What do false beards, weed saunas and cheese have in common?

The Scythians (that’s pronounced ‘SIH-thee-uns’) are awesome. Like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones, they were a group of horse-loving, ferocious nomads. You can meet the Scythians in the BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum. But first, we thought you might like to know a little bit more about these mysterious – and let’s face it, super cool – warriors. On the way, we’ll encounter false beards, weed saunas and even a bag of 2,500-year-old cheese…

1. So who were these mysterious warriors?

Gold plaque of a mounted Scythian. Black Sea region, c. 400–350 BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

The Scythians were a group of ancient tribes of nomadic warriors who originally lived in southern Siberia. They flourished for about 700 years, starting around 900 BC. By around 200 BC their influence extended from China to the northern Black Sea. That’s a VERY large area. They set the template for all the horse-riding peoples of the steppe who came later – Huns, Mongols, Turks etc. They were also one of the most feared peoples of the ancient world…

2. Were they really that tough though?
Arrow heads

Arrow heads. No longer dipped in poison at least.

In short, yes. The Greeks, Assyrians and Persians were pretty terrified by the Scythians – and rightly so! The Greek historian Herodotus said the Scythians drank the blood of the men they killed, kept their scalps as trophies and skulls as drinking cups. It was also said that they used barbed arrows dipped in poison. We should probably take Herodotus’ tale with a pinch of salt, but by all accounts they were pretty brutal!

3. Why haven’t I heard of them?

The Scythians didn’t write down anything themselves, so all that remains is accounts from people like the Greeks, Assyrians and Persians, who didn’t paint their culture in the best light. Because they were nomads who roamed around, they didn’t leave a lot behind in terms of cities either. But over the last 200 years or so, archaeological digs have unearthed a wealth of Scythian treasures. We can piece together their way of life from what we’ve found in burial mounds.

Gold sew-on clothing appliqué in the form of two Scythian archers.

4. OK, so what was in those burial mounds?

Artist’s impression of a burial mound. Watercolour illustration, 18th century. Archive of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.

As well as a huge number of grave goods (more of which below), the burial chambers contained mummies. The Scythians took great effort to preserve the appearance of the dead. They removed the brain matter through holes cut in the head, sliced the bodies and removed as much soft tissue as possible before replacing both with dry grass and sewing up the skin.

5. Um, great. But what about their horses?

The Scythians were excellent horsemen and developed horse breeding to a new level. They also used to kill horses to place in the graves of dead warriors. Excavated Scythian tombs have revealed amazingly preserved horses, which have been dressed for the afterlife with elaborate headgear and saddles. This turned them into kind of mythical beasts for the afterlife.

Horse headgear from burial mound 2, Pazyryk, Altai mountains, southern Siberia. Late fourth to early third century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

6. OK, but what was that about cheese?

Speciality cheeses are not a modern gourmet phenomenon. This bag was found in a Scythian burial and contains very well preserved lumps of 2,500-year-old cheese! We don’t know if yak, cow, goat or sheep’s milk was used to make the cheese, but we hope to find out using science…

Cheese bag. Best before 500 BC.

7. You also mentioned false beards. What’s that all about?

This false beard was found with a chieftain’s body at Pazyryk, a Scythian burial site where the permanently freezing conditions have kept organic matter (like hair, skin etc.) 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. The Greeks and Persians usually showed Scythians as bearded, yet all the mummies found in Pazyryk were clean-shaven. These false beards might have had a ritual role in the funeral.

False beard found in a burial.

8. What was that about weed? Were they party animals?

Gold plaques showing Scythians drinking. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Originally known as ‘milk drinkers’, the Scythians picked up the idea of drinking wine from contact with the Greeks and Persians. But the Scythians never did anything by halves. They soon acquired a reputation for excessive drinking (the Greeks used to dilute their wine with water). The Scythians also had a ritual which involved getting high on hemp in a kind of mobile ‘weed sauna’. Inside a tent they would put hemp seeds on red hot stones and breathe in the vapour. The Greek historian Herodotus said that they would ‘howl with pleasure’. It was probably partly to relieve pain caused by battle injuries and riding.

9. What did the Scythians look like?

Artist’s impression of a Scythian and his horse. Reconstruction by D V Pozdnjakov.

All the frozen Scythian bodies examined so far are heavily tattooed. The designs covered the arms, legs and upper torsos. They include fantastic animals locked in combat, rows of birds and simple dots resembling modern acupuncture. Other than tattoos, some of the women have fair hair and blue eyes, but the men are strongly built and have red or dark hair.

Line drawings of tattoos on a Scythian man.

10. But being nomads, they probably didn’t have many accessories, right?

Gold torc with turquoise inlays. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Wrong! Scythian craftsmen were good at casting metal. They worked gold, bronze and iron, using a combination of techniques like casting, forging and inlaying with other materials. None of these required large amounts of equipment and Siberia is rich in metal ores, but it did require skill.

Man’s headgear and illustration showing how it may have been worn.

As well as amazing goldwork, they also wore fabulous clothes and accessories. This intimidating headgear may have been worn by a Scythian chieftain in his final battle. The carving is of the head of an eagle holding a deer head in its beak, with figures carrying geese on either side. Scythian women also wore elaborate headgear. Women shaved their heads and wore elaborate wigs decorated with gold ornaments.

 

Discover more about the Scythians in the BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum until 14 January 2018.
Supported by BP.

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