Aspects of contemporary life can make you feel like a nomad. It’s not that you would declare yourself one but the sense that travelling and being between places is occupying more of your life than ever before could – after reading this book or attending the exhibition it is based on – produce a feeling of empathy with the Scythians.
“The BP exhibition Scythians warriors of ancient Siberia” is at the British Museum until 14 January 2018 and it provides a fairly unique opportunity to see material remains of an enigmatic people.
Scythian nomads lived and died in a vast area that stretched from the edge of northern China to north of the Black Sea. Originating in southern Siberia, they dominated the European steppe from around the 9th century BCE to the second century CE.
They erased themselves from world history as mysteriously as they arrived, possessing no written language or cities or temples to record their existence. Nothing would be known about them were it not for Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, and the power of ice that preserved what was buried with their dead.
The Scythians had no fixed abode and travelled with their herds of cattle, sheep and horses. Being nomads, they carried what they needed and this included their sense of cultural identity.
It expressed itself in elaborate funerals and a love of gold jewellery; and probably much else besides but what can be seen today is only what they buried underground in respect for their dead.
The book of the exhibition provides a wealth of information while photographs include a famous example of Scythian art: a funerary scene depicted on a gold belt plaque, showing two horses resting under a tree, from which a quiver of arrows hang, while three human figures are in repose on the ground. The meaning behind the scene can never be known but its beguiling to speculate.
Another eye-catching work of gold shows two Scythian archers, back to back, each raising a composite bow in combat. It’s on a tiny scale – just over 3 cm in width and height – but precisely pictorial: their hair is tied into buns at the back; close-fitting sleeved jackets with trimming; and decorated trousers tucked into short boots.
Most art and artefacts of the Scythians are in collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. What makes the exhibition so special is the bringing to London of many of their finest examples. The book’s photographs are permanent reminders of what the Scythians left behind: leather saddles, gold jewellery, embroidery, helmets, felt clothing.
“The BP exhibition Scythians warriors of ancient Siberia” , edited by St John Simpson and Svetlana Pankova, is published by Thames & Hudson and The British Museum.