Dothraki Horse Lords, Embroidered Leggings and Poisoned Arrows: Scythians Stun at the BM.
The Scythians were a nomadic people, a civilisation of horse-riding warriors who came to prominence some 2500 years ago between 900 and 200 BC. Their territory encompassed a vast swathe of land, including the western and central Eurasian steppes, reaching as far as the Black Sea. They seem to have been a persistent threat to the Greek and Persian empires, a scourge on their towns and borders. They were a race particularly known for their poisoned arrows, which were so numerous and deadly that they could block out the sun in battle (according to one Ancient Greek text). In fact, their reputation as fearsome raiders provided George R. R. Martin with the inspiration for the Dothraki horse-lords in his now infamous Game of Thrones series.
Yet despite their extensive war-mongering, much of the culture, customs, and daily lives of these nomadic riders still poses a mystery to modern scholarship, so little of their civilisation survives to the present day. The British Museum’s latest exhibition attempts to remedy this. Their collaboration with the Hermitage in St Petersburg brings together a stunning collection of Scythian artefacts and material culture. These include ornately-crafted jewellery, studded with gold, gems, and lapis lazuli, representing birds and terrifying beasts from the underworld; the remains of bows, sheaths, arrows, and armour; and an array of delicate textiles and clothing, including headdresses, squirrel fur coats, wall hangings and a particularly fetching pair of embroidered leggings, preserved in the Siberian permafrost. There are death masks of a man and woman, too fragile to be removed from their decomposing disembodied heads, as well as a large tomb, constructed from enormous wooden beams, in which two mummified corpses were found. We’re even shown evidence of ancient Scythian drug culture, in the remains of a fanned device apparently used to burn and inhale hemp (it’s amusing to note how tactfully the curation deals with this particular find).
The museum has worked hard to immerse its visitors in the world in which the Scythians might once have lived. Huge photographs of the bleak skies and landscape of Siberia frame the walls of the exhibition, acting as an effective backdrop to the artefacts and objects in their glass cases. Maps revealing the extent of the territory they controlled are included too. In one notable section, a floor-to-ceiling length screen plays an animation of a band of Scythian warriors riding their horses on the plains of the Steppe. There’s also a useful focus on the circumstances surrounding the initial discovery of the exhibition’s artefacts (an account of some of the earliest archaeological excavations in history), the objects’ appropriation by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great during the seventeenth century, and their subsequent housing in St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum.
However, there are a couple of issues with this exhibition, which are important for visitors to consider. The Scythians did not possess their own literary culture, so no first-hand accounts of the substance of their daily lives exist (the exhibition’s curators are upfront about this problem). The immediate consequence of this is that, while the objects and artefacts on display are beautifully preserved, it’s actually very difficult for the onlooker to reconstruct or imagine an extended context in which they might have been used. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the exhibition doesn’t provide a clear chronology, either for the 700-year history of the Scythian peoples or the artefacts themselves. We’re left with many questions at the end of our foray into this civilisation. For example, when and how did the Scythians develop their system and principles of art? What kinds of tools were they using that they could create such minutely detailed and engraved items? What manner of trade did they engage in? What was the role of women in this nomadic society? What was the iconographic significance of the creatures that dominate their golden artefacts? Such questions are admittedly difficult to answer with any certainty, but it is frustrating that the exhibition does not attempt to offer its visitors an interpretation or engage effectively with the many exciting contextual possibilities that they prompt.
In addition, the exhibition’s representation of the Scythians and their collective identity is rather flawed, mainly because it assumes that these nomadic, horse-riding tribes who did not found any permanent settlements (that we know of) and whose ‘territory’ stretched far larger than that of any contemporary empire or kingdom, existed as a unified nation or people. The curators have lined the walls of their exhibition with quotations from the classical historian Herodotus, who wrote a colourful but often inaccurate account of the history of the Greeks and peoples of the Near East, including the Scythians themselves. Even if we accept the validity of Herodotus as a source, can we be sure that the bands of warriors whom he describes were the same people who occupied the Steppe on the other side of the continent, or if the two groups even had a relationship or knew the other existed? At the very least, such an assumption of homogeneity risks masking the potential nuances or details that might have at originally distinguished one tribe from another.
Despite concerns with its scholarly approach to the material displayed, the British Museum’s Scythian exhibition is still one to visit for anyone interested in the history of classical civilisation: it represents an opportunity to examine a collection of beautiful artefacts that rarely leave the confines of Russia, and it provides some insight, however superficial, into a culture that we still know so little about and rarely engage with in public discussion.