Asian Archaeology in the State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg


A review of the State Hermitage (Государственный Эрмитаж) (Saint Petersburg, Russia).

There is probably little need to explain to the readers of Dissertation Reviews what the State Hermitage (Russian: Государственный Эрмитаж) is. However, in conversations with other scholars it often turns out that—despite being one of the largest and oldest museums in the world—it still seems to be one of the less commonly frequented as an archaeological archive. During a study trip to Saint Petersburg in July 2015, I had the chance to visit this great place for the second time and spent 2.5 days there. This also gave me the opportunity to take another close look at the collections of finds from the Eurasian Steppe. The mobile-pastoralist groups of the Eastern Eurasian Steppe—the North of modern-day People’s Republic of China to be more precise—were the topic of my Ph.D. thesis and are still among my research interests. While my dissertation mainly focused on the period from the 5th to the end of the 1st century BCE, the Hermitage has a lot of earlier but also much later material on offer and thus provides a very good overview of early nomadic groups as well as later Steppe empires such as the Turkic Khaganate or the Mongol Empire.

However, the Eurasian Steppe is only one of several aspects covered by the museum’s collections. These comprise objects from a vast geographic area and different periods: from Palaeolithic artifacts to Post-Impressionist paintings; from Russian art to Egyptian antiquities, it can all be found at the Hermitage. More than three million artifacts are stored in six buildings situated at Palace Embankment, a street along the Neva River. While the Hermitage has several national and international dependencies—for instance in Vladivostok, Vilnius, Amsterdam, Ferrara, and Barcelona—the original location is Saint Petersburg, where Catherine the Great founded the museum in 1764. In 1852 it opened its doors to the public.

These days, the opening hours of the Hermitage are 10.30-18.00 on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, as well as 10.30-21.00 on Wednesday and Friday. The museum is closed on Mondays as well as on January 1 and May 9. The visitors’ entrance to the Main Museum Complex is located at 2 Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in Saint Petersburg. This is also the place to buy tickets from the ticket office or the ticket machine. Entrance is free of charge for students of all nationalities when providing the appropriate documents and free for all individual visitors on the first Thursday of each month. Regular tickets cost 300-600 RUB for one day, depending on the buildings you want to visit. Alternatively, one or two-day tickets can also be purchased through the website. However, the printout of the booking confirmation has to be exchanged at the ticket office so it does not really save any time. Also, discounted tickets are not available online. The tickets give you access to all exhibitions except for the Diamond Room and the Gold Room, which form part of the so-called Treasure Gallery. These can only be accessed by joining a guided tour (300 RUB for each room), of which there are several conducted in English each day. Be aware that these two rooms are the only places where you are not allowed to take any pictures.

For everybody interested in the art and archaeology of the Eurasian Steppe, I highly recommend the exhibitions in the Winter Palace. Rooms 15-17 are currently devoted to the early nomadic groups of the 7th to 2nd centuries BCE, with objects on display mainly stemming from burial mounds in the Kuban and Dnieper regions as well as in the Crimea.

Among my personal favorites, however, were the displays in rooms 26 as well as 28-32, which focus on archaeological cultures of Southern Siberia. Artifacts from excavations in the Altai region and Tuva feature prominently here, among them the finds made at Pazyryk, a 5th- to 3rd-century BCE burial ground located on the Ukok plateau in the Altai Mountains. Due to groundwater that seeped into the burial chambers and formed ice blocks, organic materials such as leather appliqués, felt figurines of animals such as f.i. swans, clothes as well as wooden parts of horse harnesses were fully preserved when they were discovered at the beginning of this century. A four-wheeled wooden funerary chariot and horse dressings comprising saddlecloths sewn with Chinese silk and leather masks with deer or ram-like horns made of wood or leather are also on display here. A highlight of the exhibition is certainly the more than six meters-wide felt rug decorated with a ritual scene in appliqué technique. The Hermitage is also home to the famous Pazyryk carpet, which is not only one of the oldest remaining carpets in the world but also famous for the high craftsmanship with which it was produced. Sadly, it is currently not on display but can be found in the object database (Inventory Number: 1687-94). The exhibition closes with artifacts associated with the Turkic States. These, as well as the objects belonging to the material culture of the Golden Horde (rooms 61, 68-69) are also well worth seeing.

While my Russian colleagues were so kind to spend time with me in the exhibitions and to show me additional material “behind the scenes,” I am unsure about the registration procedures for foreign scholars. The homepage of the Hermitage does not seem to list any information on related matters, for instance on how to request material for a personal viewing session. Ordering images for both publication and/or study is possible, though, and detailed information on the procedures is available online.

Like many other museums, the State Hermitage has entered the digital age and information on collections, tours, events, etc. are available on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and VK (a European social network based in Saint Petersburg, which is especially popular among Russian-speaking users). It is also possible to view and research the collection through the online database on the homepage, using parameters such as inventory number, title, site, and material. The digitization seems to be an on-going project, though, and so far only a limited number of objects are available, and there is as yet no information on seals, coins, etc. One of the most brilliant features of the collections online is that you can register to create your “own” collection, which allows you to bookmark and organize objects according to your own interest. Based on this data you can use the “create a trip” option to generate personalized directions that lead you from one of your favorite objects to the other—certainly helpful for a place as huge as the Hermitage!

Another unique opportunity for getting involved with the Museum and its collections is by joining the award-winning volunteer service of the Hermitage. It is open to people of all nationalities who are willing to commit themselves for at least one month. The volunteers contribute to the day-to-day running of the museum by assisting the museum’s staff with a wide range of tasks from checking tickets and providing information to visitors, to the management of the collections. Since 2012, volunteers have also participated in the archaeological expeditions that the Hermitage conducts.

Overall, the Hermitage is a fascinating place and definitely worth a visit—not only for its collections but also for the architecture and interior design of the buildings. It is a busy and sometimes noisy place attracting large numbers of visitors most days, but there are many galleries that are less crowded and plenty of cafés where you can have a little break before continuing your exploration. The only recommendation is to bring plenty of time—there is just too much to see at the Hermitage to spend less than one or even two full days there.

Dr. Catrin Kost (金秋月)
Postdoctoral Fellow – Chinese Archaeology
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Graduate School Distant Worlds

Image: Winter Palace (photograph by the author).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like