The Greeks called them Scythians, the Assyrians and Achaemenid Persians called them Saka. We know them only through their lavish funeral remains. Ahead of a major exhibition at the British Museum, St John Simpson unravels the fascinating story of this mysterious people.
Between the 9th and 2nd centuries BC, a nomadic people made up of many different tribes thrived across a vast region that stretched from the borders of northern China and Mongolia, through southern Siberia and northern Kazakhstan, as far as the northern reaches of the Black Sea. Collectively they were known by their Greek name: the Scythians. They spoke Iranian languages, and the Persians distinguished between them by the shape of their hats and their lifestyles. But debate still rages over their origins, and how far the subtle variations in surviving material culture reflect different tribes or chronological distinctions.
At the beginning of the 18th century, explorers in southern Siberia found gold grave-goods in some of the ancient burial mounds that dotted the landscape. When the news reached Peter the Great (1672-1725), he decreed that all finds be sent to him, and within a decade had amassed a huge collection. Though the age of these gold objects was unknown, it was proof that past people of this region were exceptionally skilled craftsmen with complex cultural traditions. The finds, displayed in the Kunstkamera – Russia’s first museum, established by Peter – and later in the Hermitage Museum, prompted the earliest scientific expeditions in the region, and Russian archaeology was born.
A century later, more spectacular discoveries of Scythian gold in large burial mounds in the northern Black Sea led to the – erroneous – assumption that this was the Scythian heartland. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, further expeditions revealed earlier sites in the Tuva region of southern Siberia. Here, too, were exceptionally well-preserved organic remains, trapped in frozen tomb chambers, this time below burial mounds in the high Altai Mountains, close to the modern Russian borders with Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. Though archaeological expeditions continue to explore sites across the Scythian territories, being nomads, their only traces are rock art and thousands of burial mounds over sunken tomb chambers.
It is in this eastern region that ancient tribes began to develop more efficient ways of riding horses, which increased their ability to move bigger herds to new grazing grounds over larger distances. At about 900 BC, a new culture had developed which shared similar types of horse harness, weaponry, and a distinctive type of art known as Animal Style. These designs show contorted figures of naturalistic and fantastic beasts locked in combat.
The latest archaeological excavations show that the origins of this culture lie in southern Siberia. It then spread along the almost uninterrupted, wide grassy corridor of rich pasture that extends from Mongolia and northern China along the border with Kazakhstan, and reached the northern Black Sea during the 7th century BC. The 5th century BC Greek writer Herodotus wrote that the Scythian tribes he met there had come ‘from the east’, adding that they had pushed local Cimmerian people out of the Caucasus and invaded parts of the Middle East. Late Assyrian and Achaemenid sources add some additional references and depictions, but it is the archaeological evidence from Scythian tombs that is the richest source of information.
The essential Scythian dress was developed in response to their need to ride comfortably yet survive in all weathers in a rugged environment. It was for that reason that proper trousers were made, and worn with short tunics secured with one or more belts, to which essential tools and weapons were attached. There were local differences, though, and teasing these out is the result of ongoing archaeological research.
In the high Altai mountain region near the modern borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia, the frozen subsoil has ensured organic remains buried with the dead are preserved in the permafrost. During the 1940s, for example, Russian excavations here in a small valley called Pazyryk uncovered five large burial mounds that, though looted in the past, still contained amazingly well-preserved organic remains because the ground below the mounds never defrosted.
Scythians went to great efforts to preserve the appearance of the bodies using a local form of mummification. The ‘frozen tombs’ of the Altai have preserved these very well, and show that they took care to remove the brain matter and as much soft tissue as possible, before stuffing the bodies with dry grass and sewing up the skin.
All of the frozen bodies examined so far had also been heavily tattooed during their lifetimes. Physical anthropological analysis of the human remains confirms that these populations had a tough life, with frequent evidence consistent with heavy falls, probably from horseriding accidents, as well as signs of interpersonal violence.
The need to pack up easily and move according to the seasons means that a nomad’s personal possessions have to be portable and robust. The Scythians were no different, and the objects they buried with their dead are generally small or lightweight. These include small drinking flasks and wooden bowls that rested in felt ring place-mats.
There was no real furniture in this world, and the few surviving tables are low and come apart so that they could be easily stowed. Thick floor coverings were essential, though, and this explains the sheepskins, felt rugs, and an exceptional imported pile carpet found in tombs at Pazyryk.
Many other items were made of organic materials such as felt, cloth, leather, and horn. These resources were plentiful side-products of their herding economy, and the ‘frozen tombs’ include capes with false sleeves, clothing with gold appliqué, highly ornate footwear, and even decorated felt stockings. The Scythian craftsmen were also good at metalworking and used different techniques to work gold, bronze, and iron: none required large amounts of equipment, and Siberia is rich in metal ore, but it did require skill, and the excavated finds prove that they were sometimes as accomplished as their sedentary neighbours.
Herodotus states that feasting was an important part of Scythian funeral ceremonies, and this reflects an important means of social bonding. Greek authors also wrote that the Scythians, like the Persians, liked to drink to excess. Typically, they consumed fermented mares’ milk (koumiss), though in the Black Sea region they enjoyed imported Greek wine. As pastoral nomads, they relied heavily on milk, butter, and cheese, particularly during spring and summer, and the remains of cheese have even survived in a tomb at Pazyryk.
As herders, they had easy access to meat. Herodotus stated that the Scythians boiled their meat in cauldrons or bags, and that they used the bones as fuel. This may seem strange, but there is an early prehistoric tradition of using greasy or fatty bones as fuel. Experimental archaeology shows that mixed bone and wood fires significantly increase combustion time, and therefore extend limited wood-fuel resources; bone fuel also generates heat and light with little smoke, and would have been ideal for drying and curing hides, as well as within tents or other enclosed spaces. Other experiments show that cooking in a paunch is possible – though actual finds suggest that metal cauldrons were common.
Analysis of the human remains reveal some people suffered from toothache and gastrointestinal infections caused by bovine tuberculosis, a condition that reflects continued exposure to infected animal hosts. Symptoms range from high temperatures to diarrhoea, and were probably relieved by drinking large quantities of koumiss – the most effective treatment for tuberculosis in Russia before antibiotics were discovered.
Some unfortunates suffered more serious ailments. Evidence shows that the 40- to 50-year-old ‘king’ buried at Arzhan-2 in the Tuva region of southern Siberia had prostate cancer, and would have spent his last months bedridden. This is not the only instance of such a disease: an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of the remains of a 20-year-old Scythian woman found at Ak-Alakha 3 in the Altai region showed she was in the terminal stages of breast cancer when she incurred injuries consistent with a bad fall from a horse. She was buried with a brazier containing charred hemp, suggesting the Scythians recognised the numbing effect of the smoke.
This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 84 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.