Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia @ the British Museum

This is a brilliantly conceived and designed exhibition. Not only does it display over 200 fascinating and beautiful objects covering all aspects of Scythian life, but it is imaginatively laid out – many of the walls covered with enormous blown-up photographs of the ravishingly unspoilt landscape of Siberia, or draped with wall-height hangings showing beautiful silver birch trees.

There is an enormous animation covering a whole wall, showing computer-generated Scythian horsemen riding across a real Siberian landscape, and on another wall an enormous slideshow showing a series of watercolours made of Siberia by Russian artist Pavel Pyasetsky in the 1890s. Siberia, as the commentary reminds us, makes up nearly 10% of the entire land mass of the planet and, on the evidence of the photos here it contains some absolutely stunning scenery.

Throughout the exhibition there are subtle sound effects from hidden speakers broadcasting forest sounds, wind effects and the stamping and snuffling of horses, to convey the huge empty spaces of the steppe and the main noise these Scythian nomads would have heard all their lives, the sounds of their trusted, loyal, equine companions.

Southern Siberian landscape with burial mounds. © V. Terebenin

Southern Siberian landscape with Scythian burial mounds. © V. Terebenin

I’ve been to a lot of exhibitions which aspire to this level of immersion in the world they are depicting – but this is one of the few that really succeeds.

The Scythians

The Scythians is the name given to confederations of nomadic tribes people who inhabited the vast steppes of Siberia between 900 and 200 BC. They probably spoke various dialects of early Iranian but were illiterate and so left absolutely no written record; all we have is a few scattered references in ancient Greek texts and what has been discovered by archaeologists.

Gold artefacts started being dug up by random explorers from stone burial mounds in remote Siberian steppe in the 1720s. Tsar Peter the Great heard about it and issued a decree that all such finds must be sent to him, and ordered explorers and antiquarians to go and find out more. Thus he began the collection of Scythian remains which he stored at the huge Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand (second half of the 4th century BC) Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand (second half of the 4th century BC) Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Over the centuries this core collection has been augmented as new expeditions discovered new burial sites, and as advances in aerial photography, digital analysis and archaeological surveys in the past thirty years have led to a wave of new discoveries. The great bulk of the objects on display are on loan from the Hermitage, topped up with contributions from other generous loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum, the Royal Collection and Achaemenid Oxus Treasure from the British Museum’s own collection, here to show how its motifs were influenced by Scythian art.

Extent in time and space

At their furthest extent the Scythians ranged from the border of China in the east to the northern shore of the Black Sea in the west. A wonderful animated video shows their impact in the west, where Scythian arrow-men apparently were used as a kind of city police in ancient Athens in the 430s, and in Persepolis, capital of the Persian empire, where friezes dating from emperor’s palace in the 550s depict Scythian warriors.

Here and there Herodotus is quoted on the warlike nature of the Scythians, on their practice of making pacts sealed in blood, of their notorious drunkenness. As to their contacts with the East, a case of Scythian armour made from woven fabric explains that it was hardened using lacquering techniques which originate in China.

The Scythians touched and traded with the cultures at either end of their huge, cold, forbidding territory but were never conquered or controlled by them.

Eurasia showing the extent of the Achaemenid empire (in red) and the Eurasian steppe and mixed woodland largely occupied by the Scythians (in Green). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.

Eurasia showing the extent of the Achaemenid empire (in red) and the Eurasian steppe and mixed woodland largely occupied by the Scythians (in light green). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.

That’s a sketch of the historical record, but the exhibition is really concerned with what the archaeological finds tell us about the Scythians’ culture and society, and here the show is a real revelation – not just about the Scythians themselves, but about just how much modern archaeological science can tell us about a people who left no records or writings of any kind.

All areas of their lives and culture are covered. First and foremost they were warriors, feared adversaries and neighbours of the ancient Greeks, Assyrians and Persians between 900 and 200 BC. Numerous cases are devoted to their pointed battle-axes and short swords for close combat, nasty-looking barbed arrow-heads for long-distance archery. Their quivers were set on their saddles for quick access. Remains of several bows indicate their flexibility and power.

Painted wooden shields, armour and a helmet have survived from the ancient tombs. The Scythians were skilled horsemen and the exhibition shows a range of accessories, saddles and head-dresses made for their horses. When a chief died he was buried not only with retainers (presumably executed for the occasion) but with his favourite horses which would be specially adorned with elaborate costumes, with masks, saddle pendants and covers for the mane and tail. All these accessories helped to transform them into mythical beasts.

Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood from Pazyryk 2 burial mound (late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood from Pazyryk 2 burial mound (late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

But actually, unlike quite a few other ancient cultures, what came over a lot more powerfully than their warlikeness was the tremendous artistry of their peacetime culture. The dead chiefs were buried in carefully constructed tombs which they then covered with stone burial mounds. They were constructed in such a way that the winter freeze locked the tomb solid, preserving the dead and their belongings. And we have been the beneficiaries because this meant that many of the content were perfectly preserved.

Many of the objects are from finds made in the high Altai mountains of southern Siberia, right at the southern extent of Russia and near the China border. Although most of them are in the order of 2,500 years old, the frozen ground prevented them from deteriorating.

Horse bridles - the central one features plaques representing eagles, rams' heads and a mythical predator (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC) Burial mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, southern Siberia

Horse bridles – the central one features plaques representing eagles, rams’ heads and a mythical predator (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC) Burial mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, southern Siberia

Thus the exhibition includes multi-coloured textiles, fur-lined garments and accessories, unique horse headgear and tattooed human remains. Quite a few mummified human remains have been found and every single one is extensively tattooed. Soot was, apparently, the medium of choice, because it is common and chemically stable. It was incredible, not to say, macabre, to be scrutinising human skin from 2,500 years ago, with readable, discernible animal shapes and zoomorphic patterns.

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man (from Pazyryk 2 burial site, late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man (from Pazyryk 2 burial site, late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

There was a wealth of other cultural artefacts, including multi-coloured textiles, fur-lined garments, bowls and ladles. The Scythians developed unique head gear, the women wearing tall, narrow conical hats, the warrior men wearing a distinctive type of decorated cap (which is how we identify them in the Persepolis friezes).

Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excavated finds from Olon-Kurin-Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia, by D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excavated finds from Olon-Kurin-Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia, by D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences

There’s a kind of brazier which was, apparently, used for burning hemp seeds, related to marijuana. We have no written records so we can only speculate that it was possibly burnt in order to purify and cleanse the tent or teepee, or maybe used to induce collective highs as part of religious rites, or maybe was breathed in to relieve pain – in a primitive world which must have been plagued by illness, infection and injury and which, quite obviously, afforded few if any forms of pain relief. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus described how Scythians ‘howled with pleasure’ when they inhaled the smoke. Much like teenagers today.

But what I haven’t mentioned yet is the gold. Gold. Lots of beautiful golden ornaments. I missed the wall label which explained where they mined or found it, but they did so in large quantities and developed advanced techniques for both working the gold by hand and casting it in moulds large and small. Modern X-ray photography and microscopy has added to our understanding of how the numerous gold ornaments on display were worked and shaped. It’s extraordinary that a nomadic people, with no towns or settlements at all, managed to support a class of master craftsmen who developed goldsmithing to such a fine art.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene (4th–3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V Terebenin.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene (4th–3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V Terebenin.

This is one half of a gold belt buckle belonging to Scythian nobility. We deduce from their art works that gold was associated with the sun and power. The scene depicts a dead man lying prone, his head in the lap of a female deity on the left – identifiable by her tall narrow circular hat – behind them both the tree of life on which is hanging a quiver of arrows, and to the right a seated man holding the reins of two horses. It is presumably a scene redolent of symbolic power and myth but we have no idea what it means. Is it the climax of some Scythian legend about a hero who dies in battle and is cradled by his patron goddess? Or some deeper myth to do with death and rebirth? Nobody knows but this powerful object, pregnant with meaning, was my favourite thing in the whole exhibition.

There are quite a few other stunning pieces of gold jewellery. In particular I was struck by several artefacts which, in their day, had been covered with scores and scores of tiny gold applique items, created by using a small punch on soft gold to create scores of tiny gold ornaments, smaller than buttons, generally in the shape of a stylised animal and with one or two tiny holes. The holes were to allow these gold decorations to be sewn onto tunics and, in one case, onto the leather case for a Scythian bow.

The gold plaque below is tiny, about a centimetre across. The ear, eye, nostril, mouth and various other slots would have contained decorative stones, probably turquoise.

Gold plaque in the shape of a coiled panther (4th–3rd century BC) Siberian Collection of Peter the Great © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Gold plaque in the shape of a coiled panther (4th–3rd century BC) Siberian Collection of Peter the Great © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

The animal motifs on these gold artefacts are a whole subject in themselves. Scythian animal art featured birds of prey, plant-eating animals, feline predators, ferocious beasts. Some depict leopard-like creatures, and we know that wild leopards lived in the Altai mountains. Others show fantastic beasts from the underworld preying on hoofed animals (presumably symbolising the horses the Scythians so relied on, and maybe pointing to the anxiety about the instability, the fragility of nomadic life, which must have stalked Scythian culture at every moment).

Lots of gold artworks, large and small, all exquisitely made, and with their depictions of mythical beasts locked in predatory combat, teasingly hinting at a whole mythology, a world of folk lore and legends, now completely lost to us.

Afterlife

In about the second century BC the Scythians disappeared and were replaced by other nomadic powers. The exhibition concludes with an exploration of what happened afterwards, mentioning the races who succeeded them, the Mongols and the Huns, peoples who were to have a much larger, more ominous and disastrous effect on their neighbours.

For a long time afterwards the Scythians were nothing but a name and a few references in the ancient authors. This wonderful, atmospheric and deeply evocative exhibition shows that we now have more than enough objects of all shapes and types to recreate a good deal of the lives and arts of this long dead people.

Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin

Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin

Videos

The British Museum has made not one but eight short videos about the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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