New Exhibit at British Museum Sheds Light on Lost Ancient Culture of the Scythians

Scythian rider Scythian rider - 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.

The British Museum has just launched its latest exhibit: Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia. Running from September 14th, 2017 - January 14th, 2018, it features an impressive collection of stunning metalwork, clothing, weaponry, and grave goods, while also exploring Scythian daily life, culture, dress, and beliefs.

Who Were the Scythians?

The Scythians were a nomadic people who lived between 900-200BC in Southern Siberia, their territory stretching from northern China to the Black Sea. They were a loose federation of tribes that spoke Iranian dialects, but had no written language. They were known as skilled riders, archers, craftsmen, and fearsome warriors.

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

Nomads of the Steppes

The extreme weather conditions in this region, made it difficult to cultivate anything. Instead of a traditionally agrarian lifestyle, the Scythians adapted to their harsh climate and raised livestock that grazed on the land as they moved from place to place. They herded sheep, goats, horses, and cattle and used these animals to make their clothes, tools, and everyday goods. They moved according to the seasons and had small, durable, easily portable personal possessions to accommodate their nomadic lifestyle. What they couldn't make themselves, they obtained via raiding and trade.

Their diet consisted primarliy of milk, butter, meat, and cheese. For meat, they primarily ate mutton, beef, and horse meat. They acquired wine from the Greeks and eventually gained a reputation for their predilection for excessive drinking!

Scythian Culture

The British Museum has done an excellent job of telling the story of this long lost culture through interactive film, accessible displays, and a good combination of objects, art, and text. Every display also contains easily understandable explanations for children that engage them by asking questions and starting conversations about what they're seeing. What will you learn about this magnificent ancient civilization?

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.

Horses

Horses dominate the pieces on display at the British Museum and with good reason: while animals were generally important to their beliefs, and feature heavily in their artwork, the horse was the most prized animal in Scythian culture. Horse breeding was integral to Scythian society, not only because horses afforded a means of transportation, but also because they provided sustenance such as meat, and milk. Horses were so revered by the Scythians that they were often killed and buried with their owners. Archaeologists uncovered graves with horses buried in pits just outside of their masters. The exhibit featured many intricate, and beautifully worked objects that decorated horses for riding, or for the afterlife.

Funerary Scene A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene; Gold; 4th –3rd century BC; Siberian Collection of Peter the Great.© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Craftsmanship

The Scythians were skilled at making stunning objects from gold, bronze and horn. The exhibit showcased gold belt buckles, arm bands, torcs, and jewellery. Gold in was highly prized by the Scythians as it represented the sun and power. Items made of gold were usually reserved for high status individuals. Scythians were known for their animal-style art that combined real and imaginary beasts. This animal-art appeared on everything from jewellery, to tattoos, to weapons.

Death and Burial

The Scythians buried their dead with all the necessities they believed they would need in the afterlife. Graves were only dug when the ground wasn't frozen, so Scythians mummified their dead until it thawed and they could be buried. Towards the end of the period, their burial practices merged with the other cultures they came into contact with through travel and trade. New methods such as cremation, were slowly integrated into their culture.

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 Terebenin.

Appearance

Eastern Scythians were clean shaven with short hair, while women wore tall, elaborate wigs over shaved heads. Both men and women were heavily tattooed; men's tattoos often depicted attacking beasts found on the Steppes, and women's tattoos showed predators tormenting animals. One of the most intriguing finds in the exhibit displayed the head and skin of a Pazyryk chief. Discovered in the ice in 1947, his skin was quickly preserved before it could decompose so that archaeologists could study his tattoos. The intricate, highly detailed designs etched into his skin can be easily seen two thousand years later.

Another impressive part of the exhibit was the collection of well preserved Scythian clothing. Stunning appliqués and beading were used for both men and women's attire. A remarkable array of boots, felt leggings, shoes, head dresses, cloaks, dress fragments, and a 2300 year old piece of cheese stayed miraculously intact under the Siberian permafrost for over two millennia!

Rediscovery and Recovery

If the Scythians were lost to us for centuries, how did they suddenly resurface? Scythian culture virtually disappeared until Tzar Peter I, 'The Great' (1672-1725) rediscovered them after sending an expedition into Southern Siberia to look for trade routes and natural resources. After discovering a cache of gold objects, Peter the Great ordered them to be brought to St. Petersburg; he did not tolerate grave robbery and made pillaging punishable by death. He commissioned artists to faithfully reproduce what they uncovered, carefully cataloging the collection. The finds initially were kept in his kunstkamera, 'cabinet of curiosities'  but in 1851, they were transferred to the Hermitage Museum. Peter the Great amassed over 250 gold Scythian artifacts, some which are on display in this exhibit.

Thanks to extensive archeological work, we have been able to piece together the story of this remarkable, riveting civilization, and gain insight into ancient life on the Steppes. If you're visiting London this autumn and winter, make sure to stop into the British Museum to catch this  rare and captivating exhibit.

Admission: £16.50 for adults, under 16s and members FREE.
Opening times: 10:00-17:30 daily, Fridays late until 20:30

Follow the British Museum on Twitter: @britishmuseum. Join the conversation by tweeting your comments with #Scythians

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