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Scythian exhibition at British Museum is stunning and not-to-be-missed

(Above: Dragons on either side of the Tree of Life (2nd-1st century BC). Photo: Jeannie Labno)

The new exhibition at the British Museum explores the ancient nomad people from Siberia – the Scythians. In collaboration with the State hermitage Museum, St. Petersberg, the exhibition includes items never seen in the UK before. Other contributions are from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Collection.

The Scythians were a confederation of different tribes who spoke Iranian dialects and who shared a similar lifestyle, dress, weaponry and horse gear. Horse breeding was key to this culture and they relied on horses for transport, milk and meat. Horses were crucial to their military strength and they were skilled horsemen – they invented the soft saddle and trousers to facilitate riding, and the powerful, long-range reflex bow. The Scythians were predominant from 900 to 200BC and their range extended from the eastern Ukraine to China. Being nomadic, they left no buildings – except, significantly, tombs. Since these tombs, in the high Altai mountains of southern Siberia, could only be excavated when the ground was not frozen, the bodies were first mummified to await interment. After burial, the freezing conditions ensured that bodies and tomb goods were well-preserved - they give a fascinating insight into this little-known culture. They provide evidence of an alternative economy of the ancient world to the Eurocentric/Oriental centric view with which we are familiar. Since they left no written records, we have to rely on the objects themselves to speak for them – otherwise we can only rely on the accounts of contempories, such as the 5th c. BC historian Herodotus and the Annals of the Assyrian Kings. This exhibition allows us to appreciate, as far as we are able to, the Scythian story from their own works.

Having left no written records, we can only speculate on the meaning behind the fantastical iconography of their surviving artefacts and their religious significance, which only adds to their fascination. Certainly their iconography is deeply imbued with strange mythological beasts. For example, the belt plaque with a Predator Attacking A Horse (4th-3rd c. BC): the predator is a winged beast with a feline body and goat’s horns. Another belt plaque shows a Tiger Fighting A Monster (4th-3rd c. BC) with a feline body, head of a wolf, antlers ending in birds of prey and a heavy-beaked bird’s head for a nose. Such scenes of animal contests are one of the most popular motifs of later animal-style art from the second-half of the 6th c. BC. It has been suggested that the monsters are predators from the underworld and symbolise concern over the preservation of world order. Another plaque shows an antithetical arrangement of beasts resembling dragons on either side of the Tree of Life (2nd-1st c. BC) reflecting the influence of Northern China. The Tree of Life is a common motif across numerous ancient cultures and here is thought to represent creation and renewal. Certainly such complex iconography reflects complex religious imagery.

In addition to the belt plaques there are torcs, ear-rings, necklaces and bracelets, which attest to a concern for bodily adornment and sophisticated tastes and techniques. Two types of manufacture are evident: hammering gold sheet over a carved wooden form and cast gold. Other items include weapons, textiles, clothing, accessories, accoutrements, food, drugs and even tattooed skin! Evidently body tattoos of fantastical beasts in the Scythian animal style were widely practiced by both sexes.

The tombs themselves are impressive – a log tomb from Oglakhty is on display made from carefully trimmed and jointed logs. It contained two mummies with painted plaster masks and, bizarrely, two human-sized, clothed dummies made from leather and filled with straw and cremated human remains… no explanation (or speculation) provided.

A further oddity, linked possibly to funerary practices, is the false beard – dyed human hair attached to a strap. The interesting point here is that Greek and Roman depictions of the Scythians show them as bearded, yet all the mummies found in Pazyryk were clean-shaven. Presumably they had a ritualistic function – which is reminiscent of the false beard of Egyptian Pharaohs. Furthermore, like the ancient Egyptians, the brain was removed during mummification.

Another link with Ancient Egypt (and other ancient cultures) is the occurrence of rock art, the earliest dating from the second millennium BC and, therefore, pre-Scythian. They were often located at boundaries – passes, fords, cemeteries. A wonderful example shows a horse-drawn chariot with spoked wheels and three horses tethered behind.

A further striking oddity is the totally impractical, complex headgear – made of wood and leather, the example shown depicts the head of a fantastic eagle, holding a deer’s head in its beak with figures either side carrying geese. Utterly bizarre – as are the peculiar tall – very tall – head-dresses that women wore on their shaven heads.

Since this was a ‘horse culture’, favoured horses were specially adorned with elaborate costumes and interred with their owners – the intention seems to have been to transform them into mythical beasts for riding in the afterlife.

These enigmatic people are defined by their similarities, as well as their differences to other cultures. They remain mysterious and captivating – and utterly absorbing.


Drawing. 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

Tattoo: Part of human skin with a tattoo. From the left side of the breast and back of a man; Pazyryk 2,Late 4th -early 3rd century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebe

Horse Head Gear: Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood; Pazyryk 2; Late 4th early 3rd century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.


The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia

British Museum

14 September 2017 - 14 January 2018

Open Saturday – Thursday 10.00–17.30, Friday 10.00–20.30. Last entry 80 mins before closing.

Tickets £16.50, children under 16 free, concessions and group rates available.

Booking fees apply online and by phone.

Tel.: +44 (0)20 7323 8181


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