Click for more details.

Yomut group
Archaic period

During the past thirty years Turkmen weavings have received ever-increasing attention due to the publication of books and exhibition catalogs. It is quite remarkable then no new information has emerged to identify where or by whom any specific weaving or group of weavings was made. But the classification of these weavings, based on their structures and materials, into specific groups has been well advanced. Many examples from the three later weaving periods have been identified and while this holds true for certain archaic period examples, the majority of them are still unknown.

So far it has proven impossible to scientifically determine the age of any Turkmen weaving. The recent flurry of activity around the use of carbon 14 as a dating method has provided results that are interesting but surely not positive and in this author's opinion comparative analysis of materials, technical variations of weave and design provide much more supportable results. When these criteria are correctly recorded they supply positive information indicating the weaving group and also a relative date that is far more satisfactory than carbon 14 analysis provides. And now that there are the large numbers of published examples, the use of comparative analysis offers the best and most valid method available to answer this question.

Weaving group nomenclature, like C14 dating, is problematical. Unlike the emphatic nature of structural analysis, the names are at this point highly speculative and based on the assumption if a design was used at the end of the 19th century by an identified weaving group, that same group had always used it. Unfortunately, as the comparisons offered with these Plate descriptions demonstrate, all post-archaic period weavings exhibit design alterations that negate these types of extrapolations. In addition during the archaic and classic periods far fewer groups of Turkmen, whether nomadic or settled, had the available resources and/or cultural connections required to produce patterned cut-pile weavings and it seems many post-classic period weaving groups did not weave complex patterned cut-pile weavings at earlier times. Names, like Arabatchi, Yomut, Tekke, Ersari, Saryk, Salor, etc., will be referred to, however, this author recognizes the possibility that new, in-depth ethnographic and forensic research (like that proposed by the Museum) will redefine and possibly even invalidate of these labels.

This engsi, unlike the previous, can not be as definitively assigned to a specific Turkmen weaving group and the broad catch-all label of Yomut will have to suffice for now. As soon the Museumís research programs can be initiated, results will allow new sub-groups to be recognized and weavings like this engsi will be further classifiable. Until then, the important information they can provide to this effort will have to remain hidden.

Historical accounts name more than ten sub-groups of the Yomut and although other authors have attempted to assign these name-tags to various weavings, there have been no breakthroughs to actually prove or disprove them. Recently a few sub-groups, based on the meticulous examination of unusual materials, structures or colors, have been successfully identified but these clusters of weavings still can not be assigned to any of the sub-groups known to have existed. These assignments have been based on the presence of unusual characteristics, like the use of cotton and/or silk as foundation material, or complex and unusual structural techniques. Regardless of their age, it is probable most of these were the products of settled weaving groups as exotic materials were too scarce and costly to be used as structural materials and complicated weaving techniques were unnecessary and out of character for nomads.

The design of this engsi is far simpler and does not have the library of icons the previous example has made available for identification. And while it shares the same bird-pillar four-paneled field and totemic outer border, which remains at the top but is missing from both sides, only two other icons appear in its design. But before beginning this discussion a more significant, albeit highly speculative, one needs mention.

The weaver of this engsi was able to synthesize an extraordinarily rhythmic and powerful image by brilliantly combining color and design. In fact, it is hypnotic. Of course a small picture on your computer screen or piece of paper can not recreate the effect achieved by sitting in front of this engsi and having it encompass your entire field of vision. Did the weaver set out to create this powerful effect? The answer can only be yes - the intricate balance of the designs, their proportions, placement and color combination leave little room for accident or chance. Now then, in all societies with shaman cults, trance-like states are always recorded as part of some rituals. Is it not possible this engsi was a tool used to induce a hypnotic state?

The incredibly rich and saturated colors seen here have resulted from materials only available to a weaver from an archaic nomadic group. Living in high steppe, foothills and mountain valleys, their animals produced special coats of wool and underhair with extraordinary high oil content as further protection against the extreme cold weather present in these areas. Examples made from these materials have, after several hundred years of oxidation, developed the unique surface patina present in all archaic period weavings. Knowledge of ancient dye formulas, dye stuffs and access to uncontaminated, mineral rich water supplies were the other components required for the creation and fixing of the special colors seen on these engsi and other archaic period trappings.

Icons and symbol content have received the least amount of attention of any topic related to Turkmen weaving and although their meanings are often not possible to positively determine, the following should be considered the primary theme of this exhibition. The engsi and possibly other as yet unidentified symbol rich trappings were never intended for domestic use but rather as accessory for non-secular/cult aspects of the Turkmen lifestyle. Seen within this framework, as cult items, the reason and purpose for their complex iconographies becomes clear and eminently more explainable.

Beginning at least 50,000 years ago, during the Late Paleolithic, there are scattered indications pointing to the important connection art and spiritual/ religious belief maintained. The subsequent prehistoric periods of man's development provide further proof of this relationship and since the inception of recorded history, it has become indisputable. With this in mind, how can we consider the Turkmen and their single most important art form, weaving, to have existed outside this continuum?

There is little information to explain the religious practices of the Turkmen, and none available concerning the groups who produced archaic period weavings. But to assume they had no ritual, religion or cult activities and that certain historic examples were not made expressly for and used only during these ceremonies is rather shortsighted and illogical. Birth, coming of age, marriage and death are crucial life cycle events all cultures and peoples celebrate with special rites and rituals, invariably held in places reserved for and used only for these activities. It is possible, and in this author's opinion highly probable, engsi and other trappings with complex content were present and played an integral part in such events.

The wide panels, known as elem, found at the bottom and top of all engsi, chuval and also many main carpets were often decorated. Most engsi have only one but examples with two elems, as is the case here, are much less common but by no means rare. Both of these contain a horizontal row of trees with broad leaf-like branches and a strange blossom design at the top. Are these reference to the cosmic tree and its function to connect this world with a higher one?

These trees are the first of the two icons. Another Yomut engsi (fig.18) has the same general layout, two elem and has been included here for comparison. The trees, their blossoms and thin pair of single branches exhibit a style of drawing that is completely different, even though it has been directly derived from that of Plate Two. In order to continue this analysis and comparison, the second icon needs to be introduced into this discussion. It is repeated vertically in the two outer borders and also used in the vertical axis of the cross, which divides the four panels of the field of Plate Two.

This icon(fig.19) bears a great resemblance to the kejebe in the four niches on Plate One. Its appearance here does not provide any new clues to its meaning but does present an interesting question. Is this design another version of the kejebe icon under the niche in Plate One? Both engsi are extremely old but have they been derived from a common source? These questions are unanswerable for now but features of these two kejebe and the tree elem of Plate Two do appear to have been combined to create the pseudo-tree design elem in fig.18.

Quite a number of weaving generations separate these two engsi as fig.18 exhibits all the characteristics of pre-conquest period weavings. They are rote and repetitive drawing style, the re-use of icons without proper articulation or placement, the re-combination of icons to create new designs and the invention of totally new and unrelated designs and patterns. They date this engsi to that timeframe and comparing its elem with those in Plate Two will help to underscore the effects of this process.

The complete absence of any secondary or filler design other than the trees in the elem of Plate Two is highly unusual, as is their large size(fig.20). The weaver of fig.18 tried to re-create this but the effort was in vain. The trees in the upper elem show little resemblance, especially since an additional thin pair of arms above the blossoms and the large crosses within them have added new and confusing design elements. The treatment of the design in the bottom elem holds truer to the original but it too is seriously flawed by an overall lack of spirit, vibrancy and articulation. Interestingly enough, in the center of each of these stiffly drawn blossoms another design derived from the kejebe (fig.21) has been added. If there is any doubt these are meant to be kejebe, notice each was deliberately placed inside a niche.

Fig.18 also contains a number of other designs reproduced from those contained in Plates One and Two : the small half medallions between each tree in the bottom border recall those in Plate One(fig.15); the three red ground vertical borders are copies of the recumbent animal border of Plate One(fig.5); the white ground horizontal borders that separate the upper and lower field panels are copies of those in Plate One(fig.22): the small vertical borders at either edge of the upper elem are copies of the horizontal border separating the two elem in Plate Two and the pair of thin multi-colored stripes at the bottom of the lower elem have been lifted from the four panels of Plate Two. These elements were proprietary to archaic engsi and they have reappeared generations later in fig.18 and countless others as testament to a weaving culture that was more than just a craft. It was tradition, maintained by Turkmen weavers through the cultural connections it embodied.


Fig.A Shaman and his drum
Fig.5 Recumbent animal border from Plate One
Fig.15 Bird icon from kejebe panel Plate One
Fig.18 Yomut engsi pre-conquest period from Turkmen:tribal carpets and traditions Plate 78
Fig.19 Possible kejebe icon from Plate Two
Fig.20 Detail of tree elem from Plate Two
Fig.21 Detail of quasi-kejebe in a niche from fig. 18
Fig.22 Detail from Plate One

Next Plate

No photographs or text may be reproduced without the written consent of the copyright holder, the Weaving Art Museum, Inc.

click for larger view