Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia
British Museum, 2nd November 2017
I have been bowled over by most of the recent exhibitions I have seen at the British Museum, covering the history of Sicily, the art of South Africa, US modernist art printmaking, (The American Dream at the British Museum review ****), British Watercolour art (British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review ****) and the culture of the Celts. I am also, as the preponderance of glowing “reviews” on this blog testifies, pretty easily pleased. I like to think I have discerning taste in what I choose to see and am open-minded. The reality is I am childishly indiscriminate.
So based on past experience and the reviews I was looking forward to this exhibition. I dredged up what I knew about the Scythians from my early teens as a speccy, bookish, solitary swot who had a brief fascination with ancient history (yes I did play wargames, on boards, before we have computers kids). Good with horses, large empire ranging over big chunks of Northern Asia, pointy hats, gold. I remember I quite liked the idea of them though I might have got confused with Parthians. Mind you so did Kit Marlowe whose Timburlaine the Great is portrayed as Scythian when he was obvs Turkic-Mongolian.
Anyway turns out Siberia was their manor. It also turns out that Siberia is not the snowy tundra, forests, god-forsaken Soviet compounds and mining desolation of popular imagination. At least not when the Scythians were in charge from 900 BCE to 200 BCE. They were nomadic yes, old Siberia wasn’t that hospitable, but they had a rich culture, with fancy threads (squirrel coat anyone?) and luxury tombs (kurgans), and they were a match for anyone else on the planet when it came to art fashioned from gold. especially when that art was based on animals. And especially when those animals were their beloved horses. You know when someone is said to be a bit “horsey, in that they are so keen on Dobbin. Well these Scythians were pretty much indistinguishable from their clippety-cloppety friends. They were even buried with them. They were also very handy with bow and arrow. from atop their horse. Lethal.
They were, even at their territorial height, a loose confederation of peoples and tribes, with Western and Eastern arms, with no state apparatus as such, primarily defined by their Greek and Persian neighbours. In one of the more fascinating insights from the exhibition though, they could trade at scale, in goods, grain and, it seems, people. It seemed they acted as the trading glue between Greece, Persia, India and China who all went on to bigger and better things. In fact it seems that, by around 500 BCE, these Scythian lads may have had a capital in Ukraine bigger than any other settlement anywhere in the world at that time.
They were also not shy of getting stuck into Middle Eastern affairs, controlling parts of modern Iran, knocking on the door of Egypt and fighting with the Assyrians and the first Achaemenid Empire (that’s the Persians to you and me). Whilst this is described by the exhibition I am not sure that the warring history of these people is fully brought to life. Nor therefore is the way in which in the Ancient, and even Early Medieval, worlds the “Scythian” came to symbolise all warlike, Barbarian outsiders. That’s Greek propaganda for you. Old Shakespeare has a Scythian nibbling on his kids in King Lear. Stravinsky had them writhing around in The Rite of Spring, probably the most important piece of music in Western culture.
What are undeniably fascinating though are the remnants of Scythian culture that do survive precisely because of chilly places they frequented. Weapons, saddles and harnesses, fabrics, clothing, a giant coffin, some cheese and, in eye-catching fashion, bits of tattooed skin and a bashed in head, have survived through freezing, (I got a bit lost on the exact science of preservation). To add to the alarm it seems sacrifice, a lot of booze and a bit of reefer played a big role in Scythian culture. They even, in a Pythonesque twist, seemed to wear false beards. These artefacts, together with the metalwork, largely in gold, and with clear links to craftsmanship in China, India and Greece, are the highlight of the exhibition. I think a majority of the most interesting exhibits come courtesy of the State Historical Museum in Moscow so Спасибо. We see how carefully Russia’s past rulers have treasured these objects, once they realised they came from their own predecessors.
Eventually these mighty warriors got battered by Macedonians and old rivals the Sarmatians in the West (and eventually subsumed into the Slavic world), and, in the East, by various nomadic sorts so that they ended up in the bits of what is now North West China that no-one else cared about. Always the way. Mighty nation goes downhill and disappears (though rarely self-inflicted through arrogant exceptionalism writ large by facile plebiscite).
So another piece of stunning scholarship, adept curating and generous lending from those flipping “experts” here and in Russia. A leisurely couple of hours is all it takes to bring to life an entire world which, at its peak, was the largest, and one of the most important, in the world. I would have liked just a little on how the “Scythian” impacted contemporary and later culture but I guess the team rightly, didn’t want to detract from the objects. Makes sense if you’ve got a skull with an axe hole in it.
The exhibition runs until January 14th. Perfect material for a Christmas family outing I would have thought.