Scythians: A Succinct Survey

During one of my brief forays into the city I used to dwell in late last year, I decided, on a whim, to visit the British Museum’s latest exhibition – Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia. I had not intended to view the exhibition on that particular trip but a fortuitous turn of events occasioned an unexpected free morning and as I was in Bloomsbury anyway, I decamped from where I was to go to my former default location when free in London: the British Museum.

The Scythians exhibition provides a somewhat well-structured but non-chronological look into an ancient culture that, at least till the past century, has always been looked at through the eyes of the ancient Greeks for many. A nomadic peoples, and forerunners on the steppe of the Huns and Mongols, they roamed from north of the Black Sea, across Siberia and the northern reaches of Iran, to the vastness of what is now northern China around the first millennium BC.

The exhibition’s narrative is one that cleaves away from the usual caricature we see in popular culture of nomadic peoples – people that are bereft of cultural expression or lack a complex society, essentially, people that conform to the lower-end of the now-obsolete and reductionist model of civilisational advancement. One of the first items a visitor sees is an fantastically ornate piece of workmanship, similar to the one below:


Gold belt buckle. 4th to 3rd Century BC.


The above is a fantastic example of the sophisticated workmanship of the ancient Scythians. A belt buckle, it is an item that has yielded much interpretation and answers about the mythological beliefs that many Scythians may have held but it is the production process of the item that is more fascinating. The separate wax moulds used to create the overall item is something that was highlighted by the British Museum: various pieces focused more on the production process rather than interpretation and this was refreshing to see. Often, after the gold appliqués were cast, stones and gems were inlaid and after the piece was polished and finished, it must have looked glorious.

As one moves into the main exhibition, a certain amount of light is shed on the history of scholarship on the ancient Scythians and particularly on the process by which various Tsars consolidated laws on archaeological fieldwork from the 17th Century onwards as well as laws relating to the possession of Scythian artifacts. The Kunstkamera was commissioned by Peter the Great as Russia’s first dedicated Museum and the initial state collection of Scythian artefacts were kept there. Various engravings of the Kunstkamera by Grigory Anikeyevich Kachalov were on display near a glorious painting of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller in the late 17th Century lent by the Royal Collection specifically for this exhibition.


Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller given to the King of England during Peter’s tour of Europe.


A significant number of the items depicted animals, anthropomorphically or realistically to their perception, and it is clear that animals but particularly horses were central to many aspects of the lives of the Scythians. The colour palette on show as well as the range of styles and items display the vibrant culture of the Scythians: from fake beards to delicately woven multi-coloured cloth and ornate weaponry, the artistic range is breathtaking. Of course, the age old problem of thievery reared its ugly head at various points in the exhibition as we are told that various tombs were cleared out both in the past few centuries as well as in antiquity.

The cultural contacts with the Achamaenids, Chinese, Greek and other peoples are emphasised, not least in a few items and vases that displayed much cultural and artistic transference. One especially fortunate accident of nature and geography meant that a piece of ancient cheese preserved by the environment it was in, was on display as well!! That a culture left an unwritten past is confounding to modern viewers as well as our need to know more about the past but the exhibition display is fantastically detailed and the items themselves form a rich narrative about the lives of Scythians, their artistic, cultural and ritualistic inclinations that leave the viewer just about sated but yearning for more.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and there was much more on display than I could write here about. I believe it closes in a few days time but it is absolutely worth seeing. I honestly thought nothing could top the ‘Flaming June’ exhibition at Leighton House earlier last year in 2017 as my favourite exhibition of 2017 but this Scythians one did.



Images are for review purposes only.



Southbank Mosaics

Late last year, I decided to undertake a class for beginners in making mosaics at Southbank Mosaics, a not-for-profit social enterprise located in St.John’s Crypt, South Bank, London. They run courses all year round that last several weeks, targeted towards differing levels of experience. The courses tend to be run by tutors at the social enterprise but occasionally, artists or tutors from elsewhere will occasionally run courses*.

The mosaics course ran for two and a half hours a day, one day a week for six weeks. It was a beginners course but there were two or three other participants in the class who were more advanced, and received their training from the tutor (Paula) accordingly. I had learnt, to some minor degree, how to make a mosaic piece whilst volunteering at Southbank Mosaics earlier but that was only the direct method whereas the indirect method was to be taught in the class. All throughout the classes, Paula was a fantastic tutor whose teaching was fantastic. Providing steady advice, she was always on hand whenever I made an unfortunate mistake.

Prior to the class starting, all participants had to choose a design or image from which they would draw inspiration or try to replicate, in our own way. As I was reading on Xenia paintings at the time (Xenia was a theme of still life displaying hospitality in ancient art) I gravitated towards images of seafood and fruits displayed in Roman paintings or mosaics. The actual image I used in the end is linked here which I cannot display in this blog for licensing reasons. It turns out however, that the image of the fish is from a later period than I thought it was, and the imagery points towards some christian themes, perhaps,  rather than that of Xenia (a mistake I made in haste). The mosaic in question comes from the House of Eustolios on the floor, Kourion, Cyprus, mid 4th Century AD. The Mosaic I made is:


Using the indirect method, I glued mosaics onto a piece of kraft paper that was the same size of the wooden board that forms the base of the above piece. Of course, this was preceded by hours of cutting and sizing the tesserae that I used in the piece which included ceramic and vitreous glass. In drawing inspiration from the image of the fish I linked to earlier, I also wanted to replicate, in this rather unorthodox context, the black background seen in the Third Style of Roman paintings, particularly from the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase which I really adore.


In choosing the colours, I thought inverting the background would be interesting as well as choosing a colour palette for the fish that was either ostentatious (an exotic fish) or reminiscent of colours from one or two abstract mosaics.


As you may have made out, the laying style is a smorgasbord of differing types. Typically, we were told to lay in the style of Opus Tesselatum where tesserae are arranged horizontally but not in a grid, which I believe is particularly effective for the mosaic I made, so as to display movement and depth. However, due to time constraints brought about by my less-than-average skill at making mosaics, there were times when I had to resort to Opus Regualatum where tesserae are arranged in a grid-like manner. Opus Tesselatum is displayed below:



Of course, there are imperfections, but for the most part, a good portion of the background in the above picture is done in the Opus Tesselatum style, whereas the image below show a large amount of Opus Regulatum laying style which is easier to do in a hurry:


After the tesserae were laid onto the kraft paper, black cement was applied to a wooden board the same dimensions as the kraft paper, after which the mosaic was placed over the cement and pressed down into it. After drying for a reasonable amount of time, the kraft paper was removed and grout was used to fill in the gaps between the tesserae. After more time to dry, the almost-completed mosaic was lightly scrubbed with a sponge to remove dust and other imperfections that had accumulated on the surface during the process of mounting the mosaic onto the wooden base.

I found the classes really quite interesting and helpful as well as an experience worth pursuing. I am glad with the mosaic I came away with. More information about Southbank Mosaics can be found here.


*Occasionally, a tutor from the renowned Spilimbergo Mosaic School will teach courses on the actual methods used by the Romans.

p.s. Southbank Mosaics also have a replica of the Alexander Mosaic, made by the staff and volunteers at Southbank Mosaics. They have also partially filled in the areas of the left of the mosaic which have been lost to posterity. It is worth seeing!!