Who were the Scythians? They left behind no written records, but archaeology lets us get up close and personal with these nomadic warriors. Lucia Marchini finds out more at the British Museum’s latest exhibition.
From the end of the 17th century, the glittering possessions of nomadic warriors began to be discovered in the Urals and Siberia. Buried by the Scythians, they had been preserved in permafrost for 2,000 years. These exceptional objects and the burial mounds that protected them for so long shed light on communities that flourished between 800 and 200 BC, and left behind nothing in writing.
Many of the early finds were acquired by Peter the Great, who commissioned research and outlawed unauthorised excavations of the burial mounds, and on the Tsar’s death, they entered his Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum. Later, in 1851, they were transferred to the Hermitage Museum. Now loans from this historic collection are joined at the British Museum by material from recent excavations, held by the newly established National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, for a major exhibition: Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia.
The displays open with a stunning array of gold objects – mainly ornate plaques from belt buckles – from Peter the Great’s collection. Some are shown alongside beautifully executed 1:1 watercolour drawings of the same object from the illustrated inventory of the Tsar’s Siberia collection, moreover, offering a glimpse of archaeological endeavour from the 1730s. The plaques were created by master craftsmen, and impressive items like these would have been traded for goods thats the Scythians could not produce themselves, such as pottery and wine. Plaques might be inlaid with precious stones such as turquoise, or a less-valuable substitute like coloured glass, and they were made using various techniques. On the backs of some, marks can be seen, indicating that the gold was hammered into a wooden frame. Others preserve the impression of cloth, hinting at a casting method that is still being investigated.
Given the lack of textual evidence, it is important to consider the imagery they used to get an idea of the Scythians, their tastes, and what mattered to them. As well as artwork featuring archers, animal motifs abound: predators, prey, hunting scenes, horses, and even mythological creatures are rendered in gold. Some iconography and certain compositions – such as a ritual boar hunt from the 3rd to 2nd century BC – also resemble artefacts from other regions (for example, Persia and China), reflecting the Scythians’ farreaching cultural interchanges.
Gold features prominently throughout the exhibition, appearing in sections exploring diverse themes, from how the Scythians dressed to their military prowess. The metal is used for items ranging in size from armies of minute and intricate appliqués, each measuring little more than 1cm across, to more substantial plaques, such as one measuring 31.7cm in length, depicting a deer, that once adorned a bow case in the late 7th century BC. Yet there are more treasures to behold than these glittering objects.
On the trot
Thanks to the harsh conditions of Siberia, a variety of organic artefacts, among them textiles and foodstuffs, have been incredibly well preserved. A sable fur pouch from Burial Mound 2 at Pazyryk still looks enticingly soft to the touch. Furs would have been a practical choice for the cold climate, but this and other finds also reveal how Scythians presented themselves and the care they took with their appearance. Decorated felt stockings and a richly embellished shoe, embroidered with spun tin and adorned with pyrite crystals, came from the same mound as the fur pouch, and have survived since the late 4th- or early 3rd century BC. Even the sole of the shoe has been decorated, a detail that can also be seen in some stockings, as Scythians would sit on the floor, exposing the bottom of their feet.
Excavated human remains from Pazyryk reveal that both men and women were tattooed, and that – although Greek and Persian depictions of Scythians portray them with fulsome beards – the men were clean-shaven. One burial (that of a chieftain) contained a false beard made of human hair, but it is thought that this beard played a part in the funerary rites rather than having been worn in the chieftain’s lifetime.
The nomadic Scythians were great riders and they depended on their horses. Their enthusiasm for and bond with these creatures can be seen in the level of care with which they were presented as mythological beings. Favourite horses were buried and readied for the afterlife in spectacular fashion. Saddle covers might be decorated with griffins, bridles with boar fangs, and mane covers with gold and leather appliqué cockerels. Remarkable felt and leather headgear, featuring a combination of creatures including a bird, a ram’s head, and fish, transformed horses into fantastic beasts.
Other animals were important to the Scythians too, providing a range of resources from leather, fur, and felt, to food. Scythians were once known as ‘milk-drinkers’ (although Greek amphorae found in elite burials also show their predilection for wine, which they notoriously drank undiluted, unlike the Greeks who mixed theirs with water), and their dairy consumption is attested by lumps of cheese that have survived.
Seeds have been preserved too: coriander, found in burials charred in a brazier, probably served a ritual function rather than just being used as seasoning. Charred hemp seeds were also discovered in braziers in the chiefs’ graves at Pazyryk, along with stands and covers for smoking hemp, a practice in which, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Scythians delighted. While these smoking sets were limited to elite tombs, analysis of the hair of individuals of lower rank suggests that the whole community participated in this habit. Other artefacts, like collapsible tables, reveal how items were designed for a life on the move, and join the comprehensive range of objects that richly illustrate the everyday activities of nomads whose lifestyles have long been lost to us.
Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia runs until 14 January 2018 at the British Museum. Tickets cost £16.50. Visit britishmuseum.org/scythians for more information.
This review was published in CA 332.
All images: The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017; photography by V Terebenin