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The Gold of the Steppe: the Scythians at the time of Alexander´s empire

Alexander the Great in his thrust into the heart of Asia encountered peoples living at the fringes of the great civilisations, whose identities and cultures fade away into the mists of unrecorded history. Among them were horsemen warriors, the Parthians, the Sogdians and Scythian tribes. Their skill to aim their arrows while riding on horseback so impressed Alexander that he created a special cavalry unit of these horsemen. Alexander´s Asian cavalry was to play a crucial role in his battle with the Indian king Porus on the banks of the river Hydaspes.

The Scythians left no written language but striking artefacts have been recovered from their communal burial mounds. Priceless in every sense of the word are the jewellery and gold from the royal tombs in these underground necropolises. Two hundred fascinating artifacts from the Hermitage and the museums of Kiev and Azov were gathered together in an exhibition at the Vienna Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum) earlier this year. The exhibition has now moved to the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, as a companion to the exhibition of Hellenistic art from Asia titled Alexander the Great and the Opening of the World (http://www.alexander-der-grosse-2009.de/).

For Shakespeare the Scythians were barbaric savages. Later writers romanticised them as legendary ancient horsemen, the ancestors of the Russians or Germans, of the Scots or of the Cossacks. The Turks, too, and others covet a descent from the Scythians. The Scythians are believed to have ventured in ancient times at least as far south as Greece and Assyria but their origin has been shrouded in mystery. Hippocrates had claimed their women would have in their youth their right breast cauterised so that the strength went to the right shoulder, as young women fought much as men. The claim echoes legends about the mythical amazons who according to the Greeks lived in Asia and fought on the side of Troy in the Iliad. Theseus, the mythical hero of Athens, had married their queen Hippolyta, Achilles had fought with their queen Penthesilea, while Heracles had killed the Amazon Asteria. Fables in Greece abounded but curious burial mounds found in Thessaly may add some bones, if not flesh, to these tales. The burial mounds according to Michael Tellenbach, vice-director of the Museum, may have contained Scythian dead.

Aeschylus claims the Amazons once inhabited Scythian lands and Herodotus, too, draws a connection between the Scythians and the Amazons of Greek mythology. He relates a story that Scythian men were married to Amazons, giving rise to the race of the Sauromatians (the "lizard eyed", a people known in Roman times as the Sarmatians). Herodotus had travelled to the northern shores of the Euxine (the Black Sea) and had visited Olbia, a city near modern day Odessa, at that time a Greek colony, not far from the lands of the roaming Scythians. Herodotus´ almost fabulous descriptions of the Scythians resonate in the archaeological discoveries from the burial mounds. In fact Herodotus described the Scythian custom of burying the dead embalmed in burial mounds. He even located one of the most auspicious burial sites at the place where the Dnieper ceases being navigable, possibly in the region of Chertomlyk where indeed such graves have been found.

Among the simpler finds displayed in the exhibition is a large metallic cauldron believed to have been for the stirring of milk. Herodotus while describing some Scythian customs says "The milk thus obtained [from the mares] is poured into deep wooden casks, about which the blind slaves are placed, and then the milk is stirred round". Among the jewellery is a small cup-like item, once fitted to one end of a belt. Herodotus had written: "Scythians to this day wear goblets at their girdles". Herodotus also mentioned in his description of Scythian mythology "the gryphons, guardians of gold". Representations of the gryphon, a supernatural beast half eagle-half lion, abound in the golden ornaments on display. The most dazzling of these is a large golden pectoral from the royal grave in the Tolstaja Mogila kurgan. Fashioned by Greek goldsmiths, the large ornament worn by the Scythian king around his neck has astonishingly lifelike miniature representations of otherwise fantastical gryphons. Scythian cosmology is represented on the pectoral by three tiers with different themes. The outer tier of the "Inner Earth" shows gryphons, lions and dogs chasing or killing animals. The middle tier is the astral-cosmic sphere with mostly floral patterns. The inner tier is the inhabited world, represented here as free from strife with Scythian men and servants milking cows and tending to domesticated animals.

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Copyright © Museum für historische Kostbarkeiten der Ukraine

Aspects of Scythian mythology are present in many of the exhibits. There are simple 7-5th century ornaments with the Iranian divine boar, among much naturalistic artwork of deer, elk and horses. A 1st C AD vessel has mythological scenes with a river or sea with symbolic animals and human figures and is closed by a lid with twelve rays representing the sun.

Herodotus did not say much about these aspects of Scythian religion but mentions that the Scythians had a pantheon of gods similar to the Greek pantheon of the twelve gods of Olympus. He mentions their Scythian names and compares them to the Greek gods. The main god was Papaios, a name Herodotus finds eminently suitable as it is similar to the Greek word for "grandfather". Papaios ruled the skies while his consort Api was a personification of the earth (Gaia). In one of the most naive but also most mysterious items in the exhibition, Papaios is held up in the sky by the branches of a cosmic tree among flying eagles. Papaios and the eagles hold chains from which hung towards the earth bells, moons and stars. Animals attempt to climb the branches of the tree to reach the sky.

Many of the chronologically earlier items like Papaios and some shamanic items and early ornaments are made of bronze. By the 4th C BC, interaction with the Greek cities of the Black Sea is evident in a set of three extremely well preserved Greek bronze vessels (a large amphora and two hydriae) with beautiful decorations, including the head of Athena on one of the handles. There is also a bronze helmet in the Attic style.

From the 4th century BC onwards, gold becomes abundant and dominates the exhibition. Greek workmanship becomes also evident in the minute detail in many of the ornaments. One of the most remarkable of these items is a golden quiver (or gorytos) with a series of scenes from what may be a Greek story, perhaps the life of Achilles. The Greek story is surrounded by the astral-cosmic sphere with floral themes and that in turn with the sphere of the inner earth, the dominion of wild beasts and gryphons, "the guardians of the gold". The Inner Earth motif of gryphons or other beasts intertwined with their prey seems very popular, appearing in many other items, including jewellery and golden decorations from horse-harnesses.

Copyright © Museum für historische Kostbarkeiten der Ukraine

Where many of these items are found, in the Scythian lands of modern Ukraine, there are no gold mines. The gold appears to have been obtained from a distant source. Viktor Sarianidi (Viktor Sarigiannidis) a Greek archaeologist of Pontic descent, whose family like most Greeks of the USSR, was moved to Tashkent by Stalin, like a new Herodotus carried out an extensive research of bronze age settlements in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Described by Michael Wood as a "living legend" and "a man who was lucky enough to discover what others only dream off – a lost civilization", Sarianidi indeed found a bronze age culture in the deserts of central Asia in a place called Tillya-Tepe and a necropolis much like the Scythian burial mounds in Ukraine. Horses had been sacrificed and were buried also along with the royals to accompany them to the afterlife. In some graves even luxurious four wheeled carts had been burried. Thousands of golden items were found. These burial customs resemble closely those described by Herodotus for the Scythians of Europe.


According to Michael Tellenbach, there were several peoples, not just tribes, spanning a zone that began at the Altai mountains of Mongolia and reached the Danube in Europe. They spoke many different languages but had similar nomadic life styles, living on horseback and travelling with caravans, being constantly on the move like gypsies. Herodotus is most certain about the proper Scythians of modern Ukraine. Some of them were landed and grew cereals and other crops which they traded with the Greeks. Further east, however, lived the Royal Scythians and the Sauromatians of the steppes and tribes such as the Thyssagetans, Iyrcans, non-Skythian peoples and Scythian tribes that he leaves unnamed. But Herodotus does refer to a distant people who lived in a land even further east, in a country affected by climatic extremes, a land covered with snow most of the year where it rains only in the summer. He called these people the Sindhians. They may be related to the culture Viktor Sarianidi has discovered. A modern Sindhi language of Indo-Aryan origin is spoken in northern Pakistan and parts of India and has an old and significant literary tradition predating Islam. These peoples at the periphery of the Persian and later Hellenistic empires must have formed a chain that connected China and Mongolia with Europe. Their caravans must have brought the gold that the gryphons and lions guarded in the inner earth, as Herodotus says, beyond the inhabited world. There were gold deposits at the Altai mountains near the sites of Pazyryk and the "valley of kings" at Arzhan in Mongolia. From there the gold may have travelled westwards to Izzyk, Tillya Tepe and finally to Kul-Oba and the other main Scythian centres in modern western Ukraine and southern European Russia.

The most renowned among the Scythians were the Paralatae or Royal Scythians and the Sauromatians (Sarmatians). These tribes of the open steppe ruled among the Scythians. Herodotus admires them for one thing only, that they could not be conquered in battle as they had no cities or other significant settlements that could be taken by their enemies. They lived on horseback and so no army could harm them. This meant that both men and women had a similar lifestyle and it appeared that women also fought in battle as they were buried with weaponry such as spearheads and arrows. Golden swords were found in turquoise-studded golden scabbards, including a particularly spectacular golden scabbard gilded with scenes of wild beasts from the Inner Earth. Rich golden ornaments are on display, including filigree garment applications, finger-rings, earrings, belt buckles, perfume flasks, brooches, decorative plates and a diadem.

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Copyright © Museum für historische Kostbarkeiten der Ukraine

In later centuries, as the Sarmatians became dominant, the craftsmanship diminished or is imitated in larger ornaments with less skill. Precious stones, primarily turquoise but also lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnet and agate were embedded in the gold. Such ornaments of gold and precious stones adorned also the harnesses and bridles of the horses that were buried with the Sarmatian royals. A spectacular caparison for a horse is exhibited that contained over 9000 golden pieces. Excavations in a Scythian settlement in Ukraine indeed suggest that the Scythians and Sarmatians had also their own workshops where foreign or native craftsmen might have contributed something to the rich display of gold and jewellery in the exhibition.

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Copyright © Staatliche Eremitage St. Petersburg

Sarmatian armour was made of interleaved plates. Pausanias describes one such Sarmatian suit of arnour dedicated at an Athenian temple. The exhibition concludes with a dedication by a Greek legate of the city of Tanais (modern Azov). The dedication shows a horseman, perhaps the legate Tryphon himself, in Sarmatian plated armour (it reads ΤΡΥΦΩΝ ΑΝΔΡΟΜΕΝΟΥ ΑΝΕΘΗΚΑ; – dedicated by Tryphon the son of Andromenos). The Roman emperor Hadrian armed a cavalry company with plated armour, while 5500 cataphract Sarmatian horsemen are said to have been deployed in Great Britain by Marcus Aurelius. The Byzantine army also adopted the plated armour and it can be seen in Byzantine icons of St George and St Demetrius. This unique invention of the Scythians remained in use by the Byzantine army centuries after the last Scythian horsemen ruled the steppes.

Beyond their artistic beauty and historical insight they provide, these discoveries are important for the history of art for yet another reason. We know from the Scythian artefacts what we could have not known from Greek graves. The Greeks in historical times usually buried their dead plainly, but the Scythians arrayed them with their most precious possessions. These possessions sometimes turn out to be masterpieces of Greek craftsmanship, especially of the Greek goldsmiths in the cities of the Black Sea coast.

The exhibition marks a scientific cooperation between the great Russian and Ukrainian museums on a theme that is common to the folkloric origins of both nationalities. It is open until the 25th of May 2010

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