Thursday 20 September 2007
In ancient Greece, the Scythians were at first known as mysterious “milkers of mares”. To Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet, the Scythian mounted archers crossing Palestine to raid Egypt were “midnight people”.
Detailed reports about the rider-nomads came only some 2,500 years ago from the widely travelled Greek historian Herodotus.
Now a major archeological exhibition offers an exhaustive overview of the life and history of the enigmatic tribes that ruled the steppes in Eastern Europe and Asia for more than 500 years BC and had a little-known but highly developed culture. Museums and institutes in eight European and Asian countries worked together in preparing the impressive show at Berlin’s Martin Gropius building. Many objects on display have never been shown in the West, among them magnificent samples excavated only in recent years.
The show’s title, Under the Sign of the Golden Griffin: the Royal Graves of the Scythians, refers to Herodotus’ claim that they originated in a “Land of the Gold-Guarding Griffins”. The griffin, a mythological animal with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle, can be seen on many artifacts recovered by archeologists.
However, Herodotus made scarce mention of the enormous amounts of gold, silver, bronze and electrum (a gold and silver alloy) that the Scythians wore and used, and which are now fascinating exhibition visitors.
The show was triggered by a sensational find made by a German-Russian team between 2001 and 2003 on a southern Siberian plain popularly known as the Valley of the Kings. In one of untold burial mounds in the region, the team excavated the grave of a royal couple in a chamber three metres deep containing a vast amount of gold objects. It was a unique discovery because grave robbers, known to have been active since antiquity, obviously abandoned search of this mound after uncovering other chambers that were empty.
Many of the artifacts from this find are on view at the exhibition. They range from a neck ring weighing a little over three pounds to more than 5,000 tiny golden figurines of panthers decorating the capelike mantles of the prince and his wife.
The German Archeological Institute compared the importance of the find to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 near Luxor, Egypt, in what is also known as the Valley of the Kings.
Research established that the prince died of prostate cancer in the 7th century BC. The much younger and healthy wife showed no traces of violence. But given the Scythians’ horrifying funerary ritual described by Herodotus, she hardly died of natural causes. That ritual demanded that the widow, aides and servants must immediately follow the prince or king into death. The same applied to the horses.
The skeletons of 41 slain men and women and the remains of 14 horses, all strangled or killed with battle axes, were found in other chambers of the burial mound. The funeral ceremony also included the smoking of marijuana, according to research verifying an observation already made by Herodotus.
Last year, a German-Russian-Mongolian team made another spectacular find in the permafrost of the Mongolian side of the Altai Mountains near the Russian border. In a stone-covered mound, the archeologists discovered the frozen remains of a Scythian warrior who died some 2,500 years ago. The partly mummified, completely clothed warrior is also displayed at the exhibition, his armament and other equipment well preserved.
The man wore a sable-rimmed fur coat and woolen trousers and his legs were stuck in boots made of felt similar to the grey blanket on which he was lying. His headdress, still to be restored, was decorated with wooden animal figurines originally covered with gold foil. The excellent preservation of the clothing permits detailed scientific research.
The “Golden Man of Issyk”, discovered in the 1970s in Kazakhstan, is also a main attraction at the show. It is the life-size reconstruction of the clothing of a youth whose corpse was literally strewn with jewelry and thousands of plates and platelets of gold.
A golden pectoral of compelling beauty found in 1971 and lent by the Ukrainian National Museums is sure to be an eye-catcher, too. A photograph of it makes the cover the detailed exhibition catalogue.
The show gives proof of the fabulous wealth the Scythians amassed by controlling important east-west trade routes. But it leaves unanswered the question how such highly detailed golden masterpieces could be created with simple hand tools.
The Golden Comb from the fabled “Siberian Collection” of Peter the Great at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum is a dazzling example of such masterly goldsmithing.
The Russian Czar was the first among European Royalty to appreciate Scythian art and begin an important collection in the early 18th century. This started a bit of archeological research which was scientifically intensified only some 50 years ago.
The show will move to Munich next month and then to Hamburg in 2008. Several major items, including the famous golden comb, will return to the lenders at the end of the Berlin run.