The British Museum's Scythians exhibition brings Siberian nomadic warriors to life in vivid and surprising detail.
2,500 years ago nomadic tribes roamed the lands from southern Russia to China and the northern Black Sea. These formidable warriors and exceptional horsemen were feared and admired – but over time forgotten. As nomads, no city ruins remain, and no Scythian written records survive. All that was known about them up until the 18th Century was through the writings of Herodotus, the 5th-century BC Greek.
The Scythians would have dropped out of history altogether, were it not for the 18th century discovery of their burial mounds in the high Altai Mountains. From these tombs, archaeologists have been able to piece together the story of a people who revolutionised warfare and produced a surprising artistic heritage.
This magnificent British Museum exhibition tells this story by weaving together objects from archaeological finds that include exquisite golden jewellery, ornate horse bridles, tattooed skin, lumps of cheese as well as nail clippings - all beautifully preserved by the permafrost in which they were buried. And what a thrilling journey of discovery it is.
The Scythians were great and ferocious warriors and were constantly at war with neighbouring tribes. They fought the Cimmerians on the edge of the Black Sea; they invaded Media in Iran, they took on the Egyptians in 7th Century and did forays into what is now modern Turkey, and into the Caucasus.
'There is no people who would be able on its own to withstand the Scythians, if they were united'. - Thucydides
Their military might was in part due to the innovations they introduced in weaponry and in part due to their superb horsemanship, which they combined to deadly effect, firing bronze-tipped armour piercing arrows from horseback. In fact, Scythian warriors venerated their weapons and horses so much that they were buried with them.
A Scythian horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood found in a burial tomb
Women fought alongside their men and were often buried with their weapons and horses and it is thought that Scythian women inspired the idea of the Amazons.
The Scythians also enjoyed the good life, eating and drinking well. Every year, according to Herodotus, the governor of a Scythian province would prepare a massive bowl of wine. If a warrior had killed an enemy, he was allowed one huge cup. If he had slain more than one, he got two cups. But if he hadn't killed anyone, they were given nothing. Most surprisingly, there is evidence that they used recreational drugs to get high. The exhibition includes a tent that Scythians used for inhaling hemp seeds just as in Herodotus' account:
'On a framework of three sticks, meeting at the top they stretch pieces of woollen cloth, taking care to get the joins as perfect as they can, and inside this little tent, they put a dish with red-hot stones in it. Then they take some hemp seed...and throw the seed on to the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed...The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure' - Herodotus
Despite their blood thirsty nature, the Scythians were fastidious about their appearance as evidenced by the exquisite clothing and textiles on show including a pair of blush coloured felt tights with intricate embroidered tops, a natty squirrel fur jacket and intricate golden belt buckles.
If you get the chance, go and get face to face with the Scythians at this extraordinary and revelatory show. If you can't get to the show, we have the exhibition catalogue for you.
Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is at the British Museum, London W1 (020 7323 8181) 14 September 2017 - 14 January 2018.