Buried in the Siberian permafrost for thousands of years, the culture of the Scythians – a collection of powerful nomadic tribes that roamed and dominated large areas of Eurasia, from southern Russia to China and the northern Black Sea between at least 900 and 200 BC – named Scythia in antiquity - has only been discovered relatively recently. Travellers to southern Russia reported seeing large ancient burial mounds in the 1700s and the first excavations were done by Russia in the 1800s. The snow, a dry atmosphere and burial and mummification techniques similar to those used by the ancient Egyptians meant that many of the artefacts, including solid gold torques, clothing, tools and even whole bodies, have been recovered.
The British Museum in London has collaborated with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the National Museum of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Royal Collection to present the first major exhibition on the Scythians in the UK for 40 years. What is immediately clear is how little attention has been paid to this culture compared with, say, the culture of the Mongolian nomads, who came after the Scythians, or to the Berbers of North Africa or Vikings, especially when you take into account the size of the territory they occupied.
More than 200 items are on show, and my first stop is a “show and tell” desk just before I enter a gallery. Here, a curator presides over several original items, including a coin from Amphipolis in northern Greece dating from 330 BC. “This was a day’s pay in the days of Alexander the Great,” the curator says as she presses the solid silver coin into my hand. She also shows me a map showing Eurasia and the Middle East – half the globe, essentially – including the areas where the Scythians were active. While they fiercely defended their own territory and made inroads wherever it was beneficial, they not only battled but also lived alongside and traded with other powerful cultures such as the ancient Greeks, Assyrians and Persians. Again, the fact that they are being compared to such civilizations underlines how little attention they have been given. As with many nomadic cultures, the relative intangibility of their lifestyle has led to their underestimation.
Inside the exhibition, it’s explained how the Scythians were masters of horsemanship and archery. Credited with inventing both the saddle and the composite bow, I think of the parallels between these original nomads and today’s digital ones, who also master new technology to enable their flexible lifestyle – and, vice versa, their flexible lifestyle leads to innovation. The Scythians had a keen understanding of their environment, which was necessary because life was a competitive struggle for survival. Thin soils and extreme weather made the Eurasian steppe unsuitable for agriculture, but it was ideal for grazing. The Scythians lived off herds of livestock and moved on when resources ran low or harsh weather arrived.
Visitors encounter a collection of items, one of the first of which is a huge belt plaque reflecting key elements of Scythian life. Next we're shown sets of weapons, including metal-tipped arrows which were sometimes dipped in poison, painted wooden shields, battle axes, armour and helmets. So central were horses to their way of life that some wealthy Scythians took them with them to the grave, believing that they could travel with them to the afterlife.
Keen hemp smokers, the tools of this activity are also shown, along with striking pieces of solid gold jewellery, belts, clothing, including coats made of squirrel fur, and death masks. But what is most affecting is coming face-to-face with a mummified body, with teeth, hair, scalp and even tattooed skin clearly visible.
Apart from this, there’s a certain lifelessness to the story being told here. I’m left with no sense of what the Scythian language sounded like, of what form the family took or what the size of the travelling groups was, or even how far they would have travelled and at what time of year. There is also a lack of information about the social structures involved and I have to do background research to find out about their raids on the Middle East, which included pillaging the Assyrians, beating back the Persian empire and reaching the borders of Palestine and Ancient Egypt. It is also unclear exactly how the Scythians died out – did they simply “disappear”, as the exhibition suggests, only to be superseded by other nomadic tribes – or were they so successful that they blended into them?
The overall narrative, though, is sufficiently powerful to stimulate the imagination. The Scythian world was not isolated, and various finds from burials revealed trade and cultural interaction on a scale that many today can still not imagine about a culture so seemingly primitive. The Scythians had wide international connections and combined travel, trade, diplomacy and fearsome warfare to maintain their position. With neither towns nor cultivated lands to protect, the dynamic nature of the Scythians worked to their favour. Settled, sedentary people viewed these nomads with both fear and admiration. Lessons in power from ancient Scythia.
Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is showing at the British Museum in London until January 14 2018. A series of free talks is also underway: see www.britishmuseum.org for details.
[ On the move: how to be a travel writer ]