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(c) The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

22 September 2017 Will Rathbone

The Scythians were a race of nomadic warriors who ruled the vast plains of Siberia 2,500 years ago. Precious little was known about this race of horse-mounted warrior people until early in the 18th century, when an array of tools, artefacts and – astonishingly – textiles and fabrics were discovered preserved in the permafrost. Using modern technology, scientists have been able to analyse these finds, and now the British Museum’s exhibition reveals the history of this forgotten empire.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is the result of a major collaboration between the British Museum and the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg, and part of the exhibition details the history of the State Hermitage, and the first recorded discoveries of Scythian artefacts. The early 18th century saw Tsar Peter I send expeditions into Siberia in search of new resources, resulting in the discovery of Scythian burial mounds. Many of the exhibits come from these initial excavations. Detailed drawings of St. Petersburg, cross-sections of the Kunstkamera (‘cabinet of curiosities’) where the objects were originally housed, and a beautiful watercolour panorama from Pavel Yakovlevich Pyasetsky celebrating the Tran-Siberian Railway all offer an insight into Russia at that time.


A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand; Gold; Second half of the fourth century BC; Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin
 
As no written Scythian language has been discovered, experts have used archaeological findings, analysis and writings from the time – predominantly from Herodotus, the Greek historian – to determine the facts of Scythian life. The start of the exhibition is devoted to intricate, gold-plated plaques, bracelets and buckles – all of which provide clues. Burial scenes, mythical predators wrestling with various animals, and battle scenes are all illustrated. Careful analysis suggests Scythians believed in a three-tier world: an underworld, ruled by monsters, the mortal realm and a heavenly plane of birds. Exactly how they made the plaques themselves remains a mystery though.
 
Three examples of rock art from before the 7th century BC are some of the most remarkable exhibits. Although the carvings of chariots, horses, camels and warriors look exactly how one imagines ancient art to look, it is the physical presence of the stones themselves – thousands of years old – which resonates. Despite many millennia separating our races, proximity to these carvings reduces that distance to mere feet. It is a remarkable feeling.
 
Scythians mummified their dead, waiting until the warmer weather to bury them, and this process, combined with the permafrost, has resulted in superb preservation – even the coffins themselves have survived, with two enormous log coffins providing a centrepiece toward the end of the exhibition. The head of a tribal chief, the tattooed skin of a warrior, fragments of clothing – with patterns still visible – and even pieces of cheese all remain miraculously well preserved. Along with their dead, Scythians buried items for use in the underworld and the knives, jewellery, tools and animals found in graves allow experts to piece together further details of Scythian life.


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 Terebenin
 
Handheld tools and weapons, collapsible chairs and tents all illustrate a nomadic lifestyle, as well as providing examples of Scythian ingenuity, and this is supported by the amount of respect held for horses. Elaborately dressed horse remains – leaders were buried with their favourite steed – and a steady progression of horse-riding technology and clothing suggests a constant search for riding perfection. Decorative items are also displayed: masks topped with horns and gold leaf, bridle pieces adorned with ornamental animal heads and saddle covers with detailed patterns. Intricate designs on the soles of Scythian shoes further illustrate the predominance of horse riding in the culture. Why decorate soles unless shoes will often be viewed from below?
 
Battles and skirmishes with Persians, Assyrians and Greeks were frequent, and often ended with a Scythian victory. They developed a new bow complete with aerodynamic, poison-dipped arrowheads that could launch arrows faster and further than any existing weapon. Battles between Scythian tribes were also commonplace, and a lack of cohesion as a race is cited as one possible reason for their lack of longevity.


Drawing. Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excav ated finds from Olon - Kurin - Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia . B y D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences
 
Throughout the exhibition, Herodotus’ remarks provide a fascinating and at times hilarious insight into Scythian life. Alongside an elaborate hemp-smoking brazier and wigwam, Herodotus remarks on how the Scythians inhaled the smoke before “howling with pleasure”. The Scythians didn’t make wine, but quickly gained a reputation for drinking once they discovered it through trading with the Greeks. Their wild lifestyle included blood rituals, hunt re-enactments and a lust for battle that led to a fierce reputation among their contemporaries.
 
Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is an interesting and in-depth look at a forgotten way of life as well as a forgotten tribe of people. The quality of the thousand-year-old artefacts is astounding, however it is the stories behind them that provide the greatest impact.
 
The BP Exhibition Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia runs at the British Museum until 14 January. Tickets cost £16.50.
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