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Masters of the Siberian Steppe

Posted on 26 Sep 2017

The world of nomadic warriors, the Scythians, revealed in all its diversity.

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

Fight us in war if you will,
We are Scythians, Asian
Eyes slanted and greedy

Alexander Blok’s ‘The Scythians’, written in January 1918, is one of the best-known poems in the Russian language. Blok’s subject, the nomadic warrior people that controlled an area from the borders of China to the Black Sea from the ninth to the second century BC, is as relevant as ever in Russia today, as the concept of a ‘Eurasian’ identity increasingly becomes an issue of intellectual debate in the country.

Outside Russia, knowledge of the history and culture of this people is far more limited, perhaps partly because, as nomads, they left no monuments – and no written language – behind them, except for the kurgans, burial mounds, that began to be excavated in Siberia in the 18th century. Such gaps in our knowledge will certainly be corrected by the BP exhibition: Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia, and its accompanying catalogue. It offers a revelation not only into the striking golden jewellery that is the best known cultural legacy of the Scythians, but also into the pattern of their life, illustrated by the everyday objects and implements that surrounded them and that also became part of their burial rituals.

The Russian conquest of Siberia, and the ensuing defeat of the Tatars – the last of the Eastern powers to dominate the Eurasian continent in something of the manner that the Scythians had begun – started at the end of the 16th century under Tsar Ivan the Terrible. A century or so later, Peter the Great – fittingly the 1698 Kneller portrait of Peter hangs in the first room of the British Museum show – began sending scientific expeditions to the region, and kurgan excavations began to yield up amazing discoveries, including golden jewellery in unfamiliar styles. Peter issued strict edicts prohibiting grave-robbery and decreeing that all finds, especially those ‘that are very old and uncommon’, be sent to St. Petersburg; with almost museological attention, he ordered that drawings be made of all such discoveries, some of which are shown with the objects that they depict at the British Museum.

A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand. Gold, second half of the fourth century BC, Kul’Oba. [Credit: © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V. Terebenin]

It is a tribute to Russian archaeology and science over the centuries that we have such records of the Scythians. Everything that had reached Peter the Great by his death became part of his Kunstkamera, before being transferred to the Hermitage in the mid-19th century. It is still known there as ‘Peter I’s Siberian collection’, and was later augmented by plentiful finds from the Western reaches of the Russian Empire that had also been ruled by the Scythians in their time, from the territories of present-day Ukraine that Russia occupied during the reign of Catherine the Great, and the wider Black Sea region. During the Soviet era archaeology, now under the aegis of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, continued apace from the 1930s onwards (although some of its leading protagonists fell victim to the changing political circumstances of their time).

A nomadic people, the only monuments that the Scythians left behind them were kurgans, burial mounds. [Credit: Southern Siberia landscape with burial mounds © V. Terebenin]

Thus, the overwhelming number of the exhibits in the BP exhibition: Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia come from the Hermitage – the recently opened National Museum of Kazakhstan in Astana also contributes, as does the Ashmolean – although the display of Scythian objects there is divided between different sections, making their presentation in London original for Russian visitors, too. Findings from the burial kurgans include not only exquisite gold buckles, plaques and torcs, but also plentiful items associated with everyday life. The remarkable preservation of objects of wood, fabric, and leather, even skin – the Scythians practised tattooing – together with articles for their horses, with whom leaders would be buried, mummies and log coffins, is due to the Siberian permafrost that prevented their deterioration.

It all allows us to form a picture of how the Scythians lived, especially when set in parallel with descriptions of historians, principally Herodotus, Book IV, whose Histories includes accounts of the Scythians in the Black Sea region. A hexapod of six sticks of a smoking-tent frame and brazier show how they would inhale the fumes of burning hemp seeds, both, we assume, for pleasure but also as a pain-reliever. Herodotus writes of that procedure: ‘At once it begins to smoke, releasing a vapour… The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure.’ The 5th century BC Greek poet Anacreon has a richly descriptive phrase, ‘Get ourselves as drunk as Scythians’, although the Scythians, more accustomed to drinking the milk of their herd animals, in all likelihood acquired that habit from the Greeks themselves.

“Howling with pleasure”: Herodotus describes how the Scythians would inhale the fumes of burning hemp seeds. [Credit: Hexapod, six sticks of a smoking tent frame, brazier, Pazyryk 2, Late 4th-early 3rd century BC. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V. Terebenin]

That last detail reminds us that, although we may think of the Scythians as warriors famed for their military skill – their use of bows, reliance on horses, and tactical retreat to draw the enemy deeper into their territory – they also engaged with their neighbours, the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid Empires, Ancient Greece and China, through trade and diplomacy, even dynastic marriage. The British Museum has in its own collection a small number of items that recall the Scythians, albeit indirectly: gold objects from the Achaemenid Oxus Treasure, and reliefs from Persepolis that show the Scythian ruler Skunkha, captured by Darius I, in his characteristic pointed hat and chains. The BP exhibition: Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia and it’s accompanying catalogue tells us their rich story through the distinctive objects, from ornate masterpieces in gold to practical craft items, that the Scythians themselves created.

Tom Birchenough

Scythians (British Museum)

warriors of ancient Siberia St John Simpson Out of stock