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.