Yuezhi embroidered on three pieces of a carpet, Noyon Uul, Mongolia, after 120 BC.
An extract from Yuezhi on Bactrian embroidery from textiles found at Noyon Uul, Mongolia by Sergey A. Yatsenko.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Textiles woven in China, Syria or Bactria with embroidery by the Yuezhi/Kushans of Bactria, who lived there beginning around 120 BCE. Three pieces of a carpet found recently in Barrow 31 by the expedition of N. V. Polos’mak (Polos’mak et al. 2009): a fabric 192 x 100 cm depicting a collective sacrificial ceremony and a fabric 133 x 100 cm. with a battle scene (Erdene-Ochir 2011, No. 386, pp. 256–9)

Two fragments depict the scene of a sacrificial ceremony, which includes more than 13 male figures. This single composition today consists of two large pieces. On the first of them are six individuals [Fig. 1], on the second are seven standing or walking figures [Fig. 2]. There appears to have been an attempt in every case here to convey the individuality of the faces of those depicted. The action takes place in the open air (on a meadow or in a garden), amid flowers and a great many fluttering butterflies and bees.

     Let us look first at the second piece [Fig. 2], where the figures are better preserved. Here six of the seven men (Nos. 7–12) move toward a small altar with a fire, two of them looking back in the direction from which they came. On the other side of the altar they are met by one more individual (No. 13). Two of the participants in the ceremony lead toward the altar for consecration (?) a saddled horse, and the man walking at the head of this group holds over the altar a miniature footed vase.5 In their external appearance the men share many features. They all have a large head, wide face (with a rounded or approximately rectangular form) and a massive neck, but narrow shoulders and waist. This last feature clearly reflects local aesthetic norms. In the later imperial period, waists of the Kushans are not stressed (Yatsenko 2006, p. 186). The nose is straight with wide wings; the arched eyebrows are large but drawn with fine lines.

     The basic color gamma of the depictions is a combination of red/rose and white, which is characteristic for the Bactrian Yuezhi (Ibid., p. 184).6 Furthermore, there is a definite symmetry of these two basic colors. Thus, if an individual has a red caftan, then his shoes are also red but he has white trousers and a white belt, and, on the other hand, if he has a white caftan and shoes, the trousers and belt are red. Individuals in a “civilian” costume (that is, not armor) alternate the color of the basic upper body clothing in a strict rhythm (first white, then red).

     All the figures have the same hair style — short, curly reddish hair without a part, longer on the sides (the lock at the temples bends toward the cheek). In the absence of beards, thin moustaches are always emphasized (often slightly drooping, less frequently almost horizontal). All this is entirely typical for other depictions of Yuezhi. Beards (even short ones) were rare even among the later imperial Kushans (Ibid., p. 183). Moreover, in the scenes both of sacrificial offerings and battles on one and the same carpet, the Yuezhi are bareheaded (the first in the row of those participants in the ritual moving toward the altar has a decoration on his forehead — a narrow band or diadem), which underscores the special status of these situations. Understandably, in real life in hot Bactria it would be impossible to get by without covering one’s head. The unusual situation in the given scene is emphasized as well by the special role of the left hand of many of the men (raised in the gesture of adoration by individual No. 5; extended forward with an open palm by Nos. 6 and 8; with a finger pointing forward by No. 9; raised and touching the lip of No. 10). It is precisely in this hand that No. 12 holds the sacrificial goblet before the altar. The belt is usually narrow, attached to the waist by a buckle in the shape of an elongated rectangle (gilded or made of gold?; cf. Hiers 1997, No. 63). At the left side hangs a sword, attached to the belt by a thin but clearly visible strap. Nos. 4, 8–9, and 11–12 have an additional ribbon hanging from the right side of the belt with two triangular projections on each of the ends. Footwear (the exception being on No. 13) is entirely of one type — that is, shoes without a heel, with a rounded toe, fastened by a strap over the upper edge and passing under the arch of the sole (this is most clearly visible on No. 12). The men (except for those who stand at the altar) are armed: usually with a short dagger, tied with a strap to the trousers at the right hip, and long narrow swords. In addition, the men numbered 4 and 7–9 hold spears in their hands or on the shoulder.

     The clothes worn by the men include either short (above knee-height) caftans that open in the front but have a wide flap folded over to the left; or long coats (extending to the middle of the shins) with linings of a different color7 and whose flaps are secured by a belt and, apparently, two buttons above and below the waist. Both the caftans and coats have long sleeves. Such upper garments in part reflect the distinctive features of Bactrian Yuezhi clothes of the pre-imperial period. A feature in all of the depictions which also relates to the earlier stage of the development of that people is the absence of undergarments (shirts)8 — that is, the caftans and long coats were worn on the bare body (cf. Yatsenko 2006, pp. 178–9). This fact apparently is to be connected historically at that early stage amongst many nomads with a deficit in thin, high-quality fabrics for undergarments and at the same time the universality of thick basic clothing (which was worn in all seasons of the year either with its rough side out or inside out). A specific feature of the clothes of all the figures is the narrow black border along the edges of breast, hem and cuffs.9 Among other things, both the long coats and caftans have on the hem at the sides short (about 5 cm) slits with the same border. In the crotch of all the trousers is a large inserted panel, which noticeably sags at the bottom of the pelvis. The legs are quite wide and always tucked into the shoes.

     Figure No. 7 (who faces left toward the person who is speaking with him and gesticulating) wears a white long-sleeved coat, with rose-colored decoration of the breast and cuffs and bands of a red lining visible at the bottom. The red caftan of figure 8 in the upper part of the breast and upper sleeves is distinguished visually by a single horizontal band with a row of rhombs in it (an imitation of gold appliqués?). A similar band of round appliqués on an identical red caftan can be seen on No. 3. This decorative element is so far unique for male clothing of the Iranian peoples of that time (it appears also in the scene with the seated ruler discussed below). The black band bordering the breast of the caftan widens at the collar (probably this is a narrow and short stand-up collar, as on Nos. 9 and 11–13; cf. on probable Bactrian Yuezhi, Ibid., p. 178, Figs. 121.45; 122.38, 41). Figure 10, leading from its side the consecrated horse with the saddle and parade harness in the direction of the altar (No. 11 leads it by the reins from in front), is attired in a long coat of mail down to the knees, from under which can be seen trousers. In his hairdo part of the locks are gathered into a small knot at the crown, as is completely normal for Bactrian Yuezhi (the same can be seen on No. 5) (Ibid., Figs. 121.30; 124.1).

     The appearance of figure 12, who leads the procession to the altar, is very interesting. First of all, he is the only one on whose head can be seen a narrow, white, diadem. As in other depictions of early Yuezhi, its two ends hang down in back (Ibid., p. 178); however, here the ends are longer than normal. Only on this individual do the main elements of costume (clothes and trousers, shoes) have various shades of red (crimson and rose). The decoration of his long red coat with its white lining also deserves attention. First of all, it has sizeable inserts of a different (rose) color which widen the hem. Secondly, on the shoulder seam and on the forearm it is decorated with lines consisting apparently of small gold cylinders strung on a narrow strap, something which is common for the costume of the elite Iranian peoples of the Parthian-Sarmatian period, among them the pre-imperial Yuezhi (for example, Tillya-tepe, grave No. 4 and a series of other depictions) (Ibid., pp. 176, 210, Figs. 114.1, 121.51). Moreover, the upper arms and breast of the coat are decorated with a band of round plaques. It is significant that on that individual (as on the red caftan of No. 8), an important role in the decoration is played by the combination on one and the same object of clothing of two panels of darker and lighter shades. It seems unlikely we should attribute this feature only to the artistic devices of the embroidery: on the coat, the light insertion is on the back, on the trousers on the front. To consider this accidental would be naive, since in many archaic societies the combination of differently colored left and right or rear and front halves of major items of clothing was connected, among other things, with the symbolism of Universe zones, the juxtaposition of opposing forces (see striking examples in the clothing of Siberian shamans: Burykin 2007, p. 126).

     Finally, an entirely distinct role in the given scene is played by the costume of the person who stands on the other side of the altar from the worshippers — probably the priest (figure 13), whose image unfortunately is less well preserved especially in its central part. It is distinguished, first of all, by the predominance of the sacral white color, something which has been documented before for the priests of Yuezhi Bactria (Yatsenko 2006, p. 184). Here only some details of the trim (of the trousers and breast of the long coat) are red. It is difficult to say whether the figure is armed (it is possible that a quiver hangs down on the left). He seems to be holding something over the altar in his right hand, which is raised and clenched in a fist. His long coat (even longer than that on Nos. 7 and 12) is not wrapped over and, apparently, is secured only by a belt. It is clearly sewn of thick cloth or felt (since the long, tapered hems do not sag); these hems are markedly raked back. To date there are no precise analogies to this clothing. However, it was popular among many peoples of Transoxiana in the earlier Achaemenid period and also was among the Persians an important element of the visual stereotype of a “man from Transoxiana” (Yatsenko 2011, Figs. 1–5). The use of such a dated cut is natural for clothes with ritual functions, such as was, apparently, the coat of the priest. On the front of each leg of the white trousers is a decorative vertical red band, on which has been embroidered a row some kind of stylized figures of a single type, possibly zoomorphic. The white shoes have pointed and slightly bent tips, something not known amongst the Yuezhi of Bactria but documented for their neighbors, the Indo-Scythians of Gandhara, who had quickly been absorbed into the Kushan Empire (Yatsenko 2006, Fig. 137.56–7).

     Let us turn now to the less well preserved fragment 1 of the same composition with the processing and standing donors (Erdene-Ochir 2011, No. 386.1) [Fig. 1], this one depicting individuals Nos. 1–6. Apparently it was originally attached to the left of the fragment described earlier and forms its beginning. However, between the pieces is, apparently, a small lacuna (from an “unpreserved” soldier, presumably wearing a red caftan, all that remains is one hand at the torso of figure 7). Starting at the left, apparently, were originally placed two pairs of men facing each other, each pair with the symmetrical juxtaposition of white and red elements of costume. The leftmost figure is now missing; the right figure (No. 1) in that first pair is preserved only from the stomach to the heels. Between the first and the second (the better preserved) pair there was apparently no altar (compare the pair comprising Nos. 12 and 13), as a flower has been embroidered growing on the ground between them. The costume and hairdos of the figures depcted here are of the same type. I will focus only on a few specific details.

     There is a vertical band of decoration on the front of the red trousers of Nos. 4 and 6; it is decorated with a row of similar appliqués. Furthermore, the legs widen markedly at the bottom. The figures in white trousers and red upper clothing (on No. 3 a caftan; on No. 5 a long coat) have the visually identical horizontal bands of decoration on the upper sleeves and breast, decorated with round plaques. No. 5 has a hairdo with a knot on the crown, similar to that already described for No. 10.

     Yet another part (fragment 3) of this same carpet/hanging depicts a battle scene, from which have been preserved only four figures (numbered 1–4) of foot soldiers fighting with swords (Ibid., No. 386.2) [Fig. 3]. Unfortunately other images on either side of them have not been preserved. Here “ours,” as in other similar group scenes in the art of the Iranian peoples, are clearly those on the left (Nos. 1 and 3), and the enemies on the right (Nos. 2 and 4) (Yatsenko 2000). On the left, struck by the enemy, a Yuezhi man in armor falls and drops his sword. More important is the other Bactrian soldier (No. 3, fortunately preserved almost entirely), who is attacking an enemy defended by a large shield with a bold design of concentric rhombs. The appearance of his clothing, hairdo and armament is the same as on the soldiers in the previous scene (Nos. 4, 7–9, and 11–12). He has a white caftan and shoes, red trousers and belt. The caftan of the hero is decorated on the breast and on the cuffs by red cloth with a design of rhomboids having a dot in the center. The net-like ornament of the fabric (including the net of the rhombs with the dot) was popular among the Bactrian Yuezhi, judging from other depictions (Yatsenko 2006, Figs. 121.47, 53; 122.41; 123.16; 124.1), and after the collapse of the Empire is documented as well by actual remnants of such cloth (from the “Kurgan” in Old Termez: Maitdinova 1996, Figs. 8–11). On the upper part of the sleeves we see a band of the same red cloth, decorated with round appliqués. The trousers are decorated with a vertical stripe down the front of each leg.

     No less interesting is the appearance of the enemies. Thanks to a whole series of specific details we can establish the ethnic identity of these opponents. First of all, their clothes are not open in the front; moreover, the separately attached hem in both cases is made of cloth with rather wide vertical stripes. Secondly, we see on the left one of them (No. 2) a head covering (in the form of a low cylinder of cloth decorated by two rows of circles). Thirdly, unlike the Yuezhi, they sport a small, thick beard, closely trimmed, somewhat longer on the sides, with medium-sized moustaches. All these elements indeed are found in the costume of only one ethnos of that time, one moreover a neighbor of the Bactrians — the Sogdians (cf. Yatsenko 2006, Figs. 152.6, 13–14; 153.9), the eastern part of whose territory rapidly came under the control of the Yuezhi-Kushans.

6. Today white textiles among the fabrics excavated at Noyon uul generally appear to be pale yellow.
7. The red long–sleeved coat has a white lining, and the white a red one.
8. A possible exception is figure No. 3.
9. Usually until very recently the peoples of Central Asia used a red border in such cases.

Source: Yuezhi on Bactrian embroidery from textiles found at Noyon Uul, Mongolia by Sergey A. Yatsenko.

Erdene–Ochir 2011
Nasan–Ochir Erdene–Ochir. “Khunnugiin shirdeg, torgo, nekhmel edlel / Felt rugs, silks and embroideries of the Xiongnu”. In: Khunnugiin öv: Nuugdelchdiin ankhny tör — Khunnu gurnii soël / Treasures of the Xiongnu. Culture of Xiongnu, the first Nomadic Empire in Mongolia, ed. G. Eregzen. Ulanbaatar: National Museum of Mongolia; Institute of Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences, 2011: 246–67.

Heirs 1997
Heirs to the Silk Road. Uzbekistan, ed. Johannes Calter; Margareta Pavoli. London; New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Maitdinova 1996
Guzel M. Maitdinova. Rannesrednevekovye tkani Srednei Azii [The Early Medieval Textiles of Central Asia]. Dushanbe: Donish, 1996.

Polos’mak et al. 2009
Nataliia V. Polos’mak, Evgenii S. Bogdanov, Tsakhia Tseveendorj, Nasan–Ochir Erdene–Ochir. “Issledovanie noin-ulinskogo kurgana No 31 (Severnaia Mongoliia)” [The Study of Noyon uul Barrow 31 (Northern Mongolia)]. In: Problemy arkheologii, etnografii, antropologii Sibiri i sopredel’nykh territorii [Problems of Archaelogy, Ethnology, Athropology of Siberia and Neighboring Territories] XV (2009): 372–6.

Polos’mak et al. 2011
Nataliia V. Polos’mak, Evgenii S. Bogdanov, Tsakhia Tseveendorj. Dvadtsatyi noin–ulinskii kurgan [The Twentieth Nyon uul Barrow]. Novosibirsk: Infolio, 2011.

Yatsenko 2006
Sergey A. Yatsenko, Kostium drevnei Evrazii (iranoiazychnye narody) [The Costume of Ancient Eurasia (the Iranian–Speaking Peoples)]. Moscow: Vostochnaia literatura, 2006.

See also Khaltchayan Reception Hall, Yuezhi north Bactria, 50 BC-50 AD
Yuezhi spearman on a textile from Tomb No. 1, Sampula (Khotan Prefecture, Xinjiang), after 120 BC
Bactrian Embroidered fragment showing two Yuezhi riders, Noin Ula

Similar to the shield of Fig. 3 (3) are Pazyryk Culture Wood and Leather Shields, Siberia, 5th century BC
and a Graeco-Roman or Parthian Leather and Cane Shield, Dura-Europos (Syria) ca. 323 B.C.-A.D. 256
and a shield at top right of Sculptures of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad), The Assyrians Besiege and Assault the City of Pazashi (Panzish), in 715BC

Other Illustrations of Ancient Costume & Soldiers