our ancestors in some way. Our fathers wore mostly dark grey and black clothes and this inevitably influenced their lives in general, including metal working, the way of life and everything,” said Artykbayev.

Due to the resource-rich steppes, Kazakhs are continuing their traditions in the modern environment by mainly producing various ferrous and non-ferrous metals. KazZinc, KazChrom and KazFerroStal are among the top Kazakh metal-producing enterprises.

The mining and metallurgical sectors are among the country’s most competitive and dynamically-developing industries with a workforce of nearly 164,000. Kazakhstan holds 30 percent of the world’s resources of chromium ore, 25 percent of manganese ore and 10 percent of iron ore. According to data on export.gov.kz, the country’s copper deposits are estimated at 37 million tonnes or 5.5 percent of the world’s total; zinc, 25.7 million tonnes or 9.5 percent; lead,11.7 million tonnes or 10.1 percent, and aluminum bauxite, 1 percent.

The total geological resources and predicted resources of coal are estimated to be around 150 billion tonnes. Kazakhstan holds first place in the world in explored reserves of zinc, wolfram and barite; second place with its reserves of silver, zinc, chromites and uranium; third for copper; fourth for molybdenum; fifth for cobalt; sixth for gold and coal and eighth for gold. Of the 105 elements of the periodic table, 99 have been discovered in the subsoil, 70 explored and more than 60 are involved in production.

Metal-based products are the country’s second largest trading commodities after oil and gas. In 2011, exports from this sector amounted to $11.6 billion, reported export.gov.kz. The main markets are China, Germany, Japan, Iran, and Pakistan, Russia and Turkey.

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