Various North Caucasian Handcrafts

Each national community in the North Caucasus has its own highly original folk arts. Notwithstanding this diversity proceeding from the widely differing sources and roots of these arts, they show a considerable degree of stylistic and artistic similarity. This unusual connection between disparate ethnic groups, which settled in the region in different epochs, is understandable when taking into account that they are linked by a similar geographical environment as well as by their extensive cultural and economic ties from time immemorial. The most widely practiced crafts in the North Caucasus were gold-thread embroidery, carpet- and felt-making, pottery, jewelry, and stone and wood carving.

In the mountains, peasants adorned the walls of their houses and watchtowers, as well as their stone memorials, with decoration in relief. The main subjects, common to other arts in the Middle Ages as well, were real and imaginary animals. Other popular motifs were hunting and battle scenes. Crafts from this period, which have survived to this day, include gravestone carving in low relief and the production of stone utensils sparingly decorated with geometric or plant designs.

Carved gravestones are commonly found in mountain settlements in the Chechen and Ingush Republics, Kabardino-Balkarian Autonomous Republic, and North Ossetian Autonomous Republic. The generalized figure of a Caucasian highlander is plainly recognizable in the shape of these gravestones. Certain decorative symbols, and perhaps even carved scenes from the deceased's life, gave some indication of his former occupation. Thus, a hammer and anvil in the ornamental border would show. that under this gravestone a blacksmith was buried, while a pair of oxen with a man's figure behind it would suggest a tiller's grave; attributes of carpet-making would be depicted on a weaver's gravestone. Gravestones from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were often painted.

High standards of workmanship are evident in the wooden utensils for domestic use. Hard woods were generally used, especially to make thin-walled cups and bowls, sometimes accompanied by spoons or forks tied to them with wooden chains. The vessels' walls were often carved with tamga, the family crests. Tamgas are typical elements of ornamentation found all over the North Caucasus and their execution is calligraphically refined. Such signs are also carved on front doors in remembrance of visits, and metal tamgas appear on branding irons for cattle. The same motif is to be found on gravestones, in gold-thread embroidery, stamped designs on leather, applique, and even on patterned mats. The motif's highly generalized and stylized treatment is echoed by the manner in which plant designs are presented on felt rugs, which were widely used by all the people of the North Caucasus A remarkable gift for creating beautiful objects from available materials is demonstrated by the Adygeis, Circassians, and Kabardinians, who use reed and straw for making patterned mats (ardzhens). These mats show an infinite variety of elementary geometric motifs and are still used in home decoration and in some traditional rituals.

Embroidery in gold thread is one of the most popular women's handicrafts in the North Caucasus. It chiefly decorates traditional women's costumes, riding outfits, and some articles of interior decoration. The large-scale generalized designs of Kabardinian gold embroidery can be traced back to heathen times. The formalized plant designs found in North Ossetia are on the whole more life-like. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the gold embroidery produced in this region was already known far beyond the confines of the Caucasus.

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