The Secret Story of Objects/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

Dublin Core


The Secret Story of Objects/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue


rzeczy użytkowe - aspekt antropologiczny


Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s.163-167


Wasilewski, Jerzy S.


Instytut Sztuki PAN




Licencja PIA









PDF Text



f the three circlets lying in front of me two
are old coins, blackened, blurred, and with
uneven edges. I brought them a long time
ago from M ongolia, and although they converged for
the first time on my desk they are connected in a very
special way.


The first circlet of initiation
This copper coin comes from a bazaar held on Sun ­
days in U lan Bator. Every week this enormous dusty
square in the western periphery on of the town, near
the new cemetery (after it was shifted from a pictur­
esque oasis among the last Chinese houses at the foot
of the Gandan monastery hill), there appears a crowd
of traders, clients, and persons simply examining the
great variety of old oddments. A considerable part of
the items on sale produces the impression of having
been lying around in the streets for six days, and on
the seventh day, for reasons totally incomprehensible,
suddenly prom oted to the role of commodities for sale.
A s a rule, I rapidly crossed this part of the marketplace
and made my way towards a small area where better
quality objects are offered. Here, old men dressed not
in tacky jackets like the others but in festive M ongo­
lian costumes, sauntered next to a high fence made of
boards and showed the jostling commoners - or not,
depending on the assessment of the client - a con­
cealed remnant of old silver jewellery with corals and
turquoise, an agate or porcelain snuff box, a lamaic
icon painted on cloth or, the rarest of all, a brass bur­
Today, it is impossible to evoke the atmosphere of
those illegal quests. In M ongolia during the early 1970s,
a state whose capital not by accident still displayed a
statue of Stalin, the possession and flaunting of sac­
ral objects from the domain of the recently quashed
lamaic religion were not totally safe either for the sell­
ers or the buyers (chiefly foreigners planning to take


S. W A S I L E W S K I

The Secret History
of Objects

the purchases out of the country - in those instances,
the authorities immediately treated the religious piece
as a valuable example o flo cal culture). Such items as
snuff boxes could be displayed with greater panache,
producing an attachm ent, concealed on a daily basis,
to eliminated and vanishing forms of national culture
in which offering snuff as a form of greeting was uni­
versally celebrated. The more valuable samples were
studied by a huddled group of admirers. W hen in the
afternoons the square grew emptier the old connois­
seurs sat in a row next to the fence and, smoking long
pipes, showed each other the most precious snuffboxes
belonging to them and not necessarily for sale. Point­
ing their fingers at the details they conducted m eticu­
lous debates about the impact exerted on the price by
a pattern created by the grains of the stone, the setting
of the coral or an insect trapped in the walls of an am ­
ber bottle. Jewellery trade of the poor - 1 thought.
But on that particular day I was drawn to the worse
part of the bazaar, to all those petty items and old ware
arranged in piles on newspapers lying on the ground.
I cannot say why from among scores of such offers I
chose this particular chest and in it, underneath a lay-


er of identical rusty screws and used motorcycle spark
plugs, I extracted this circlet. I do remember that sev­
eral years later I was still capable of recalling the mag­
netic attraction that led me there. Today, I am not
certain whether this was not a researcher’s ordinary
bazaar fever, an urge to examine everything. On the
other hand, perhaps something emanating from that
spot compelled me to discover the illegible and dirt
encrusted coin.
On one side: a tsarist two-headed eagle with an
orb and a sceptre in its claws. On the other, contrary
to expectations, by no means the bearded profile of
Nicholas II; underneath the dirt, scraped off with a
fingernail, there emerged the date: 1863-1864 and
around it a Cyrylic inscription: “Za usmirenye pol’skago
miatezha” (For stifling the Polish rebellion).
This is not a coin then but a medal for putting
down the January Uprising! I recall that Zeromski
mentioned it in Syzyfowe prace. Discovered in a Cen­
tral Asian bazaar it must, naturally, produce an ex­
tremely emotional reaction, astonishment at the good
fortune, coincidence, and bond despite such great dis­
tances. Only a few would not become excited by such
a twist of fate and an object carrying such a plethora of
meanings. Right away there ensue speculations about
the way in which it could have found itself in Mongo­
lia. The object itself suggests the following possibility:
since it is missing an eyelet for hanging it - we can
see that it was broken off and the gap hurriedly con­
cealed - it must have been passed off somewhere as a
coin. In a tavern along the Kiakhtin route an officer of
the Baikal Cossacks escorting traders on their way to
Urga carelessly hurled a handful of copper coins onto
a damp bar counter...
What about the earlier, Polish stages of this route?
Who and for what heroic deed was awarded this med­
al? Was it for valour, ingenuity or immorality? Perhaps
it was granted z& khrabrost to junker Zubov, a half­


blood Circassian but a dzhigit of extraordinary courage
and fierceness, who after a victorious skirmish some­
where along the roads of northern Mazovia confront­
ed a group of insurgents and chased its three young
commanders to a manor house. Here, they hid in a
maiden’s room on the upper storey. Zubov rushed in
with a Cossack, a salvo was fired, all the bullets struck
the doorframe, and the inferior gunmen were slashed
by shashka sabres ...
Or was it presented for wartime skill to Dukmanov,
officer and veteran of the Crimean War, experienced
in battles waged in the Caucasus, who in the A u­
gustów gubernia cleverly defended wagons carrying
ammunition, and having caught a local inhabitant
used a knout to extract information about the route
of the rebels. Dukmanov first did not understand why
the captive was babbling about sheepskin coats, but
finally realised that he was being told the names of
the villages where the insurgents were to receive sup­
plies in the form o f ... sheepskin coats. The trap ended
with a bloody massacre. Much later, both Zubov and
Dukmanov were transferred to Transbaikal as part of
constant translocations within the Empire.
Wartime valour was, however, rewarded rath­
er with the Cross of St. Andrew, presented also for
other merits: loyalty to the ruler, cooperation with
legitimate authorities, eager introduction of the new
order. Perhaps it was received by Vogt Krasko from
the region of Kowno, who was kindly permitted to
choose: either the village was to be burned down and
all its inhabitants exiled somewhere near the border
with Turkestan, or he could organize a Muraviov rural
guard, denounce the agitators, and assist in catching
the last survivals of the Uprising wandering in the for­
ests. It was he, with a medal granted for being able
to force even Polish landowners to sign loyalty dec­
larations and probably for catching someone of great
importance and later hanged in Wilno, who left as a


voluntary émigré for the steppes on the Baikal, where
land was for the taking. Strange, he did not choose
Vershina but preferred to settle down even further, all
the way next to the Chinese cordon.
W hy am I thinking of all those scenario episodes?
W ould an academic study on an artefact contain such
imaginary visions, which quite a few items are capa­
ble of easily evoking? A ll those stories about a single
bullet, a yellow shoe, the sofa of a Gestapo officer
and countless other objects - would it not be better
to leave them as material for a literary construction?
In science I am dissatisfied with idiography alone and
grow bored with stringing facts on the single thread
of chronology without reconstructing wider and more
abstract patterns - configurations and relations, m od'
ehlike solutions and systemic dependencies.
Ethnography must be also realistic - otherwise it
would not be itself at all. A lthough in my earlier re­
search I treated an object almost exclusively as a repre­
sentation of a certain intellectual system (envisaging it
as a text, a carrier of symbols, a correlate of beliefs and
imaginings, a consolidated record of an intellectual or
social system), in a more extensive presentation I do
not intend to be satisfied with a systemic, synchronic
dimension. Let it contain a threat of diachrony so that
the concrete individual history of things would not be
lost; the same holds true for the history of the people
in whose hands those items found themselves and into
whose genealogies they became intertwined.
A place where I specially miss such information
is the ethnographic museum. In these storehouses of
things all the extra-material contexts or backdrops
of an artefact are restricted. More, the unique is in­
tentionally and in a programme-like manner omitted.
Looking at an item we shall not find out anything
about its individual history, past, and meaning for all
those who handled it - from the producer to the col­
lector who had extracted it from its contexts and in­
serted it into his text, thus granting it new meanings
and endowing it with different emotions. Show me the
fate of a concrete work of human ingenuity before it
became part of an exhibition, frozen beneath glass as
yet another exhibit, b
Only a small regional museum or a memorial room
are not ashamed to offer such information. A n d even
if the guidebook does not disclose it we are forced to
resort to our imagination.
One has to set into motion a certain “hermeneutic
of things” and open up towards the language of the
object. T o do so one does not have to be a collector,
albeit owning a collection does facilitate the process
of opening up, especially if it takes place in special cir­
cumstances. The object possesses power. It is merely
necessary to cross its path and it will compel us to lis­
ten to its story. Then we shall view also other items
differently. Time to take a look at the second coin.

The second circlet of initiation
This is already a genuine coin. Brass, with Chinese
and Uighur symbols around a square opening in the
middle - the opening was used to string coins for the
sake of thesaurisation, to braid them into hair, and to
sew them on as a decoration of clothes. Just like all
coins out of circulation it could serve assorted practi­
cal purposes, e.g. as the ending of a rope used for tying
a lamaic book. The addition (to one or several linked
coins) of a piece of sheep wool created a pom pon of
sorts with a weight. It was used for playing a game of
tebek, consisting of kicking it in the air time and again,
similarly as the game of zośka played in W arsaw court­
yards and playgrounds.
I recall that when I played zośka I was intrigued
by its name. After all, it has nothing in common with
the principles of the game or its technique, and we do
not know the identity of the mysterious woman after
whom it was named. I read somewhere that it was used
already in ancient Rome - the game was m entioned by
one of the Plinys. Perhaps this is the source? But then
there was no Latin counterpart of the Greek name:
Sophia (which could have been the eventual source of
our native Zośka). The origin of the name - and the
game - thus remained a mystery until I came across its
M ongolian counterpart.
In M ongolian this copper coin is known as dzos,
which literally means “copper”. In Buryat pronuncia­
tion it becomes zos, but even if I had earlier thought
about it I would have never associated zos with the
Polish zośka owing to the thousands of kilometres sep­
arating these forms both linguistically and geographi­
cally. Now I come across information that renders this
connection credible.
Grigoriy Nikolayevich Potanin recounted (referring
to approximately the mid-nineteenth century) that
cadets of the military academy in the W est Siberian
town of Om sk used to play a game called zoska. 2 Eu­
reka! Since zośka was recorded in Siberia in a version
that has no meaning in Russian (it is not mentioned
in any dictionary and the name as such does not occur
in Russian) then it must have been borrowed from the


Buryats (a suggestion made by the author, thus dispel­
ling our doubts about the long distance from Buryatia
to Omsk). Since the Buryat word did not sound natu­
ral in Russian an ending was added to make declina­
tion easier, thus creating zoska.
The familiar zośka was, therefore, originally a Mon­
golian and Buryat copper coin with the intermediary of
a Russian semantic form. I already know who brought
it to Poland: speaking metaphorically, it was the same
graduates of the Omsk and Irkutsk military academies
who were sent to conduct usmirenye pol’skogo miatezha,
and who later returned with medals. We are already
familiar with this route - someone who had discov­
ered in that part of the world the first copper coin,
material proof of contact between the distant steppe
and Mazovia, immediately becomes convinced that
the second circlet also traversed an identical path at
the same time and travelling with the same people. A
material object - as tangible as possible - suffices as
evidence of the genuine nature of such a hypothetical
There is no greater joy for a researcher than when
an event he personally experienced leads towards
some sort of a scientific discovery or finding. There
is also no greater temptation than to succumb to this
allure. Our model, however, must be the crafty Odys­
seus, whose intellect and strong will power prevented
him from listening to the seductive and confusing
voices of the Sirens. To what mast of scepticism must
we tie ourselves in order to sail safely and cautiously
towards true discoveries? While building scientific hy­
potheses are we capable of getting rid of the tempta­
tion to connect facts that became linked in our daily
life in which research is, after all, immersed? Can we
protect ourselves against the outright "compulsion to
built associations" that renders us blind to the fact
that certain relations do not exist “really", but in the
manner of Ruskin’s beauty are only “in the eye of the
So many classification, periodisations, reconstruc­
tions, and models show facts in some sort of an asso­
ciation and grouping not because this is the way they
are connected organically but because thanks to that
procedure all corresponds in the author’s scientific
bookkeeping. No finding, thing or piece of informa­
tion can remain useless, superfluous or un-interpreted.
Everything has its place, all matches in a learned con­
struction simply because this is the way it is associated
by the researcher, offering him a pleasant feeling of
order and harmony.
A single pebble suffices to topple this psychological
construction, this synthesis of truth and falsehood - a
harsh warning to never complete a given theory (con­
struct, model).
A single book suffices as long as it is the right one.
Take the example of Zły by Leopold Tyrmand: so

many details about Warsaw of the 1950s, an outright
ethnography of the town. There is even information
about games, which before the war included pliszki,
cymbergaj and others, but not zośka, which appeared
immediately after the war.
Who brought it? It was not the Baikal Cossacks of
the Uprising era, after all? Am I, therefore, forced to
abandon the image of Russian soldiers playing v zosku
and watched by Polish children? This is already more
than I can bear - the power of both metal circlets is
much too great. I shall thus continue holding on to
the conviction that it was the soldiers who came from
the East, naturally not tsarist soldiers but Red Army
men. If, and this is quite possible, I come across signals
that zośka was played already before the war (although
not necessarily in Warsaw) I shall willingly return to
the earlier hypothesis. One way or another, regardless
of the proposed dates, nothing will topple my opinion
that the game arrived together with the army. The
proof provided by both objects is simply much too

The third circlet - the third lesson
This object too has an aperture, although it is no
longer a copper coin but a slightly larger jade circle
with greenish veins, flattened, thin, and with an inner
orifice with rounded edges. And nothing more.
We may only surmise that this is a Chinese prod­
uct; at any rate, the Mongols never pursued this craft.
Otherwise, there is no information (unless its steep
price would comprise some sort of substitute data).
Ideal simplicity, the absence of any sort of stylistic fea­
tures, patterns, incisions or even a knob. Nor is there
any point of departure for suppositions about origin,
age, purpose or even current usage. A small enigma, a
mysterious monolith, a mute child of anonymous par­
ents, a Kaspar Hauser puzzle.
The silence of this object provokes. In the cultural
reality of Central Asia one may assume, for all practical
purposes, only a single function - that of an ornament.
Could this have been an accessory for a snuff pouch,
a weight making it easier to hang the latter on a belt?
Mongolian accessories, similarly as their better-known
Japanese counterparts, netsuke, were, as a rule, figural.
Perhaps then this is some sort of an embellishment of
a woman’s festive costume? In that case it should fea­
ture an ornament, a flower, a decorative detail.
Can a sensible conclusion be drawn from sheer si­
lence? Is the meaning of an object determined by the
fact that it has no visible sign telling us something
about its identity? Or perhaps one should turn this
deficiency into a virtue and recall that the extremely
ascetic nature of an object could serve the embodi­
ment of abstract values: the ideal, the absolute, the
transcendent. Not by accident were such stone and
bronze circlets featuring intriguing simplicity known


in China already during antiquity. Quite possibly the
same property that was decisive for their power at that
time grants them value when they are smuggled from
former imperial collections to make their way onto the
antiques market. If the original old case with imperial
seals also survived then it will act as legible guarantee
that it was precisely this object whose power fascinated
rulers of ancient dynasties. It will be presented by one
of the great auction houses in London or Hong Kong
at an auction held especially for this single artefact,
described as a “very important ritual disc (bi)”.
The simplest shapes and objects best materialize
eternity - regardless whether they are small circles
made of shells, about whose past so much was known
by the Trobrianders, or monstrous circles from other
islands of the South Seas, veritable mill stones exert­
ing magnetic attraction even in an antique shop in the
capital of one of the former colonial powers.
Power belongs not only to lavish, luxurious, and
beautiful objects. True, they too provide an aware­
ness of contact with transcendence. When touring
a cathedral treasury or a museum adjoining an East­
ern rite church and looking at an exceptional golden
pectoral or a church cross with a knob I envision how
a dying cardinal or an archimandrite grasped it on
his deathbed so that he might feel it with his fingers
while thinking that the Saviour was not abandon­
ing him. On the other hand, when I handle a pair of
imposing, massive, and sophisticated ritual knives I
know just how a person performing a lamaic sacrifice
must have felt during a ceremony of ousting evil by
offering a man-shaped kukla, the dzolig. Parapher­
nalia are a powerful guarantee of the might of each
religious act.
Naturally, this force belongs only to a genuine ob­
ject and not some sort of purchase, the outcome of a
short-lived adventure in a supermarket born out of a
fleeting relationship between the client and the great
whore of the market. We know that an object-gadget
will make its way across our home in a crowd of others,
along the path between the shopping cart and the gar­
bage bin. A genuine object is immortal. A copper plate
hurled into a fire during a potlatch will be remembered
for long. Iconoclasts, hunveibins, Savonarolas, Atillas
and fashionistas who tell us not to wear the design of
the past season will be always about. But it is the thing
that ultimately is our only eternity. A well-known
aphorism maintaining that man is an episode in the
history of an object produces a collector’s spontaneous
protest that is lesser than that of others.
Things compel us to think about eternity in both
directions - focused on the future and longevity, on
the past and eternity. Just like the silver baptismal
bowl commemorating seven generations of the Castorp family and evoking in the young Hans a strange,
dreamy, troubling sense: of change in the midst of dura­

tion, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence
in continuity. 3
In order to enroot us in the past the object too
must be well embedded in it. This is why the sign of
the producer is so important - the author’s signature,
the stamp of a workshop, the thin engraved initials
of clockmakers repairing an old mechanism, or the
numbers written with a carpenter’s thick pencil at the
bottom of commode drawers so that they would fit
better. Enrootment in a cultural context is decisive for
identity. An old Turkmenian carpet possesses stylistic
features enabling its identification not only with the
Ersari tribal group but also with the region of the small
town of Dali on the Amu Darya, where it was execut­
ed; a contemporary Afghani carpet does not provide
the observer with an opportunity for tracing its line­
age - it is a collection of patterns, of which each once
belonged to some other clan and defined a concrete
and different provenance.
Thanks to things we also focus on the future. It is
things that force the collector to think about his heirs,
successors, and future observers. By enrooting us in
the past and growing into the future they expand our
personality and cultural identity. Someone who does
not wish to limit himself to an identity emploi deter­
mined by family tradition and its mementoes can build
a different identity out of objects he had personally
collected. 4 It is possible to free oneself from the re­
straints of own culture and horizon of behaviour. By
collecting exotica I touch the reality of the most distant
past and contact with Chinese artefacts enables me to
withdraw into the past as far as possible. While drink­
ing tea at a low table, which once was an “opium bed”
in a Chinese opium den, I do not become a Chinese
from the past but find it easier to imagine that I am
entering that world.
Contrary to the acclaimed alternative: ”To be or
to have” I insist that “to have” (a collection of things)
carries the same spiritual value as “’to be” (a collector
of things).
1 As recalled by Scandinavian ethnology - see: e.g.
L. Otto, L. Pedersen, Collecting oneself. Life stories and
objects of memory, “Ethnologia Scandinavica”, vol. 28,
1998, pp. 77-92.
2 G. N. Potanin, Ocherki severo-zapadnoy Mongolii, Sankt
Peterburg 1881, p. 120.
3 T Mann, Czarodziejska góra, Warszawa 1956, p. 48.
4 A review of such contemporary attitudes towards souve­
nirs in: B. Rogan, Things with a history - and other posses­
sions, “Ethnologia Scandinavica”, vol. 28, 1998, pp.
93-107. Ibid. basic literature for “material culture” thus
comprehended by contemporary Anglo-Saxon anthro­


Wasilewski, Jerzy S., “The Secret Story of Objects/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 1 lipca 2022,

Formaty wyjściowe