Exhibitions and events
Mummies and log houses of the dead: Scythian life and death

My adventures with the Scythians began 20 years ago. Professor Yuri Chistov of Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera Museum in St Petersburg opened this wonderful world to me when he encouraged me to study the human skeletons from the incredible burial ground of Aymyrlyg. Located at the southernmost end of Siberia, near the border with Mongolia, this vast cemetery contained the burials of some 600 people of the Scythian world. The majority were buried within rectangular tombs made from logs – the log houses of the dead.

Interior of a log house tomb from Aymyrlyg. Drawn by Libby Mulqueeny, Queen’s University Belfast, and based on an excavation photograph archived in the Photographic Archive of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg.

Aymyrlyg was a community burial ground used by these Iron Age mobile pastoralists over many generations. During the summer they probably spent their time traversing the steppes with their livestock, returning to the valley in which Aymyrlyg lay during the colder months. A clue to this seasonal pattern of movement can be found in the condition of the bodies, some of which had been treated in such a way that suggested processing for temporary storage. The remains of certain people had been reduced to small parcels and in some cases the soft tissues had been removed. These were the bodies of those who had died far from the cemetery during the summer months and required storage before the autumn journey back to the valley where the dead could then be buried at Aymyrlyg.

The mummified adult male recovered from Barrow 5. Photo: V Terebenin, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

We know the Scythians were skilled at mummification processes from the evidence apparent in the bodies of those buried in the spectacular royal tombs at Pazyryk in the Altai region of southern Siberia. These individuals had been trepanned, disembowelled and, in some cases, had soft tissues removed from various parts of the body. Evidence of coarse stitching is still visible in the mummies.

Cut marks indicative of disarticulation at the right hip of a 25–35-year-old man from Aymyrlyg. Photo: Eileen Murphy, Queen’s University Belfast.

In Book IV of his Histories, the fifth-century BC writer Herodotus gives the impression that the Scythians were a bloodthirsty bunch who spent much of the time marauding in bands across the steppe lands. Among the Aymyrlyg population there were clearly those who had suffered a violent death, particularly from a lethal battle-axe blow to the skull – this weapon displays a marked similarity to the modern-day ice pick and was highly efficient in dispensing death.

Seventh-century BC battle-axe with gold overlay decoration from the ‘royal’ tomb at Arzhan-2. Photo: V Terebenin, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

The man from Barrow 2 at Pazyryk displayed evidence for at least two such blows to his head as well as very early, but indisputable, evidence for scalping. We should not be surprised at all by this finding. Herodotus tells us, with what might be detected as a certain amount of glee, that the Scythians scalped their enemies and hung the scalps on their horse harnesses as a symbol of battle prowess.

The head of the man from Barrow 2 at Pazyryk. Two battle-axe holes are evident and the scalp has been cut off from the top of the forehead to the back of the neck. Photo: Yuri Chistov, Kunstkamera Museum, St Petersburg.

While most of those who had died violently were adult males, some females and teenagers at Aymyrlyg also displayed weapon injuries. The suggestion of warrior women should again be of no surprise to us since Herodotus described in detail the Amazons – a tribe of female steppe warriors. Indeed, numerous burials of women accompanied by weapons have been discovered across the Eurasian steppe lands.

Battle-axe injuries in the skull of a 35–45-year-old man from Aymyrlyg. No evidence for healing was visible and it is probable the man died as a result of these blows. Photo: Eileen Murphy, Queen’s University Belfast.

While the evidence for violent death is certainly compelling, it needs to be appreciated that relatively few people buried at Aymyrlyg had died in this manner – around 3% of the adults. In many ways it was even more interesting for me to find potential evidence of care and community support within the burial ground that somehow didn’t quite fit with the stereotypical image we have of the Scythians. Certain individuals displayed serious physical impairments or evidence of chronic disease that would have made it difficult for them to have fully embraced daily tasks necessary for survival. Two women displayed evidence for the same congenital hip defect that would have rendered their affected legs practically unusable. In both cases the affected limbs had wasted away through lack of use and the women would have needed supports to help with their mobility. Another woman had evidence of a long-standing substantial soft-tissue growth in one of her eye sockets. Undoubtedly her sight would have been affected and she may also have suffered from other impairments invisible to us. The lives of these three women would no doubt have been particularly challenging.

Notably enlarged left eye socket in a 17–25-year-old woman from Aymyrlyg that is suggestive of the presence of a soft-tissue tumour that may have been associated with the condition neurofibromatosis. Photo: Eileen Murphy, Queen’s University Belfast.

The Scythians may have left us with amazing works of art and great inventions but for me it is these individual stories that make the study of their past so rewarding.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum from 14 September 2017 to 14 January 2018.
Supported by BP.

You can buy the beautifully illustrated catalogue in the Museum shops.