Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum

I didn’t know much about the Scythians – Siberian nomads who roamed from Mongolia to the Ukraine from around 800 to 200BC – before this exhibition.

Not that it’s any excuse, but they pretty much disappeared from history until their artefacts started being rediscovered in the 18th century by expeditions sent to Siberia by Peter the Great.

This exhibition certainly dispels the myth that nomadic people lack art or culture. A stunning selection of gold belt buckles, mostly depicting nature red in tooth and claw (a vulture mauling a yak and tiger, a leopard attacking an elk) were, unsurprisingly, snapped up by Peter the Great for his personal collection (most of the exhibits in this show are on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg). Gold plaques also decorated weapons and even clothing.

Scythian belt buckle
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

A beautiful piece of body armour consists of overlapping metal scales sewn onto a leather vest – only the upper edges are sewn so as not to restrict movement. By contrast, their shields were essentially made of basketry – wooden sticks threaded with leather!

But what is particularly interesting about this exhibition is the number of textiles on display. There are very few 2,300-year-old textiles that have survived, but in the Scythian burial mound site at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia, snow and rain entered the tomb chambers and froze permanently, preserving the contents.

And guess what – there’s a lot of felt! A large felt hanging that once lined the coffin chamber has an appliqué border of roaring lions’ heads, while a pair of felt stockings is also decorated with appliqué felt strips and wool embroidery.

scythian felt stockings

More prosaically, there are felt rings used to steady the base of round-bottomed drinking vessels, made from twisted strips of felt and sewn with sinew threads.

My favourite felt object was a swan, with a strikingly curved neck and drooping wings; it was probably a decoration for a headpiece or even a horse mask.

scythian felt swan
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Because horses were so important to the Scythians (being the main form of transport as well as providing meat, milk and hide), the animals were buried alongside their masters so that they could carry them to the next world. Decorations on show include a felt mane cover with leather appliqué cockerels, a felt and leather horse mask topped by a ram’s head with a cockerel between its horns, and elaborate bridles covered in gold foil.

scythian felt horse mask
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Some intricate stitched pieces have also survived, including a decorated shoe with pyrite crystals perforated with holes less than 1mm across, and a stunning embroidery of a rearing winged bull.

scythian shoe
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

On decorated belts, some of the stitches have been wrapped in tin leaf to resemble silver.

Analysis of some of the remains has also shown what was used for dyeing – a woollen skirt fragment was dyed with madder and red dye from the crushed bodies of kermes insects (rather like cochineal), indigo, sorrel and tannin.

But it wasn’t just the clothes and belongings that were preserved by the permafrost. In the Altai Mountains the ground was too hard to dig graves except in the summer, so bodies were preserved by mummification. The organs were removed and replaced with horsehair, pine needles and larch cones, then sewn up with sinews. The exhibition displays the head of a tribal chief, teeth intact, along with some of his heavily tattooed skin. Nice!

Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia runs at the British Museum until 14 January 2018.

 

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3 thoughts on “Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum”

  1. I would like to see that exhibit. I have seen the photos online before but that is certainly not the same thing as seeing it in person. My favorite is the swan too.

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