Balalyk Tepe, Hephthalites, and a Sartorial System

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

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.

This paper investigates the type of dress represented in the banquet painting from room 14 at Balalyk Tepe in northern Tokharistan (southern Uzbekistan). It addresses the social significance of the subtle dress distinctions between banqueters. I suggest that the ability to open the lapel of the kaftan, alongside other fine details, was part of a fluid sartorial system especially suited to polycentric first millennium CE Central Eurasia.

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 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,” are to be published as an edited volume.

The content of this paper is also part of the third chapter of my first book, which explores how Central Eurasian denizen fashioned their kaftans for transcultural communication at banquets.