Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is one of those lush expensive exhibitions hosted occasionally by the British Museum. I always feel that they are aimed at Londoners – because unless you know the British Museum by heart already (and you definitely need more than one visit to do that) you are probably much better off going to see something in the permanent exhibition that you haven’t seen before. That said, those sort of exhibitions are always meticulously planned, and far more comprehensible on a one day visit.
I saw a few Scythian objects on loan from the Hermitage Museum on display in the Museum of Acropolis in Athens a few years ago. I was fascinated by the quality of the workmanship coming from a culture that I was always told was barbarian.
The golden vessel above had appeared on loan in Athens (where I took a photo of it) and it also appears in the British Museum exhibition… I thought I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.
The Scythians is an exhibition hosted in partnership with the Hermitage Museum
in St Petersburg. It hosts Scythian artifacts that have been discovered from the 17th century onwards when Tsar Peter the Great banned the illegal excavation of Scythian Burial Mounds and ordered that all the finds be housed in his collection. It is hard not to assume that the Tsar was entertaining a notion of extending Russian ancestry to the makers of the gorgeous gold artworks that he acquired for his collections.
One can see why the Scythians might be appealing as ancestors. They were the first of the many nomadic warrior peoples to arise from the steppes of southern Siberia and Asia. They had the reputation of being fierce fighters and gave a tough fight to both the Persians and the Greeks. But despite the long history of archaeological excavation, balanced by the even longer history of grave robbery, not that much is known about the Scythians, mainly due to the fact all the written record of their lives was provided by their enemies.
This exhibition combines a remarkable variety of artifacts which give us a glimpse of Scythian lives: from intricate jewelry, wooden coffins, and a completely preserved child-sized fur coat. Due to the severity of the Siberian climate, some of the fragile materials and human remains are remarkably well preserved.
There’s a warning, as there is in many exhibitions these days, reminding you that human remains are on display – and do take it seriously. Because this time it’s not merely skeletons and bare bones. There are mummified heads, chopped off from the bodies they belong to “in order to preserve the clay burial masks”. There’s a human skin, thin as parchment, unrolled to display the tattoos that adorned it. A faint memory of what the Germans used Jewish skins for made me feel slightly nauseous when I was looking at this exhibit, I will freely admit.
There is plenty of Scythian art to admire too – lots of it worked in gold. Images of deer were used to adorn quivers – the Scythians were known as excellent archers in the ancient world. Panthers, lions, and eagles adorned the belts and clothing of powerful warlords. In their workmanship, these artworks remind us that being called a “barbarian” by ancient historians does not necessarily indicate anything much. These gorgeous objects share parts of their iconography with the Greek Civilisation in the West, the Persians to the South, and the Chinese to the East. Just to remind you, it is the Scythians themselves who were in the North…. A personal favourite of mine were the Scythian depictions of elk, which truly are remarkably elk-like. You will not need a museum description to recognize one.
I suppose the one thing that I found missing from this exhibition is the sense of individuality. I learned a great deal about the Scythians as a people from the archeological evidence, but I would like to learn more about an individual Scythian – a story of a life of a Scythian chieftain or lady. Perhaps I should attempt to read Herodotus again?
For review purposes only
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