Long before the Turkmen weaving tradition was destroyed examples such as these were made. Their production was solely motivated within the narrow and strict confines of a highly structured clan-based society. This much can be interpreted from the small number of travel accounts dating from the 11th to the 19th centuries that are available for reference. Perhaps the most famous is Marco Polo’s wherein the explorer described the carpets of Turkmenistan as "…the finest in the world." Unfortunately none of these accounts, including Marco Polo’s, provides any direct information about the designs or the sources for the designs found on the weavings he, or a number of other writers and travelers, actually saw. This lack of provenance also prevents determining the exact age of any Turkmen weaving.
Topics of provenance or dating will not be directly addressed in this text and the commonly accepted attributions will be used and not questioned or discussed. The matter of dating will, however, be handled a bit differently. Almost all Turkmen weavings can be accurately separated into smaller quite specific groupings based on comparison of their structural techniques, materials, dyes and designs. Based on these factors, they can then be placed into a chronological continuum of four successive weaving periods. The Plates and the other examples illustrated in this exhibition have been dated according to this process and, while only answering the dating question in the broadest terms, this method nevertheless provides the least speculative and most viable answer to this question.
Examples from the first or archaic period were the archetypes from which all other similar but later weavings of each specific group have been derived. The best were the products of an archaic nomadic lifestyle and they have always been extremely rare. As a group and individually they demonstrate direct connection to the historic weaving culture of the Turkmen. The next or classic period were made during a transition stage, when the archaic culture of the nomad began to change in response to increased inter-group conflict and reorganization as well as other unknown factors. These weavings frequently synthesized features found in the archaic period by the omission, addition, simplification and recombination of earlier motif and pattern. These changes more often than not created the hybrid types and styles that were reproduced by the myriad of later examples from the next two weaving periods.
In the third or pre-conquest period, genuine examples of Turkmen weaving were still produced but these lack any real connection to the historic weaving culture. They were only reflective of it and in general were purely decorative objects no longer actually expressing cultural history or identity. Many of these were made for market or only as portable wealth. The weavings of the last or colonial period utilize low-grade materials, synthetic colors and foreign designs - the three main factors that signaled the complete destruction of the Turkmen weaving culture's raison d'être.
Examples from the archaic and classic periods are the only ones illustrated in this exhibition, as its focus is exclusively concentrated on the earliest representative weavings. These important examples and others like them have survived without any supporting ethnographic data and, therefore, it is only the weavings themselves that can grant us any chance to understand the beginnings of this weaving culture and the historic period during which it developed.
What little is known about this time-period supports the conclusion that foreign religious, social and economic pressures had yet to penetrate the weaving traditions of these archaic groups. Deep significance was attached to these weavings by a culture that demanded their use and recognition. They were not merely decorative accessories to a lifestyle as they eventually would become for most village groups of Turkmen by the 19th century, but rather significant cultural artifacts that were determinants of an archaic tradition and lifestyle.
The earliest examples of engsi present the most archaic and interesting visual iconography found on any type of Turkmen weaving. Their individual designs, symbols and icons are often the archetypes for those found on other types of trappings, like chuvals and torbas, and naturally for those found on the many later examples of engsi as well. All Turkmen groups made engsi and each of the four examples shown in this exhibition, Plates 1-4, individually demonstrates not only similarities but also the differences the weavers of these various groups were able to express. These are the oldest known examples of their respective types and this is the first time they have been published.