Scythians: the art of war

For most of the first millennium BC, the steppe between the Black Sea and China was the domain of Scythians – fierce nomadic warriors who were also adept metalworkers, wood-carvers and painters. St John Simpson, curator of Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, a new exhibition at the British Museum, reveals what the finest pieces tell us about this little-known people. This article first appeared in issue 6 of BBC World Histories.

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Gold plaque of a mounted Scythian, c400–350 BC

This tiny plaque (main picture) was sewn onto clothing as a decorative element; originally rectangular, it was later trimmed to emphasise the outline of the warrior. It is in Greek style but shows a Scythian man with long hair, beard, moustache, trousers, soft shoes and a belted jacket adorned with tiny circles – an attempt to show decorative elements similar to this plaque itself. It was unearthed from the Kul-Oba kurgan (Scythian burial mound) in eastern Crimea, first excavated in 1830, in which a Scythian king was buried with his wife or concubine, a slave and a glittering hoard of gold ornaments.

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Gold plaque showing Scythians drinking, 400–380 BC

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This tiny plaque was one of a large number sewn along the seams of trousers worn by a Scythian chief buried in the Solokha kurgan on the Dnieper river, in what’s now eastern Ukraine. It depicts two kneeling Scythian men sharing a drinking horn, the contents of which would undoubtedly have been wine. The Black Sea Scythians imported large quantities of wine from the Greeks. Like most other artefacts in this article, this plaque is part of the vast  collection in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Headgear crest, late fourth/early third century BC

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This finely carved piece was found in a coffin in a burial mound in the Pazyryk valley in the Altai Mountains. It formed part of the buried man’s headgear, which would have consisted of a felt cap decorated with pieces of leather showing animal combat scenes and topped with this wooden crest. Visible damage can be made out; this is ancient, and corresponds to fatal wounds on the man’s head, implying that he was wearing this headgear during his final hours.

Woman’s leather shoe, late fourth/early third century BC

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This heavily decorated shoe must have been a prized possession of the woman interred in a burial mound at Pazyryk. It’s made from red leather embellished with gold and tin, and the sole is ornamented with tiny beads and pyrite crystals stitched into the leather. The effect must have been particularly striking when the woman sat cross-legged on the floor of her tent.

Gold belt plaque, fourth or third century BC

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This expertly worked piece depicts a man’s corpse, his head cradled by a seated female figure wearing a tall headdress that appears to be interwoven with the branches of the tree above. Alongside the tree sits another figure tending a pair of horses, while a quiver hangs above the dead body. Many of the items depicted are identical to actual excavated objects. This plaque is one of the most famous gold items from the Siberian collection acquired by Peter the Great from around 1715, most of them taken from ancient burial mounds in western Siberia and the Altai mountains over the preceding years.

Wood and leather shield, fifth or fourth century BC

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This well-preserved shield, also found in the Pazyryk valley, was made by threading wooden sticks through slits in dark leather, and painting parts of them red. Such shields, mainly used by horsemen, had to be light and reasonably small. When found in burials, they are usually strapped to the saddles of horses interred with a dead owner. Despite their apparent fragility, experiments show that such shields would have been highly effective at stopping arrows. The Scythians were expert archers, and developed a powerful new type of bow with layered wood and sinew.

Bag for cheese, late fourth/early third century BC

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Lumps of cheese were found in two of the burial mounds excavated at Pazyryk. Scientific analysis has not determined the source of the milk but it could have been from sheep, goat, cow, yak or a combination; cheese-making was a traditional practice among the pastoral nomads of the Altai and surrounding regions. This leather bag, which contained cheese (pictured below) when discovered, was decorated on the outside with an overlapping coloured fur pattern.
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Painted plaster death mask, late third/early fourth century AD

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This mask, excavated in the Minusinsk region, southern Siberia and painted in imitation of facial tattoos, probably intended to preserve the dead woman’s looks into the afterlife. The mask belongs to a post-Scythian culture that developed in the Minusinsk basin and which had close connections with northern China.

Horse headgear, late fourth/early third century BC

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This spectacular object was made to be worn by one of the personal horses buried with its owner in a burial mound at Pazyryk. It is sewn from felt and leather, and topped with a ram’s head with a detachable bird standing between its horns. The peak of the mask is decorated with seven fish made of gold foil. These were symbolic rather than everyday items, made for the afterlife. Horses were commonly sacrificed by Scythians and buried with high-status individuals.

Gold lion-griffin ornament, fifth/fourth century BC

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This object was found in the 1870s at a site on the present Tajik/Afghan border; at the time this piece was created, the area was part of the eastern Achaemenid Persian empire. The ornament depicts a mythical beast with a horned lion’s head and wings, a pair of long prongs sprouting from its back. Its style is similar to that of Scythian objects found in southern Siberia, and it was probably worn at the base of a tall headdress.

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St John Simpson is senior curator responsible for the British Museum’s pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia