Sharp Sense: Caucasian and Central Asian Weaponry from the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography

The exhibition, based on unique materials from the collections of the Russian Museum of Ethnography, introduces a visitor to a new and at the same time a long studied field of anthropology of war, the meeting point of cultural anthropology and ethnography. Throughout all human history the weapons occupied a special place in any culture. As ambivalent and neutral incarnation of power they were surrounded with  reverence, mixed with fear, veneration, and admiration. Weapons are among the most semantically multifunctional objects, and, therefore, deserve to be examined in all existing cultural contexts. Firstly, weapons can be studied as concrete objects which have both form and history of their own.  Secondly, weapons can be examined for their role in daily life of their owner. Thirdly, the weapons play symbolic role in society, representing important cultural values. The three thematic sections of this exhibition reflect all these contexts. 

Weapons as material objects. This section represents the best examples of weaponry: rare weapons, ones that were presented as ceremonial gifts and those that bear inscriptions. Among others, this section exhibits the weapons presented to the emperor Alexander III during his voyage to the Caucasus as well as gifts of  the emirs of Bukhara to the Russian monarchs.

Man and weapons.  Although Central Asia and the Caucasus are inhabited by many peoples of diverse   cultures, these regions form a united cultural continuum, sponsoring the   interaction and integration of local cultures. The complete sets of costumes accompanied by the weaponry typical of the peoples of these regions demonstrate this complicated equilibrium of common legacy and local differences.   

The figure of a heavily armored Persian horseman occupies a central place in the section.  Persian warfare, having long served as a model for local authorities, seriously influenced both Central Asia and the Caucasus. The peoples of Central Asia are represented by the figures of Bukharian, Kazakh and Turkmen warriors, while the figures of Khevsur, Gurian and Circassian warriors relate to the peoples of the Caucasus.  All of them are clad in their national costumes equipped with full sets of armor.

Weapons in culture. The identification of nature of an object in relation to its origin is typical of analysis of traditional culture. For this reason the section Weapons in Culture recreates the environment by representing the interior of the smithy with blacksmith tools and details of blade weapons in the process of their manufacturing. The scene is accompanied by the text of “risal”- the statutes of the Moslem Blacksmiths guild, in which blacksmith craft and blade making were regarded as sacred acts.

In certain cases weapons in the cultures of the Central Asian peoples symbolized the highest values of traditional society, including the conception of sacred in particular. In Central Asia there are legends about the fourth caliph Ali according to them this great warrior and protector of the faith received his sword Zulfikar in the gorge of Charkal, near the city of Namazgan, where it hung suspended in the air. After performing his heroic deeds, Ali returned the sword to its place, throwing it back into the air. The scene, based on the legend, represents an illuminated Arabian sword as if hanging in the air with a photo of a mountain landscape against the background. The laconic visual image, reflecting an idea of protecting the true faith, stresses the monotheistic character of the Moslem religion.

The next scene, showing a shrine in the Western Caucasus, forms a semantic pair with the hanging sword of Ali. The darkened space, contained a fragment of the sacred tree with various kinds of weapons and armor on it, represents multiplicity and abundance, linked to the common source - the sacred tree, a symbol of both germinating and annihilating principles.

The weapons not only penetrated into various utilitarian cultural spheres, but also in certain cases performed the role of a human alter-ego. The models of weapons, used in infant rites, show that since his earliest years a man was associated with weapons. The identification of boys with weapons can be traced in magic acts aimed at healing children using blacksmith instruments. A man did not part with his weapons throughout his life, and after his death they accompanied him to his final abode in the form of drawing on his gravestone. 

The exhibition area is 150 square meters. The number of objects is 250-300.