In the English language, the word Siberia denotes a vast and bleak emptiness. That land’s ancient population are rarely thought about, and usually fall neatly into a caricature of the primitive, marauding barbarian. Yet as the British Museum’s recent exhibition demonstrates, Scythian culture was anything but primitive. The exhibition’s evocative imagery, of winged rams clutching broadswords, for example, or of gold- cast dragons and tigers engaged in battle, makes the culture of these ancient tattooed horsemen the focus of a vivid and intriguing exhibition.
The Scythians were the first great nomadic culture to emerge from the Steppe, and were forerunners to the Huns, Turks and Mongols. Across almost the entirety of the first millennium BCE they conquered everywhere from the Black Sea to Mongolia, and they were some of the first people to develop mounted warfare. However, unlike their successors, we know virtually nothing about the way in which their society functioned. Although they pop up periodically in Greek and Persian sources as traders and plunderers, historians have been forced to mostly rely on findings from a few isolated burial mounds literally frozen in time beneath the Siberian permafrost.
Like the tombs of the pharaohs, these vaults of treasure are fascinating windows into a way of life that – for the most part –no longer exists. One of the most interesting pieces on display in the exhibition is a felt and leather horse mask. A ram’s head erupts from the forehead like an alien symbiote, atop which a bird is nestled. This could have had various possible uses; we can’t be sure if it was a form of armour meant to intimidate enemies, or a part of a religious rite of protection in the afterlife.
Due to the cold frost from which the items were dug up, every one, without exception, is stunningly preserved. In the second room the viewer comes face to face with the shrivelled lips and tattooed face of a Pazyryk chieftan. Teeth and rotting gums still visible, he stares back at the observer through over 2000 years. Due to the frozen earth, the Scythians were only able to bury their dead during summer. Their bodies were therefore embalmed and mummified, until a time came when they could be built proper tombs.
The exhibition cleverly weaves what few historical records we have together with archaeological finds. A quote from Herodotus is placed above a scattering of hemp seeds and a miniature wigwam of sticks and felt. He describes the effect that such apparatus had on the Scythians, who enjoyed them so much that they ‘howl with pleasure.’ To demonstrate the Scythian’s various trade routes with other countries, the exhibition shows Greek wine cups, Chinese silks and Indian cotton found in Scythian property, as well as depictions of the Scythians found in the ancient Persian capital, Persepolis.
Interviewed about the show, Curator John Simpson described the unique challenges the museum faced: “mostly in this museum we are familiar with peoples who built cities, lived in a built environment and wrote their own histories… The Scythians had no written language… and as nomadic herders they built nothing permanent except their tombs.” As such ‘The Scythians’ feels utterly fresh, an exploration of a culture that has never before been seen in such vivid colour on Britain’s shores. One can only wonder how the British Museum will top it.