Deep in the sediments of integrated culture

April 08, 2013

When Russia’s first branch of McDonald’s opened in Moscow 23 years ago, the event was celebrated by many as a step in the direction of the free world of consumption. Others, however, immediately saw the arrival of the hamburger empire as a sign of the country’s westernization. Yet there is nothing new about cultural transfer: At the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Dittmar Schorkowitz studies how this process unfolded during the encounters of Eurasian populations in the Middle Ages.

The fact that people in a community adopt individual ideas or entire systems from other communities is an old story – nevertheless, it remains a fascinating one. For scholars like historian and social anthropologist Dittmar Schorkowitz, cultural transfer is one of the processes that played and continues to play a crucial role in the formation of human societies – as well as in its schism.

After all, not just anything or any idea can make the leap from one cultural area to another. And not all social classes in the “importing” society are involved in the reception process. “A transfer of this kind also always involves the disintegration of other parts of the society,” says Schorkowitz, alluding to the flip side of cultural integration. Large communities – be it Europe as a whole or its parts – only appear as uniform entities from a distance. Closer scrutiny reveals the image of a mosaic consisting of numerous individual elements.

For the social anthropologist, who works from a historical perspective, this unity in the diversity is very clearly the outcome of a process in which borders were not only geographically overcome or drawn, but also arose from the interplay of integration and disintegration over the course of history. Together with his research group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, and based on the example of Russia and China as enormous multinational states, Schorkowitz studies how the ethnic diversity that arose there over the course of many centuries was officially regulated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and controlled in the interest of imperial coherence.

“Cultural forms always represent a mixtum compositum,” says the researcher. As he sees it, this patchwork nature of not only modern societies is a direct consequence of their permeability to external influences, on the one hand, and their social implications, on the other – as processes of group formation, demarcation and the safeguarding of identity, and of the negotiation and adoption of cultural values, goods and norms would unfold there.

“Over the course of time, cultural elements of varying origins are deposited like layers of sediment,” says Schorkowitz, describing the characteristic structure of cultural forms – something that makes them particularly fascinating not only for anthropologists, but also for historians.

Slavia Asiatica – cultural zone par excellence

When it comes to finding out what holds the European world together at its very core – or, indeed, divides it – Dittmar Schorkowitz goes far back in history and focuses on the transcontinental frontier in the east of medieval Europe. “Geographically speaking, it would be entirely acceptable to assign this area to Eurasia,” he says in reference to the area he researches, which stretches from the Danube to beyond the Volga. “Thus, it extends far beyond what is often referred to abridged as the field of conflict of the Kievan Rus’ and the steppe,” he adds, pinpointing the location of this contact zone, which became a multicultural meeting point at a very early stage.

“In fact, for a long time it was nothing less than the Eastern European section of the Eurasian highway for people from Central Asia, whose westward migration emerged as a constituent force in the formation of the European state landscape,” says Schorkowitz, describing the role of the region during the migration period and cultural encounter of the Middle Ages. Due to its special cultural interface function, Slavia Asiatica would be a more appropriate name than Eurasia.

Starting in 860, as a result of the not always- peaceful contact between the inhabitants of the Kievan Rus’ and those in the three cultural areas of neighboring Scandinavia, Central Asia and Byzantium, an overlapping cultural area with fluid borders formed. This provides a rich source of material for the colleagues working with Schorkowitz, and opens up a very broad research field. “The Slavia Asiatica is a cultural contact zone par excellence, a laboratory in which forms of cultural transfer and cultural exchange can be studied.”

Working as a historian is akin to completing an archaeological jigsaw puzzle. A large part of it is based on sources that are distributed all over the world and compiled in different languages and characters. In addition to decoding and translating, the philological analysis of the finds assembled by Schorkowitz from archives, state collections and libraries has become a routine task. “These enable us to access testimonies of intercultural communication, which, in turn, is a crucial precondition for cultural change,” says Schorkowitz, in explanation of his particular interest in the old languages, written forms and loanword stock.

For instance, the Old Russian word for “scribe” is a classical example of the sometimes very expressive force of linguistic forms. “From an etymological perspective, it can be traced back to the Greek word for deacon, diákonos,” he explains. Apart from providing evidence of the far-reaching influence of Greece during the early Middle Ages and beyond, this word also encapsulates information about a major cultural achievement: the invention of the Glagolitic alphabet, the precursor of the Cyrillic alphabet, by the monk Constantine, known as St. Cyril, from Thessaloniki.

Cultural transfer thanks to new letters

Around 863, this man of the church devised an alphabet for the language of the southern and eastern Slavs. “Up to then, they didn’t even have a runic script, although hypotheses to this effect arise time and again,” says Schorkowitz. For his Glagolitic alphabet, the monk adapted the Greek minuscule script. However, he modified it by incorporating Caucasian and Semitic script systems, accommodating the phonetics of the Slavs, which were covered only to a limited extent by the Greek alphabet. “The development of the Cyrillic alphabet from the Glagolitic one is a textbook example of successful cultural transfer and acculturation,” says Schorkowitz.

Scholarship has another man of the church to thank for the Primary Chronicle, or Nestor’s Chronicle, an old account of Russian history up to Biblical times – about which, however, there is little accurate information. What is certain is that it was compiled between 1110 and 1112 by the monk Nestor of Kiev and was later revised and extended. It has provided Schorkowitz with pages of evidence to the fact that the inhabitants of Kievan Rus’ were completely familiar with the customs and traditions of their non-Slav neighbors. In this context, the Halle-based researcher refers to the story of the rescue of Kiev.

According to the Chronicle, in 968 the city was so heavily blockaded by the Pechenegs, a nomadic group from the steppe, that the surrounded royal family was on the verge of surrender. However, a young man offered to go through the enemy lines to fetch reinforcement. “With a bridle in his hand and asking the Pechenegs in their own language about his supposedly lost horse, so that they would think he was one of their own, he crossed the enemy camp and the Dnieper River unchallenged,” says Schorkowitz, summarizing the daring escapade.

The royal military leader Pretich hurried to the aid of Kiev and the city was saved. “It is clear that the young man was assisted in his daring feat not only by his language skills, but also by the fact that he – and probably most of his Kievan contemporaries – must have been familiar with the living conditions and nomadic habits of the neighboring Pechenegs,” concludes Schorkowitz, in relation to the cultural skills of the youth of the time.

During the course of his research, the historian has come across a variety of discoveries that prove that the cultural contact in the Slavia Asiatica encompassed nearly all of the essential areas of society: law and religion, knowledge and values, skills and institutions, material and intellectual goods. Starting around the early 9th century, for example, not only knowledge associated with warfare and the military and its practices and objects, like weapons, boat building and the art of navigation, but also social and legal structures originated from the Scandinavian Norsemen.

In this vein, the anthropologist found evidence – again through the analysis of the loanword stock – pointing to the fact that Slavic princes adopted the organizational form of the Varangians or Varyags as the model for their retinue (druzhina). “And silver finds from graves and hoards originating from the time show that trade contact existed with the Middle East and Central Asia, Baghdad, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara,” he reports.

Words are indicative of the monetary system

This silver gradually replaced paymentin- kind until the monetary system was finally introduced into Eastern and East Central Europe around 880/890. “However, while coinage had long existed in Western Europe, a weight-based currency using hack silver initially emerged there,” confirms Schorkowitz. “In contrast to the Russian term dengi or money, which is derived from the Tatar or Chagatai term tängkä and refers to subsequent Tatar-Mongol cultural transfer in the 13th century, ruble or rubit in Russian means chopped off or hacked off.”

Like many of the adopted material goods, hack silver only enjoyed a comparatively small cultural half-life as a currency until it relinquished its function and was deposited in the sediments of an integrated culture. According to Dittmar Schorkowitz, the fate of goods of an intangible nature, as adopted not least from the Byzantine-Greek cultural area, is not dissimilar.

Writing, religion, ideology, painting and architecture weren’t transferred on the basis of straightforward, one-to-one exchange, but were adapted and socially negotiated. Although Byzantine architects were commissioned with the design of new churches and cathedrals, local architects were involved in the task of building them. Their function was to introduce secular elements into the structures quasi as a bit of local color. “Their tasks included the staging of the representative needs of the competing appanage principalities,” says the researcher. Due not least to this and the use of regional construction materials and techniques, no copies of Byzantine models were built in the Kievan Rus’, but rather distinctive cathedrals and churches with their own unique character.

The Mongols are coming: new rulers, new customs

According to Schorkowitz, the cultural goods that flowed into the region since the arrival of the Mongols in Eastern Europe in the early 13th century tended to be more secular in nature. “Their appearance meant a rapid increase in cultural forms of Asian origin for Slavia Asiatica, new orientations and wide ranging acculturation and assimilation processes,” he explains, in reference to the enduring impacts of the Mongol invasion and the subsequent peace under the empire of Genghis Khan. “The Pax Mongolica conveyed cultural goods from China, Central Asia and Iran to the very self-interested elite, and in this way made a crucial contribution to the cultural molding of Slavia Asiatica and Eastern Europe.”

The source-critical analysis of edicts issued by the Golden Horde shows that the process of cultural transfer involved here went far beyond innovations in the area of warfare; the Pax Mongolica also resulted in the introduction of an administrative and chancery system, which included a taxation system, communication and supply systems, and census taking.

A side glance at comparable contact zones in the history of Europe is also very informative. “Multiple cultural transfer, multilingualism, intercultural competency and many of the other characteristics observed for Slavia Asiatica also arise on the western and eastern margins of East Central Europe, namely in Germania Slavica (Germany- Slavia) and Polonia Ruthenica (Poland- Kievan Rus’), and also in the southwest of Europe in Al-Andalus on the Iberian peninsula,” explains Schorkowitz.

The fact that tried-and-tested practices clearly exist that lead to integration should also be of interest to the doctoral students and Schorkowitz’s colleagues from the International Max Planck Research School for the Anthropology, Archaeology and History of Eurasia (ANARCHIE), which focuses on developments in the societies and cultures of the Old World.

The first phase to be carried out at this graduate school, which was established last year, concerns collective identities in the context of the development and culture of the Old World. Conclusions obtained by such research ultimately extend from history into the present. Or as Schorkowitz himself puts it: “Such patterns and dependencies also explain the character of a region that only became integrated into Europe in the early modern era.”



Acculturation: According to the classical anthropological definition, this refers to phenomena that arise when groups of people from different cultures come into direct and enduring contact with each other, and changes arise in the original cultural patterns of one or both groups as a result.

Cultural exchange: Unlike cultural transfer, cultural exchange refers to a flow of goods that is nowhere near as purposeful, intentional and one-dimensional as cultural transfer, which involves the import of very particular goods by a specific group at a particular period of time. In contrast, as an accidental, alternating and changing phenomenon, cultural exchange manifests as interactive, diffuse and, in part, non-binding.

Slavia Asiatica: This term refers to an area in medieval Eurasia from the Danube River, through the North Pontic region, to the Volga River and beyond. The region was the cultural contact zone between the populations of the Kievan Rus’ and the bordering steppe, with ethnic groups from Scandinavia, Central Asia and Byzantium.

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