Wood and Stone Carving

Wood and Stone Carving

Apricot-wood decorative dish with horn inlay. Cupro-nickel damascening. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1969

Wood and Stone Carving of Daghestan

Wood and stone carving found broad application throughout Daghestan. Stone reliefs and wooden architectural details which adorn various structures make part and parcel of the outward look of highlanders’ settlements. Carved stone is most often met with in burial steles. Master stone-cutters were at work in each village yet only in some of them the art of stone carving achieved tremendous heights. Laks, Darghins, Tabasarans and Lezgians have taken many centuries to learn to excel in stone carving. Small wonder, their craft boasts a remarkable variety and multiplicity of decorative means.

Stone distaff'seat. Champleve carving. Darghin work from the village of Sutbuk. Late 19th century

Stone distaff’seat. Champleve carving. Darghin work from the village of Sutbuk. Late 19th century

For many centuries a vegetation design, both geometrical and wattled, has established itself in the mountains of Kaitag and in Tabasaran area. Ancient, as well as more recent thematic motifs include images of birds, animals and, less often, of man. Ancient 9th—10th century gravestones in the villages of Varsit, Turag, Djuli carry solar signs, i. e. circles, stars and rossetes.
On par with architectural structures and memorials, small household utensils, too, were made of stone, one example being mortars for garlic and distaff seats. Still more popular were wooden domestic objects. Apart from mortars and distaff seats, they include measures for flour, saltcellars, bowls for buza (local alcoholic beverage), mural spoon holders, grills for drying various products, spoons of various shapes, coffers, boxes, cases, stools, children’s beds, wardrobes and flour chests. The stylistic affinity of decorative wood and stone carving is ascribed to the masters being usually handy in both these skills. Besides carving, work is also done in searing and chasing. The latter technique has considerable historic record behind it; in fact, fine specimens of poker- work may be seen not only on wood kitchenware but on ceiling beams in mosques and homes. This is the technique in which floral ornamentation contours are executed on the consoles and ceiling of mosques in the villages of Djuli and Akhty.
Utensils, though much similar in form, are differently decorated in each village. In the Darghin villages of Kubachi, Kischa, Kharbuk, Shiri the predominant type of decoration is a sumptuous vegetation design that covers the article throughout. Complex wattled motifs outrival all others in the Tabasaran villages of Khuchni, Khanag, Djuli and Shilyagi, while a geometrical design executed in trihedral or nail-like techniques sells well in Lezgian centers.

Animal, apricot-wood decorative panel ornamented with bone and cupronickel damascening. Made by M.Kazimagomedov. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1969

Animal, apricot-wood decorative panel ornamented with bone and cupronickel damascening. Made by M.Kazimagomedov. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1969

An indispensable belonging of each Daghestan home, mortars for garlic which is requisite to any Daghestan national dish, are made either of wood or of stone. Stone mortars are of modest size and shaped after a tapering vessel. Their ornamentation is of a widespread vegetation type which became especially popular in many Darghin villages in the 19th century. Its origin, however, can be traced back to a much more ancient period.

The architectural survivals in Kubachi and nearby locality include the so-called “Albanian” stones of 15th—18th centuries, with a large ornament that has given birth to the ornamentation under study.
A similar 19th-century design may be found on the stone base of the Kubachi distaff, its upper part being carved of wood. Sometimes the master craftsman went farther than mere ornamentation to introduce subjects, such as hunting scenes, horsemen, animals, birds. However, in contrast with the highly professional “thicket” design of the early 19th-late early 20th century they are expressely primitive in character. Designs of this kind were often carved on the reversed side of burial steles, or, less often, on stones immured into the walls of houses.

In Avar areas mortar designs are extremely terse. The body, massive and shaped after a big wine-glass, is rested on an equally solid base. The decor is at times confined to one or two bands on the mortar’s edge and large cuts near the bottom that customarily bear the marks of an axe. The handle and the vessel were made out of a single wood slab and hence their modest dimensions. A hole in the handle to hold the mortar steady during operation permits to hang it on the wall.

The material for mortar-making is wood of various kinds—pear, apricot, cornel. The designation of mortars made necessary thick walls. For pestle, use was made of the so-called “devil’s stones”, strong flint rocks of lengthy, stream-lined shapes. The mortar wood, after it gets soaked with garlic juice, acquires the hardness of stone.
The shape of the mortar is so traditional that 19th-century specimens do not differ in the least from present-day ones. This identity of form throughout various regions in Daghestan is in itself highly significant. Therefore, the mortars of Avars, Darghins and Tabasarans differ if only in their cutting techniques, the only exception being the stone Kubachi mortars generously adorned with “thicket” stems.
One other necessary attribute of highlanders’ way of life is a measure for flour. It is a high cylindrical vessel with thin walls and massive handle. Having an impressive dimensions, it occupied a place of prominence in a highlander’s home and, therefore, more often than not was richly decorated. In the villages of the Gidatl valley the measures were covered with large expres­sive carving of bird images.
The measures manufactures in the Darghin villages of Tumli, Mirsegi, and Kubachi never fail to impress the viewer by an abundance of diminutive ornamentation with multiple intertwining stems, flowers and tendrils. It lies down like a cobweb on the article’s surface. It is not impossible for these vessels to have had ritual significance because their upper part used to be decorated with ornamental inscriptions—adages from the Coran. In the past suchlike inscriptions were quite common on carved wooden inserts in the pulpits in mosques.
Nearly 150-200 years ago in the highland Avar village of Untsukul the art of woodworking was first emergent. Out of the reeds growing on the banks of the river Avarskoye Koisu, the Untsukul craftsmen made handles for lashes, whip-holders, canes and sticks. Their manufacture was imported for sale across the Terek and Sunzhu. Later on, the Untsukulians set out to adorn pipes and sticks. They applied a strong material, hard wood, for laying-in copper, cupro-nickel, silver, horn, bone and turquoise. Cornel and apricot wood was easy to steam-treat in fire; it assumed readily the required shape and held well pieces of inlaying.

Apricot-wood mortar with a pestle lor garlic decorated with painted bone. Cupro-nickel damascening. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1968

Apricot-wood mortar with a pestle lor garlic decorated with painted bone. Cupro-nickel damascening. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1968

Their market for Untsukul articles extended to Caucasian Mineralnye Vody, Rostov, Tsaritsyn, Astrakhan and Nizhni Novgorod. From the early 19th century onwards the articles with chasing were exported to foreign countries.
The more complex and heavy the damascening, the more expensive was the cane. With years, traditional Untsukul ornamentation patterns came to their own. Despite their originality they were akin, undoubtedly, to the decoration found on Balkhar jugs, Gotsatl copper engraving, West-Avarian stone carving and the niello design to Rugudja silver trinketry.
Individual elements of the damascening design entered into combinations known under certain names. A zigzag continuous ornament was called a “street” while short sticks bristling out in a fan-like fashion from the same point bore the name of “bird’s footmark”, etc.
It may be noted that most of the built-in metal pieces were disposed along in circularly. This is a result of the design being preliminarily applied and based on compassed-drawn lines. All other elements only linked them together. A superb skill in handling the device enabled the master to produce these designs in infinite variety. Sometimes a cane, besides cupro-nickel damascening would carry a snake image with the upper part having the shape of a little horse, bird or mythical fantastic monstre.
Pipes, along with sticks, became increasingly popular in the second half of the 19th century and were in great demand not so much at the home market but at foreign market as well (in Shamil’s time smoking entailed capital punishment). They were carved out of apricot wood and had variegated, at times highly sophisticated shapes.
In common with Balkhar ceramics, which were partly meant for exports and, therefore, richly decorated, Untsukul pipes were either 44herdsman’s” or 44for sale”. Herdsman’s” pipes had a modest ornamentation but were of an impressive size, with triangular, round or trapezoid pieces of brass hammered-in with little nails on their face, well-sighted surface. Such damascening was easy to sight even from the distance and was not particularly labour-consuming.
One other trend in pipes retained partly the original inlaying of plates but had most of its decor made of wire damascening. The wire, in turn, was divided into flattened one, to be hammered-in by its brink, and round one inserted by its end. The latter acted as nails or wedges which prevented the falling-away of the flat wire. Sometimes, ornamentation details were centered around the inserts of black horn and painted or white bone. The pipe mouthpiece was executed of black buffalo or light cow’s horn which was bent in a heated state. Exquisite shapes of the pipe stem and deep-curved outline of the mouthpiece gave place in the early 19th century to more simple and straight forward designs.

Cornel-wood mortar for garlic decorated with painted bone. Cupronickel damascening. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1968

Cornel-wood mortar for garlic decorated with painted bone. Cupronickel damascening. Avar work from the village of Untsukul. 1968

Since the second half of the 1950s the assortment of Untsukul produced articles has widened immensely. Like niello pieces of the Kubachi craft, Untsukul articles used extensively the shapes of traditional domestic utensils, like mortars for garlic, measures for flour and grain, salt-cellars, ladles and large dishes for dough kneading.
Executed on a lathed base, polished and with well-revealed wooden texture, the articles acquired fresh decorative qualities while the ornamentation was so patterned as to take maximum advantage of the object’s shape. While only the general arrangement of spots can be seen from afar, a closer look helps discern the high artistry of damascening and subtlest strips filling the inner side of the ornamentation.
A thorough treatment of the surface of these articles made possible application of new decorative damascening techniques. With varnished wood largely out of use frosted wood becomes a byfeature of woodwork in the 1960s. The wood, hazel and with slightly tinged in red, provides a contrast to the design which is as fine as lacework. It is not the master’s intention to fill up the surface heavily and completely with metal, leaving a deal of free space. At the same time, the mortar and richly decorated pestle lost much of their functional significance in favour of spectacular decorativeness.
A change-over to treatment by lathing has been conducive to not only a broader assortment, but a larger size of articles. Untsukul craftsmen produced large vases intended for exhibitions but based nevertheless, on conventional traditional forms. At the same time, the treatment techniques having changed, the handle was carved separately and then fixed in place. In the 1960s masters were searching frantically for the new ways to organize planes on larger objects and new compositional arrangements.

Lime-wood mortar for garlic. Carving. Avar work. Early 20th century

Lime-wood mortar for garlic. Carving. Avar work. Early 20th century

In small vases, salt-cellars and other kitchenware there was shown a renewed interest in the old-time damascening techniques, such as were applied by and large by the old generations of masters. Many patterns seemed to be living through their rebirth. Although the 44arrow”, “oblique”, ‘‘bird’s tail” patterns reappeared anew, in general, the feature of the 1960s style was compositional clarity and constricted number of component parts. Growing emphasis was made on a dotted pattern out of little nails in combination with circles because it stuck well in wood and was highly decorative.
Among the Untsukul objects of the late 1960s one may come across a number of things previously never carved, first of all, spoons, ladles and strainers. A complete set of such objects was held salt-cellars and spoon-holders suspended to the walls in homes. The mural salt-cellars carried an extremely lavish decoration of carved-in solar motifs and complex silhouettes made up of the images of birds and horses, and, less often, of architecture. Diversified spoon shapes stuck-in handles down on the sides of the salt-cellar provided a sort of sculptural adjunct.
Modern spoons have become far simpler in shape and their handle taken on cupro-nickel damascening.
That Untsukul articles have tremendous significance as decorative objects has become increasingly clear as new objects, like mural dishes and mural paintings made their first appearance there. The tradition of decorating walls in Avar homes with dishes and plates comes down from ancient times but never extended farther than chased and engraved brass and ceramics. Wooden dishes had only domestic usage and carried no decoration whatever.
Ever since the latter half of the 1960s the Untsukul dishes took on damascened motifs. It is only natural that the ornamental patterns of such dishes were large and highly expressive. The flat surface of a dish more than anything else called for compass motifs. Its entire plane was painted with a multiplicity of circles inscribed in one another, circular discs, figures shaped after wheels with spokes. Sometimes the dishes were made of the wood of the biggest tree, hazelnut.

Lime-wood measure for flour. Carving. Darghin work from the village of Kubachi. Dated Khidjra 1354

Lime-wood measure for flour. Carving. Darghin work from the village of Kubachi. Dated Khidjra 1354

One of the latest developments in the Untsukul art were thematic mural paintings with damascening. The themes were derived from stone relief inserts decorating the walls of homes and mosques in Kubachi. Somewhat damaged in the period of religious change (most images have their heads chipped off) these Medieval reliefs kept alive the exquisite decorative style in executing animals, birds and men. The Untsukul murals may be said to have interpreted in a creative spirit the Kubachi stone reliefs. In view of the type of the material used, they were presented with extreme conditionality.
The beastly image was noted for the emphasis on the ornamental part of the design. In the bends of its body, in strong sharp-clawed paws and tail the artist made use of motifs, familiar to us by now, of “street”, “bird’s footprint”, “arrow”. They are as much of an image as of a typical Untsukule ornament. The work made use of the customary technical ways and means, like linear and dotted patterns, inlay in round and oval cupro-nickel plates, horn and bone. A somewhat convex surface of the plank, through an interplay of metal flecks in light produced an additional effect.
Decorative murals with animal images, although not altogether uninteresting, may be viewed at this stage as a search that by no means determines the general trend in modern Untsukul art. What determines it now, same as in the past years, is a traditional Untsukul chasing design, long-persisting in the national tradition but sometimes reconsidered anew by Untsukul masters who contributed every effort to furthering it.