On 14 September a major new exhibition opened at the British Museum and creates a unique opportunity to see the world of the Scythians, warriors and nomads, in an atmospheric setting and with hundreds of stunning objects. This was organised with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, from which most of the objects have been very generously loaned, and includes other important loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum and a magnificent portrait of Peter the Great lent by Her Majesty the Queen.
This exhibition was devised four years ago to mark the British Museum’s contribution to the past year of exhibitions and events celebrating Russian art and culture in the UK. The British Museum team was led by St John Simpson, with Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum co-ordinating her colleagues in the Departments of Archaeology, Ancient World and Russian Culture: together they have co-edited the sumptuous catalogue published by Thames & Hudson to go with it.
The exhibition is attracting 5* reviews and is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these objects together. The exhibition begins with some of the first Scythian gold objects to be discovered in the early eighteenth century as explorers during the reign of Peter the Great set out to explore and map newly conquered territories in present-day southern Siberia. These were found in burial mounds and excited huge interest in Russia at the time: they are shown here alongside early eighteenth century watercolours commissioned in St Petersburg, and astonishingly this is the first time they have been exhibited together.
The exhibition continues with a stunning digital panorama based on late nineteenth century Russian watercolours showing parts of the route taken by the Trans-Siberian Railway as it passes through Siberia. They evoke the scenery and show that Siberia is not just the place of hardship, cold and forest that is mentally conjured up in most peoples’ minds but the southern portion was a grassy corridor which connected China with the edge of Europe.
Separate sections in the exhibition then set out to answer common questions with carefully selected objects set against massive landscape backdrops with succinct text panels printed on cloth banners and illustrated with contextual images and accurate reconstructions. Some of the earliest tattoos and a beheaded chieftain’s head illustrate personal appearance and body art. Trousers, a fur-lined coat, exquisite gold dress appliques, an embroidered shoe and a tall woman’s headdress bring home a sense of style. Mirrors, manicured fingernails, a false wig and pouches filled with black hair dye show that vanity is not a modern concept and these men and women were careful to show themselves to best effect. A portable lifestyle meant that possessions had to be easily transported, and people of status wore their wealth on their bodies. Oversized gold buckles demonstrate this in one way; massed rows of miniature gold dress ornaments show it in another and mark the beginning of a very long Eurasian nomad tradition.
A reconstructed miniature tent and a brazier with hemp seeds confirms a famous passage by Herodotus that Scythians appreciated the effect of consuming cannabis in a confined space and enjoyed “hot boxing” so much that they “howled with pleasure”. These nomads moved according to the seasons and the availability of water and pasture, but exhibiting ancient nomads is tough when they leave a light footprint in the landscape. Fortunately they buried their essentials as well as their status items in tombs for an anticipated afterlife. Exceptional preservation in the permanently frozen subsoil beneath these mounds in the Altai mountain region has meant the preservation of all the organic remains: a sable fur bag, leather, wood, felts, rugs, horse harness and even lumps of cheese, labelled with a “best before” date of 300 BC.
Life was tough though and evidence for weapons and trauma on excavated human remains shows that there must have been considerable competition over resources. Showcases contain deadly aerodynamic arrowheads, fired from the famous Scythian bow described by Greek authors, an efficient pointed battle-axe with its original honeysuckle wood handle, wooden shields, armour, a bronze helmet and a serried rank of daggers and short swords. And of course there is the horse-tack: not just bronze horse-bits but complete bridles with leather straps and carved wooden ornaments, and another Scythian invention: the soft saddle, stuffed with straw and deer hair and covered with an extraordinary decorated cover.
Fittingly, the largest object in the exhibition is a super-sized perfectly preserved log coffin from Pazyryk which weighs a third of a ton! Digital media show frozen tombs like this being excavated and how the interiors were encased in solid ice which had built up over centuries inside. Even so, the Pazyryk tombs were robbed in antiquity so although the organics are spectacular there is precious little of intrinsic value: that is where the exhibition has drawn on late eighteenth and nineteenth century tomb finds from the northern Black Sea region (all from the State Hermitage and the Ashmolean) and very recent discoveries in southern Siberia and neighbouring Kazakhstan.
The exhibition closes by looking at life in southern Siberia after the Scythians. Although even the names of the tribes are unknown, the excavated tomb finds show increasing complexity and long-distance connections: the remains of a composite bow, colourful beads imported from the Mediterranean, a scrap of Chinese silk reused along the hem of a toy quiver. The archaeology of the Scythians and other early nomads of Eurasia is a very active field and there are many surprises. New scientific research carried out at the British Museum answered some questions we had about gold objects from the Siberian Collection of Peter the Great, and in fact there is more scientific research on show in this exhibition than in any ever before at the British Museum! One of the last things a visitor sees is the CT-scan of a (post-Scythian) man’s head concealed beneath his painted death-mask and what this brand new piece of Russian research shows is that he has a carefully stitched up scar on his left cheek and the hole where his left temple had been trepanned as part of an embalming ritual.
The subject of continuing new discoveries is the topic of an exciting three-day archaeological conference to be held at the British Museum this coming 27-29 October. This will bring together scholars of all ages and nationalities to share the results of their research projects, latest archaeological discoveries and new scientific research. Many of these results are presented here for the first time and they evoke the world of the steppe: a natural open corridor without borders which connected Russia with Europe, the Middle East and China. There will be papers on Scythians, Hephthalites and other Eurasian nomad economies, tombs, burial rites, gold-working, human remains, the invention of trousers, early Scythian dyes, “Animal Style” art, rock art, connections with China, and some tantalising if not gruesome answers as to where the Scythians got their leather for their bow quivers! This conference is being generously supported by the ERC and the British Museum and is part of the public programme associated with the exhibition. Booking is via the British Museum box office.
The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is open at the British Museum from 14 September 2017-14 January 2018.
A conference, Scythians and early nomads from Siberia to the Black Sea, will be held in the BP Lecture Theatre at the British Museum from 27-29 October 2017. This major three-day conference is open to all. It will include the latest research on early nomads of Eurasia with papers on horseriding, warfare, technology and many other topics. It will also include results of recent archaeological excavations and new scientific research, and poster displays. Click here to view the conference programme.
Header image: Landscape in Southern Siberia courtesy of V. Terebenin.
Sincerest thanks to St John Simpson for providing this latest post for the Archaeopress Blog. We are actively seeking new content for the blog; articles on all aspects of archaeology and related heritage topics will be considered. Perhaps you would like to highlight a small find on an excavation that won’t be fully reported until years from now; an opinion piece; summaries of local activity; introductions to new and ongoing exhibits; conference reports; the list goes on. Articles should be approximately 2,000 words in length with 4-8 accompanying illustrations, but please note this is just a guide and both shorter and longer articles would be considered. Please submit blog proposals to Patrick Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org