Wave raised by the sea – Ob-Ugric Jewellery, 175 laterMay, 2020
Most notable among factors shaping the character of the Museum of Ethnography’s holdings during the late-19th century was the field of Magyar origins and kindred studies, which addressed questions of ethnic kinship comparatively, attempting to trace Hungarians’ relationship to various Asian peoples along lines defined by cultural similarities. Accordingly, collectors, as well as scholars, sought to identify objects that might be used as a basis for comparison, including costumes, ritual objects, and the tools associated with fishing, hunting, and animal husbandry—pursuits known as ‘ancient occupations’. Though modern ethnographers do not view such inquiries as having delivered satisfactory answers to these questions, they did produce many exciting artefacts for the museum’s collections. Here, we attempt to compare two objects originally falling into this category, though from a different angle than in times past.
The romantic figure of Antal Reguly (1819-1858) crossing the Ural Mountains on foot is an image worthy of cinematographic adaptation, as is the entire story of his journey through Western Siberia. However, Reguly was no mere traveller, nor even an adventurer, but a dedicated researcher. For the journey in question, he made his preparations in Saint Petersburg, where he spent time studying languages and immersing himself in the tenets of physical anthropology. It was there that he was presented with the charge of collecting ‘skulls, clothing, and other ethnographic curiosities’ for the Saint Petersburg Academy, though in his enthusiasm, he took to collecting for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as well. In doing so, Reguly strove to bring specimens from as many classes of objects as possible, artefacts that in 1847 were to be displayed in one of the academy’s very first ethnographic exhibitions. Still, for decades afterward, the body of material—which scholars of the age were unable to define or classify—was essentially left to drift, until it was finally inventoried by the newly formed Ethnography Department of the Hungarian National Museum in 1872.
It was on this particular journey, along the banks of the River Konda in 1844, that Reguly collected ‘women’s breast ornament no. 2161’. The Ob-Ugric groups that lived in the area spoke Mansi and Khanty (in Russian: Vogul and Ostyak), the languages that bear the closest resemblence to Hungarian. The collector’s notes, however, were not always clear as to the matter of which ethnicity a particular article represented. In some cases, an object was even labelled as simultaneously Mansi, and Khanty. It is possible that at the time, Reguly already guessed what modern scholarship now regards as all but given: that among the Ob-Ugric peoples, cultural character depends more on north-south position than it does on ethno-linguistic considerations; that is, that Khanty and Mansi groups living in close geographic proximity, while naturally exhibiting differences of language and identity, nevertheless possess very similar cultures.
Accordingly, beading as a decorative techique is not exclusive to any particular Ob-Ugric group, but has been used by both the Khanty, and Mansi up to the present day. Applied to clothing, fur costumes, and jewellery, the patterns of tiny glass beads are composed of geometric motifs of seemingly infinite variety, each bearing its own, unique name. In particular, Reguly’s breast ornament of blue, white, brown, black, and yellow beads features a snake motif worked in a repeating pattern that clearly served some sort of protective function, as did the copper cross with Cyrillic writing, an element related to the process of Christianisation then underway. The piece is an emblematic one among those collected from the Ob-Ugric peoples, as are like items added to the European Collection by Károly Pápai and János Jankó.
Another women’s breast ornament, inventory number 2019.116.8, is similar in many respects, if somewhat simpler in its workmanship. The piece belongs to a modern outfit composed of eight articles, whose former owner, a researcher from Khanty-Mansiysk wore it to parties and conferences as an expression of Mansi identity. It was at just such an occasion, a conference held in Hungary for Reguly’s 200th birthday, that members of the Museum of Ethnography staff first met her in 2019.
Belonging to the outfit in question are a dress, scarf, pair of knitted stnockings, bag, pair of beaded shoes, and three articles of beaded jewellery—a 21st-century reimagining of the traditional Mansi costume reflecting a concept now generally practiced among contemporary Russian minorities. The makers of clothing for modern folk costumes use new materials, in some cases simplifying motifs and structures, but employing traditional beading techniques. The type, structure, material, colours, and motifs seen on the jewellery in question are all like those used in the past. The specific motif used on inventory number 2019.116.8 is known as ‘Wave Raised by the Wind’—variations of which are also seen on 19th-century pieces—and is formed of blue, yellow, red, and white beads. The absence of the crucifix is a sign of authenticity, as no such object belonged to Ob-Ugric culture prior to Christianisation.
Between the the two pieces stand the passage of one hundred seventy-five years. Though separated in time, they are nevertheless close cousins in the regional and ethnic senses. This similarity is not a matter of happenstance: the 21st-century Khanty and Mansi intelligentsia consciously utilise material heritage, exemplified by objects like the Reguly jewellery, as an outward sign of minority identity. The objects collected by Reguly are uniquely authentic, as conscious, systematic ethnographic collection had not yet commenced in the Russian Empire during the early 19th century, and few objects from the period have survived to posterity. And while in the end, these breast ornaments and other objects from the realm of origin studies have not helped Hungarians identify groups that are their cultural relatives or pinpoint a ‘cradle of Magyardom,’ they are nonetheless both an indispensable part of minority heritage, and an authentic source of modern ethnic pride—eloquent examples of the contemporary use of symbols to convey identity.