What do nomads leave behind?
The Scythians were nomads, so their personal possessions have to be portable and durable, generally light and small or collapsible. As well as objects made of leather, cloth, felt and wood, professional metalworkers also manufactured tools, weapons and small personal ornaments.
Excavations of burial mounds in Siberia have revealed a wealth of Scythian objects. These frozen tombs remarkably preserved mummified warriors and horses, but also clothes and fabrics, food and weapons, and spectacular gold jewellery.
Many fascinating examples will be on display in the exhibition, and here are a few of my highlights.
Gold belt plaque
This beautiful gold plaque was made by nomads in Siberia about 2,300 years ago. One half of a symmetrical belt buckle, it would undoubtedly have belonged to Scythian nobility, perhaps royalty. Gold was associated with the sun and royal power.
The scene shows a deceased man, a female deity with a high ponytail (left), a tree of life in which a quiver hangs, and a man holding two horses’ reins. When a Scythian man wanted to marry, he hung his quiver before the woman’s wagon. The scene may refer to a symbolic marriage between the deceased and the ‘Great Mother’ – a giver of life who is also associated with underworld powers. Their sacred union was essential to the death and renewal of all living things.
This false beard was found beneath a chieftain’s body at Pazyryk, a Scythian burial site in the Altai mountains where the permafrost has kept organic matter astonishingly well preserved. It is made of human hair sewn on to a strap and originally tied at the back. It had been dyed a dark chestnut colour. Greek and Achaemenid Persian depictions of Scythians usually show them as bearded, yet all of the mummies found in Pazyryk were clean-shaven. It is possible these false beards had a ritual role in the funeral.
This intimidating headgear was also found in the same tomb as the beard. It may have been worn by the Pazyryk chieftain in his final battle, as the damage to it corresponds with the fatal wounds on the man’s head. The carving depicts the head of a fantastic eagle, holding a deer head in its beak, with figures carrying geese on either side. These elements were part of a complex headgear which consisted of a decorated felt cap topped with an elaborate wooden crest.
As mentioned, the Scythians were nomadic, and their furniture was therefore portable. Collapsible tables were common finds in the Pazyryk tombs. They vary in height from 18–47cm but share the same feature of a tray-like oval top and four lathe-turned or hand-carved legs. The legs each had a projection (tenon) at the top which was inserted into a corresponding cavity (mortise). This and all the table tops from the same mound were coloured red with cinnabar in imitation of lacquer.
This plaque probably decorated a gorytos (a combined case for bow and arrows). It is made of a thick piece of sheet gold, embossed and chased, with gold loops soldered to the back. The ear and eye were probably once filled with coloured glass. The workmanship indicates a highly skilled craftsman, and the animal’s lying position and the ornamental treatment of its antlers belong to what is known as Scythian ‘animal style’ art.
Mask for a horse
As well as providing milk, meat and hide, horses were the main mode of transport and the driving force behind the Scythians’ military might. Scythian horses were buried with warriors, dressed in masks and other components that transformed them into fantastic mythical animals. As hoofed griffins, they were believed to carry their rider into the afterlife. This felt and leather horse mask is topped with a ram’s head with a cockerel between its horns. The peak is decorated with fish made of gold leaf. It is one of a great variety of horse masks found in the burials at Pazyryk.
Decorated woman’s shoe
This woman’s leather shoe is exceptionally richly decorated. The care taken to decorate the sole is understandable given that people sat on the ground and their soles were highly visible. The outer sole is made of leather wrapped in red cloth and decorated with pyrite crystals, which are perforated with holes less than a millimetre across. The craftsmanship that allowed for the precise drilling of these dense crystals is astonishing. Leather ‘duck’ shapes covered with gold foil were sewn along the seam connecting the toe with the calf. The toe is stitched with thick sinew wrapped with a tin foil which imitates silver.
Decorated leather bag containing lumps of cheese
Cheese production has a long history and speciality cheeses are not a modern gourmet phenomenon: 17th-century BC Mesopotamian texts refer to as many as 20 types. This bag was found with the horse burials at Pazyryk and presumably had been attached to one of the saddles. It contained very well-preserved lumps of cheese. So far, analysis has not determined the source of the milk from which it had been made – cow, yak, sheep or goat milk could have been used and even mixed, as locals still did up to the mid-20th century.
Plaque with a hare hunt
The horseman on this plaque wears characteristic Scythian dress. A hare crouches at his horse’s hooves, and first glance this may be just an ordinary hunting scene. However, according to popular beliefs of Iranian peoples, sacrificing a hare brings victory in battle. From the late 5th century BC onwards, hares often feature on Scythian gold plaques, demonstrating the animal’s importance.
See these objects and many more in the BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum from 14 September 2017 to 14 January 2018. Supported by BP.
Find out more about the Scythians in this blog post.