Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

A striking exhibition about a little-known people intrigues John Westbrooke

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The Scythians, subject of a new exhibition at the British Museum, are such a mysterious people that the museum suggests you might like to think of them as the original Dothraki, the fictitious warriors in Game of Thrones. The Scythians really existed, but we know remarkably little about them.

Who were they? Nomadic horsemen who controlled much of Eurasia, from north of the Black Sea all the way to northern China, between 800 and 200 BC. They were ferocious mounted archers, long before the eras of the Huns and Mongols, who beat the Persians and worried the Greeks. The Greek general Thucydides said that nobody would be able to withstand them if they were united.

They seem in fact to have been made up of many tribes, speaking Iranian dialects and following similar lifestyles, who only united when it was useful; the rest of the time they spent fighting against each other as well as the nations on which their territory bordered.

They left no writing, and no structures beyond burial mounds. So all we know of them comes from Greek and Persian writers, and from the excavation of graves, whose contents are often well preserved by the frigid Siberian climate. But they’d been almost forgotten by the time these were first found in the 18th century, on expeditions sent out by Peter the Great.

Among the treasures are a collection of gold belt-buckle ornaments, discovered on the expeditions and now held by the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, which has contributed handsomely to this exhibition. Nomads needed their possessions to be portable, and the well-off must have found gold a good way of ensuring this.

What do they show? Well … one is a “funerary scene”: a dead man lies cradled by a woman under a tree with a quiverful of arrows hanging in it, while another man sits by holding the reins of two horses. The caption notes: “It may be concerned with death and the renewal of all living things.” There are an impressive number of “maybes” in these captions, because we know so little of them and their religion. The woman, they think, is a goddess, and the tree is the tree of life.

There seem to be three sorts of animals in their metalwork, often attacking one another: birds of prey, hoofed herbivores and feline predators, which might imply a three-level world-view of heaven, earth and underworld. But it’s guesswork.

Who made it? Scythian craft workers, they think. Metal-working tools would have been portable enough. But different styles are in evidence: some seem to echo Chinese ornaments, complete with dragons, others Persian or Greek. It’s possible that Scythians had them made by craftsmen from settlements round the edges of their territory, where they may have stayed for a while on their seasonal wanderings; they might have paid for them, for instance, by trading captured slaves, and if necessary gone on to trade them in turn for pottery or wine that they were unable to make themselves.

They were nomads because the soil was thin, suited to grazing but not to farming, and the weather was often harsh; they needed to be able to pack up and move on, following their sheep, cattle, goats and horses, though they apparently had regular routes that took them back to grave sites.

The horses seem to have been their great love; prized ones might be killed and buried with their owners along with other precious items. They provided meat and drink (mare’s milk was a staple) as well as mobility in war. The Scythians developed harnesses and saddles – there’s a whole one on display here, its patterns somewhat faded after two millennia – but, surprisingly, not stirrups, which make riding a lot easier.

One gorgeous bridle on show, beautifully preserved after 2300 years, still has its straps and carved plaques showing eagles, rams and wolves, though the gold leaf that would once have covered them has gone. There’s also a funeral mask for a horse, topped with a ram’s head that’s topped with a cockerel, and evidently meant to turn it into a mythical beast to carry its master in the next world.

The humans are well preserved too. There’s a mummified head with pierced ear, and some leathery skin, covered in tattoos of real or mythical beasts; this seems to have been a Scythian specialty. Ancient historians said Scythians were bearded, but all the ones found have been clean shaven. However, a fake beard found in one tomb is on display, part of a burial ritual, maybe.

As well as beards and horses, the deceased might be accompanied by cooks, concubines and other people needed for the afterlife. And cheese, and nail clippings: there are some of them in the exhibition too. Even “maybe” sounds a little too assertive when you’re pondering nail clippings, but they might have protected the dead against something.

In life, they feasted and drank – overdoing it when they discovered Greek wine: the Greeks drank it with water, the Scythians neat, or even mixed with blood after swearing allegiance. They also got stoned. Graves have turned up hemp-smoking sets: it seems people threw hemp seeds onto hot stones under a mini-tent, stuck their heads in and, said the Greek historian Herodotus, howled with pleasure. Maybe it was medicinal. Maybe.

None of the tents they lived in have survived, but a collapsible table is on show, its legs elegantly turned by lathe. There’s a fine piece of body armour, along with axes and an intricately decorated scabbard, but also more perishable clothes: fur, felt, even beautifully embroidered women’s long socks.

The exhibition acknowledges that this is all a work in progress, a mixture of stunning discoveries that are still being made and imaginative speculation about what they might mean. In comparison with the well understood and solidly built worlds of Egypt and Greece, it’s tantalising to catch glimpses of the mysterious warrior nomads who once controlled the vast empty steppes of Siberia before vanishing into the mists of time.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is at the British Museum until 14 January 2018. Tickets £16.50, concessions available.