Amidst the sound of fierce, freezing winds sweeping across the Steppe Lands, Peter the Great, Czar of all Russia, wearing robes denoting his power, gazes from his portrait at the unadorned, mummified head and face of a Scythian Chieftain, honoured and unvanquished in battle, who gazes back with an unflinching stare.
Here begins the exciting Exhibition, ‘Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia’. It is organised with the state Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, generously supported by BP and is curated by St. John Simpson, Keeper of the Middle East Department.
The Scythians were nomadic tribesmen, very accomplished horsemen and fierce warriors whom other ancient civilisations greatly feared. Their surprisingly, sophisticated culture flourished between 900 BC to 200 BC across their homeland of Syria, as far as the Black Sea, and even to the edge of China. They defeated the Persians and their influence extended over Central Asia. As the forerunners of the Mongols and Huns, they were a mysterious race, totally nomadic with a totemic mindset. There was interaction with other civilisations and they learned about wine from the Greeks and Persians and the Greeks portrayed archers in Scythian dress. They influenced the style of gold Achaemenid jewellery which can be seen in the Oxus treasure of the British Museum.
Peter the Great ( 1672 – 1725 ) sent scientists and archaeologists to excavate the Scythian tombs in Siberia which revealed many wonderful artefacts. He ruled that all the treasures should go to Russia and they eventually were housed in the state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Until this time nothing was known of these people except from ancient literary references. They left no literature, cities or records of epigraphy.
The tombs yielded treasures which were very well preserved due to the permafrost. Many are on display from the Hermitage, the Ashmolean, the Royal Collection and the Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
The immersive soundscape and a digital panoramic image of a mounted Scythian warrior set the scene, but in this exhibition the objects are self explanatory.
The many plaques or belt buckles, wrought in gold, provide evidence of the extremely high standard of gold workmanship. The craftsmen worked expertly in gold, iron and bronze by casting forging and inlaying. Bold incisions in gold outline animal and mythological creatures engaged in combat with their bodies contorted. A griffin like creature bites a horse and a vulture mauls a yak. Gold was associated with royalty and power.
A spectacular plaque ( buckle ) shows a deceased man with a female deity present. We can see the familiar ‘Tree of Life’ from which hangs his quiver. Another man stands by holding the reins of two horses. When a Scythian man wished to marry he hung his quiver before the woman’s wagon. This scene likely symbolises a marriage of the Great Mother and the deceased. She is the ‘Giver of all life’ and has connections with the Underworld. Notice the marked unity of composition.
Do not miss the deer shaped plaque, late 7th century BC, it may have been an all decorated a bow and arrow case. It is made of thick gold sheet, embossed, chased and has gold loops soldered on the back. Observe its antlers, ornamentally styled in bold arabesques. This is a sophisticated example of Scythian ‘animal art’.
Other jewellery, including toques, beads, earrings and carvings are on display which are unexpectedly sophisticated for a nomad people.
Ancient literary evidence for the Scythians are mostly from the Greeks, Persians and Assyrians. Herodotus ( 5th century BC ) gave them their name and described them as formidable. A 7th century Assyrian inscription refers to a Peace Treaty with them and a 6th century AD Byzantine reference states, ” They do not let up at all until they have achieved complete destruction of their enemies”. Mesopotamian refer to many kinds of cheeses and an example a cheese has survived! Herodotus also gives evidence of customs which the exhibits prove to be correct.
The warrior Scythians developed a powerful new type of bow made from different layers of wood and sinews.Their arrows were released in quick succession and may have had poisoned tips. Close up fighting occurred and battle axes with narrow pointed blades were used together with short swords. Excavated heads are evidence of the effective use of such battle axes. You can see the holes. Chieftains wore elaborate headgear and one example shows a fantastic eagle with a deer in its beak and figures carrying geese on either side. Many wooden shields, armour and helmets are all on display.
Horse breeding and riding, especially in battle, was taken to new levels by the Scythians and the grassy steppe of Southern Siberia was ideal for their purposes. All horse gear was light, functional and durable. Halters, bridles and saddles have survived together with some whips and pouches. Horses were well treated providing meat, milk, hides and were essential to the driving force of the Scythians for military power.
The excavated tombs yielded domestic possessions, drinking flasks, wooden bowls, sheepskins, rugs and even a pile carpet. Squirrel coats, women’s tights, boots and multi coloured textiles all came to light.
Drinking was certainly part of Scythian culture taking place at funerals and feasts. No doubt the tribes probably bonded together and drinking scenes appear on gold plaques. Herodotus refers to the drinking custom and says they did not mix wine with water like the Greeks. They probably were driven mad with alcohol like the centaurs!
Herodotus also tells us they got high on hemp. There is a reconstruction in the exhibition of how this happened. They scattered hemp seed on red hot stones, in a pit, built a rough tent over it and inhaled. Herodotus said, ” They howled with joy as the steam cleaned them. They never washed in water”.
The Scythians were keen on tattoos and bits of mummified skin show some were quite elaborate showing mythical animals in the style of Scythian ‘animal art’ which also appears in their ‘rock art’ which is on display. Heads, arms and torsos were all decorated.
At burials a form of mummification was used and tombs were covered with stones, which held in the cold. This was ideal for good preservation. A huge coffin is on view which was buried in a wooden structure, looking like a log cabin. It was lined and had a dark felt floor.
Prized possessions and various objects were buried in tombs. Sacrificed horses were buried outside the tomb, but within the grave. They were dressed as mythical creatures and had elaborate masques and as hoofed griffins they bore their riders into the afterlife, facing Eastwards.
The fine artefacts in this extraordinary Exhibition have unravelled much of the mystery surrounding the powerful and merciless Scythian nomads.
The eeriness, barbarity and quest for power ended in tombs similar to the one photographed by V . Terbenin which has undulating mountains in the background and grass of the Steppe Lands in the forefront. The mound lies in beauty and serenity beneath the once Scythian skies.