Balalyk Tepe, Hephthalites and a Sartorial System

Balalyk Tepe, Hephthalites and a first millennium CE Sartorial System of Central Eurasia

Details of an expansive painting, which stretched across four walls at Balalyk Tepe in northern Tokharistan (present-day southern Uzbekistan), have been included in surveys of Central Asian art since it was uncovered six decades ago by Lazar Al’baum. Always highlighted are the attendees’ splendid polychrome patterned kaftans, an outer garment distinguished by its front-fastening closure, overlapping front panels that can form a lapel, sleeves and skirting. The archaeological dating of the wall painting, which belongs to the second phase of the site’s construction, has ranged from as early as the late 5th or early 6th century CE, to as late as the 8th century CE, while art historical research supports a late 6th or early 7th-century CE date. However, of most significance to this discussion is the fact that the banqueters have remained associated with the Hephthalites and their homeland of Tokharistan. Particular attention has been given to the single, right-sided, triangular lapel of the kaftans. Scholars have claimed this design detail is a marker of Hephthalite ethnic identity, or, for those agreeing with later dating, a fashionable remnant of Hephthalite dress.

The polychrome kaftan first emerged in the archaeological record during the 5th century CE. This century likewise saw the arrival of the Hephthalites into Tokharistan, according to both textual and numismatic evidence. However, directly correlating a Hephthalite ethnic identity with the kaftan, as represented in wall paintings, becomes challenging when it is apparent that remarkably similar garments emerged from an area stretching from the Caucasus and Iran to Central Asia and the Steppe. How can we explain the existence of a garment embraced by communities across a vast geographical and temporal spread, and of varying socio-political structures?

This paper focuses on a single case study in northern Tokharistan—Balalyk Tepe. I will introduce my working hypothesis for a first millennium CE sartorial system of Central Eurasia and consider how such a system might have influenced the understanding of this painting within a specific architectural space. First, I  present the main conclusions of past scholarship on the emergence of both the polychrome kaftan and of those specific to Balalyk Tepe. Following this, I present my own analysis of the painting, considering the architectural space in which the painting was found, in order to attempt a reconstruction of the cultural code that individuals encountering these images may have recognized. Lastly, I discuss how the painting at Balalyk Tepe fits into this sartorial system.

Project History and Presentation Venue

The research for this paper began after an invitation to present on an aspect of dress, textiles and the ‘Huns’ for a conference organized by P. von Rummel and R. Payne at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The proceedings of the conference, “The Huns between Central Asia, the Near East, and Europe: The Archaeology of Nomadic Imperialism, circa 300 – 600 CE,” will be worked an edited volume by the organizers.

This content of this paper is also part of the third chapter of my dissertation, which looks at the social function of the polychrome kaftan at both formal banquets and drinking parties.

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detail of a watercolor of the banquet painting of room 14 at Balalyk Tepe [image credit: Альбаум, Балалык Тепе, 1960]