Exhibition Review: Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia #Scythians

Gold Scythian belt plaque, Siberia, 3rd-4th century, The State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg 2017, photo credit: V. Terebenin

Recently, an exhibition about the little-known Scythians opened at the British Museum. The Scythians were nomadic tribespeople who flourished in the steppe land around Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine between 900 and 200BC. They left no written records, but an enormous variety of artefacts have been found preserved in icy burial mounds. We also know about them from written records from other cultures, such as Ancient Greece: the historians Herodotus and Strabo both write about them at length.

I stepped into this exhibition knowing nothing about the Scythians, except for maybe that they were similar to the Dothraki from Game of Thrones. That was it. The first exhibit was a gold belt plaque which displayed a dead man, a goddess and a tree of life.  Crucially, the belt plaque also contains images of a horse and of a quiver full of arrows.  Important imagery for a warrior culture.  The first thing I noticed when walking into this exhibition, however, was not the shiny gold belt buckle, but the artificial wind sound which whistled throughout the first room.  Piercing and sharp, we were plunged into the sounds of the cold and harsh climate the Scythians had to contend with, whilst being faced with the intricacy of their craftwork.

Much of the next room contained more belt buckles (with images of animals in a characteristic 2D stance, all exquisitely made), and engravings showing Russia in the 17th century, at about the time the Scythian burial mounds in Siberia were first being excavated.  I thought this was an interesting curatorial choice, because it helped me to view the Scythian artefacts jointly with the Russian artefacts from about the time the Scythian artefacts were discovered.  This can be used to inform the onlooker about the context in which they were excavated.

Further on in the exhibition were artefacts more closely connected to the domestic life of the Scythians, including (slightly alarmingly at first) the tattooed skin of a Scythian.  This was a useful aid to use to visualise a Scythian warrior, and helped to humanise them too.  This helped me understand the Scythians more, but obviously didn’t help the elderly woman behind me, who remarked to her friend that the warrior must have “looked like a punk-scribblings all over his skin- ridiculous and ugly.”  There were then more bronze artefacts, and a rug which (although it was 2000 years old), my Mum thought looked like it had come from Habitat (some things never change I guess, even in interior design).  Rather interestingly there was also a hemp smoking kit (hemp smoking was thought to be a communal activity) and my favourite artefact in the exhibition: a felt swan which decorated a part of a carriage.  I loved this swan because it was so obvious what it was, and so delicately made, yet seemed extremely modern.  That’s part of what I love about history, I think: that objects can be so old ,but yet so modern at the same time.

Scythian Felt Swan, Third century BC, Siberia, Picture credit: The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017

At the end of the exhibition was a rather interesting cabinet full of artefacts not created by the Scythians, but other cultures which interacted with them.  There was a rather beautiful Greek ceramic which showed a Scythian as the Greeks imagined/interpreted them.  This was very interesting to see because it was a piece of evidence which could be used to examine how Greeks saw the Scythians, but which was a piece of material culture rather than a piece of literature.  There was also an Achaemenid writing tablet which talked about the Scythians, although it might have been nice to have a translation of this for those of us whose Sumerian isn’t quite up to scratch, it was still amazing to see all these cultures interacting with a culture I had hitherto not known was so important.

My one quibble with this exhibition (and it’s a quibble I tend to have with museums/exhibitions in general) is that it’s very hard to understand the culture of a people and the story of artefacts without putting it in historical context.  For someone like me, who knows next to nothing about the Scythians, it would have been enriching to the experience of the exhibition to have more of an explanation about the Scythians as a society: an explanation or a demonstration of how their tents looked, and how they lived with each other on the plain.  The hemp-smoking kit did hint at a communal society- chemical analysis of the hair of ordinary Scythians showed that they all smoked hemp, but few hemp-kits have been found.  This hints that this practice must have been a communal one, and therefore was the whole culture a communal one?  It would make sense for a nomadic tribe.   However, there was some attempt to put the artefacts in context.  The engraved rocks were displayed in front of a backdrop of Siberia, to help put the rocks into the context in which they would have existed, but in an ideal world, I think putting more of the objects in context would have help me understand the Scythians as a culture slightly more.

Overall, I really enjoyed this exhibition.  My singular context quibble aside, I thought this exhibition helped me organise my thoughts about the ancient world in a more cohesive way- because on my mental map of the ancient world the blurry part around Russia and the Altai mountains is now much clearer.  4/5- go and see this exhibition if you can!

This exhibition is on at the British Museum until the 14th January 2018.  

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