Gold of the Great Steppe in Cambridge

The new exhibition, Gold of the Great Steppe, that has just opened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is not to be missed. The golden grave goods found in Saka-Scythian burial kurgans in East Kazakhstan within the last few years are remarkable. Dating from the 8th-6th centuries BCE, they come from a number of sites in and around the Tarbagatai Mountains in the east of this vast country, including Eleke Sazy, Shilikti, Urzhar and Berel. They were excavated by Profefssor Zainolla Samashev, a noted expert on Kazakh petroglyphs, and Professor Abdesh Toleubayev, the leading achaeologist in East Kazakhstan and head of the department of Archaeology, Ethnography and Museology of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

A sheet gold plaque of a running deer, adorned with turquoise

The exhibition focuses on one burial in particular, in which were found two bodies, at Eleke Sazy in the northern foothills of the Tarbagatai range. It was excavated in 2018. In this small area there are around 300 kurgans arranged in independent groups and chains. The burial of the young woman, aged around 14, had been disturbed and robbed in antiquity, but alongside her lay another body that had been hidden by a rockfall. That was of a young man aged about 18. His richly adorned body had lain undisturbed and was only the second such complete burial to have been found in this region in the modern era.

The region of East Kazakhstan (right) where the graves were located, close to the border with China.

The Eleke Sazy kurgan is a hemispherical structure, surrounded by a ditch and double ring of stones. The main structure is 33.25m across.

The kurgan at Eleke Sazy.

Amongst the grave goods were dozens of arrow heads, suggesting that the young man was a skilled archer. He also carried a beautiful bronze dagger in a gold shealth adorned with precious stones. The carved stone handle had been ritually broken at the time of the burial.

Gold dagger sheath from Eleke Sazy

Hundreds of other stunning golden objects were found in the tomb, as can be seen below:

This part of east Kazakhstan is quite literally full of kurgans, most of which were looted many years ago. Indeed, Thomas Atkinson also noted the large number of monuments in the area. He and Lucy crossed the Tarbagatai Mountains twice on their journeys to and from the Djungar Alatau Mountains, that lie just to the south, on the other side of Lake Ala Kool. He gives numberous descriptions of the kurgans he came across and painted one particularly large one he found close to the old border checkpoint of Chuguchak – now known as Tacheng. An engraving of that picture was reproduced in his book Oriental and Western Siberia (1858).

Engraving of Atkinson’s painting of a large kurgan in the Tarbagatai Mountains of East Kazakhstan

The exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is free to enter, runs until 30th January. Get along and see it. You won’t regret it.

Lucy Atkinson’s superb book is republished

I am delighted to report that Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, first published in 1863, has now been republished by Signal Books of Oxford. The first edition, published by John Murray, was issued in a small edition of just 900 copies and soon became a rarity. It was republished in 1972 by Cass, but that edition is also scarce.

The new edition includes a new 66-page introduction by myself and Marianne Simpson, who is a direct descendant of Lucy’s brother, Matthew Finley. This is the first attempt at a biography of Lucy and contains many previously unknown details about this remarkable woman. For example, it reveals that her uncle, Joseph Sherrard, after whom she received her middle name, was also a distinguished maritime traveller, having first visited Australia before 1800 and having sailed in the Royal Navy with Captain Bligh and other important explorers of the southern seas.

The new introduction also asserts that Lucy’s book is one of the earliest serious travel books written by a woman. Most travel accounts in the nineteenth century were written by women who were usually travelling in the company of their husband or a family member and on their way to a particular destination. They seldom spent time in the saddle or setting up camp in remote places, as was the case with Lucy. Only a handful of similar accounts exist and Lucy’s book stands up well against the best of them. And certainly few of them travelled 40,000 miles or travelled for five or six years like Lucy.

The introduction also explains, for the first time, the background to Thomas Atkinson’s bigamous marriage to Lucy. It seems very likely she knew about his previous marriage and certainly never held it against him, signing her book, published two years after his death, as ‘Mrs Atkinson’. Divorce at the time was impossible except by a private Act of Parliament. However, the existence of the first marriage is probably the reason that his two books of travel, in which Lucy and their child Alatau are not mentioned, were so disjointed. There is evidence that Thomas was required to remove all references to Lucy and Alatau in order not to humiliate Rebecca, his first wife.

Lucy’s achievements as an explorer place her amongst the best. There are many men celebrated as explorers who didn’t go through half of what she experienced over the course of six years and 40,000 miles of travel. Her book is a classic, full of warmth and wonderful descriptions of the people she met and amongst whom she always left a wonderful impression.

The only known picture of Lucy, from an drawing by Thomas Atkinson.

Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, by Lucy Atkinson, with a new introduction by Nick Fielding and Marianne Simpson.

ISBN: 978-1-909930-97-1; 332pp;

£12.99 from Signal Books http://www.signalbooks.co.uk.

A new edition of Lucy Atkinson’s superb book

Cover for new edition of Lucy Atkinson’s book.

A new edition of Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, first published in 1863, will be published by Signal Books of Oxford in September. With a new introduction written by myself and Marianne Simpson, the book will bring Lucy’s wonderful writings to a new generation of readers. Written in the form of a series of letters to an unnamed friend, Lucy’s open style makes this a fresh and very accessible account of the six years she spent travelling on horseback throughout Siberia and Central Asia.

In the introduction we put the book into context in terms of women’s travel writing and argue that it is one of the earliest and best examples of the genre. The extensive research by Marianne Simpson into Lucy’s family and its maritime connections perhaps also helps to explain her willingness to travel in remote and dangerous areas. The book also provides extensive biographical details of Lucy, particularly for the period after she returned from Russia. More details to follow closer to publication.

Mining for copper in Kazakhstan

My recent book, Travellers in the Great Steppe, includes a chapter on those pioneering metallurgists and engineers who travelled from Britain and its colonies to set up businesses in the Kazakh steppe around the turn of the 19th-20 centuries. Amongst them was Edward Nelson Fell, who set up and ran the Spassky mine near Karaganda, to the south-east of Nursultan, now the capital of the country. Fell was director of operations at the mine from 1903-1908. Frank Vans Agnew, who eventually married one of Fell’s daughters, also came to work at the mine.

It was thus a great pleasure to receive an email recently from Jamie Vans, Edward’s great-grandson, who told me that two years ago he had travelled to the Spassky mine to see the places where his ancestors had worked. Jamie also has a large archive of material relating to the time they spent in this remote part of what was then the Russian empire. And most importantly, he has written up much of this material into a pamphlet, which you can find here:

Fell and his son-in-law Frank Vans Agnew had an eventful time at the mine. As well as dealing with Bolshevik agitators and striking miners, they found time to interact with the local nomadic Kazakhs and brought back numerous items, some of which are now in the British Museum. Jamie’s pamphlet is very detailed and full of fascinating material. It never ceases to amaze me that such important archives continue to turn up and to shed light on past events that have long since passed from view.

Peter Brown – 1927-2021

Peter Brown, husband of Atkinson descendant Belinda and a man who always took an interest in the story of her exploring ancestors Thomas and Lucy, has passed away at the grand age of 94. Despite his advanced years, he and Belinda both travelled to Kazakhstan in 2016 as guests of the government, visiting the place where Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born and putting up with the considerable discomforts of rough travel in the Zhetysu region.

As the oldest Atkinson family member, Peter was given particular honours in Kazakhstan, being introduced first to various dignatories, and always being offered the cooked sheep’s head to portion out to his sometimes less than enthusiastic relatives. He often attended meetings and was always good company. He also had a good hand and produced a delightful portrait of Thomas Atkinson – later emblazoned onto T-shirts. He will be long remembered by his family and friends.

Peter Brown on the shores of Lake Ala Kol in Eastern Kazakhstan
Thomas Atkinson portrait by Peter Brown.

RGS lecture on Travellers in the Great Steppe

On Monday I gave a talk for the RGS based on my recent book Travellers in the Great Steppe. It went very well and over 130 people logged on to listen. If you were not able to make it you can now listen in your own time by clicking on this link. The talk was subtitled ‘Nomads and their Textiles’ and contained a lot of material not directly covered in the book.

Kokpar: An ancient Central Asian sport

In Kazakhtan, Kokpar – known elsewhere in Central Asia as buzkashi (Afghanistan), kok boru (Uzbekistan) or ulak tyrtysh (Kyrgyzstan) – is a sport involving dozens of riders in what looks to outsiders like a brawl over a goat carcass. The winning side is the one that delivers the carcass (or head) into a specified pit the most times. Other than that there are few rules. The film below shows also that there is no specified limit to how far riders will travel in order to defeat their adversaries. I once saw a match in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where the riders disappeared over the horizon, not to return for around 40 minutes. Enjoy!

Two events to cheer you up

This coming week I will be making two presentations, based on my two recent books.

On Monday at 1430 GMT I will be speaking at a Royal Geographical Society event in their ‘Be Inspired’ series, entitled Travellers in the Great Steppe: Nomads and their Textiles. In this talk I will be explaining how my abiding interest in nomadic textiles from Central Asia was the inspiration for researching and writing my book on Travellers. Using some wonderful slides, I will be talking about how many of the early travellers left us with detailed descriptions of textiles they saw as they crossed the steppes. Some, like Henry Lansdell and Henri Moser, brought back with them wonderful embroideries that are now in museum collections across the world. You can find further details of the talk here.

The second event, which takes place on Wednesday at 1500GMT is a talk for the Oxus Society about Chokan Valikhanov, based on my new edition of his writings in English (see below). As the blurb for the event says, “Nick Fielding’s new edited collection of the writings of Chokan Valikhanov brings the brilliance and insights of this young Kazakh intellectual to an English-speaking audience for the first time in more than 150 years. No-one knew the steppes like Valikhanov and his dangerous journeys into Chinese Turkestan have since become legendary. A staunch defender of his people and friend of Dostoyevsky, Potanin and Semenov-Tianshansky, his writings are as fresh today as they were when first written. If you want to attend the talk, further details can be found here. I hope you can join me!

e-version of new book on Chokan Valikhanov

The book launch for my new book, Selected Writings of Chokan Valikhanov: Pioneering Ethnographer and Historian of the Great Steppe, held virtually at the Royal Geographical Society, was a great success, with around 80 attending via Zoom and well over 500 on other media. Thank you to all of you. The book, published by Cambridge University Press, can be downloaded by clicking on this link.