Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is the culmination of this year’s celebration of 1917 Russian Revolution and Russian art and culture in the UK. The exhibition was organised by the British Museum in joint collaboration with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. It simultaneously provides a glimpse into the enigmatic nomadic civilisation of the Steppe and pays tribute to Russian discoveries and research initiated by the Tsar Peter the Great, founder of Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkamera. Scientists and archaeologists are continuing to discover more about these warriors and bring their stories back to life.
And there can be no mistake: the memory of Scythians lives on even in our modern world: apparently, they were the inspiration behind the bloodthirsty, horse-riding nomadic warriors, the Dothraki, in the the Game of Thrones books and TV series. Moreover, a great number of ethnic groups living today claim to be the descendants of the Scythians, such as the Ossetians, Pashtuns , the Hungarians (in particular, the Jassics). In the course of history, the Parthians (who lived east of the Caspian Sea) and in some cases, the Celtic tribes, such as Picts, the Gaels, also included mention of Scythian origins. In the second paragraph of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, the élite of Scotland claim Scythia as a former homeland of the Scots. According to some Medieval Irish sources and legends, it was a Scythian prince who created the Ogham alphabet and became one of the principal architects of the Gaelic language. The Scythian theme has also been popular in Russia, perhaps reaching its height in the “Silver Age” and especially after the Revolution, with 1918 poem The Scythians by Alexander Blok who directly linked the origins of Russia with Scythian tribes that once traversed its boundless planes long before the Slavs arrived into the scene:
“Yes, we are Scythians – leafs of the Asian tree,
Our slanted eyes are bright aglow with greed”.
Curator St John Simpson, Assistant Keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum shares his experiences of working on this major breakthrough exhibition with Russian colleagues, recommends some must-see highlights on display, and explains how Scythians influenced the course of Ancient History.
It looks like the British Museum went on exploring the history of ancient civilisations on a grand scale: Celts, Vikings, and now — Scythians. Is the current display only part of a wider exhibition scheme dedicated to the Ancient World? If so, which goals does it pursue?
We are an encyclopaedic museum like the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg,
which deals with a wide range of subjects, from ancient cultures through to contemporary art. For us, this exhibition was an opportunity to bring to London a very little known and far less familiar culture, which is very important for the history of discovery and research within Russia. We also wished to show that the Ancient World is more than just the world of the Ancient Greece and Rome, or the Ancient Near East but extends up deep into the Eurasian Steppe.
Was there any other purpose to mounting the Scythians?
We wished to bring an exhibition that goes two hundred years back to the reign of Peter the Great and hoped to show the first discoveries of Scythian gold in Southern Siberia. This way, we could also demonstrate through the objects displayed the triumph of Russian archaeology and Russian research from the reign of Peter the Great up to the 21st century. So, we began with first discoveries that show the full extent of the territories occupied and material culture developed by the Scythians. The exhibition finishes with findings from new research in one particular part in Caucasia in a post-Scythian period, in order to bring the story up-to-date and show how the archaeology and research were evolving in Russia.
How was your collaboration with the Hermitage unfolding? Did you have any difficulties or obstacles? Was it complicated to lend the objects so rare, and obviously, so fragile?
We had the idea in early 2014 and then it was very clear to us: if we were going to do an exhibition that marked the centenary of the Revolution, then the most effective way of doing it was to request an extensive collection of objects from Russia. We have very little material in our own collections from this region. So, from the very start that was going to be an exercise in collaboration. That was also the message that we wanted to get across through the exhibition.
We have good working relationship with our colleagues at the Hermitage from director level down to curators. We contacted them and explained our concept, and then worked with them very closely on developing an object list. The Hermitage appointed their own lead curator Dr. Svetlana Pankova who specialises in Archaeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia. She coordinated work of the curators from her department, and this is how the whole set of objects that illustrated the origin of the Scythian culture, was put together. She also oversaw that the exhibition included the objects not only from the South Siberia, but from the North Caucasus, the Black Sea and other regions, in order to show the full extent of territories the Scythians dominated.
The Hermitage very generously lent over 200 objects for the exhibition, which is the overwhelming majority of the pieces. Thus, this project was being developed at a very smooth pace and as a deep joint collaboration with the Hermitage museum. Overall, it was one of the easiest experiences I have ever had in preparing an exhibition. My Russian colleagues were fantastic to work with: very open and helpful. And they agreed to lend everything we asked for.
It seems to be a breakthrough project from every angle, and from the scholarly point of view, as well. Do you think that the discoveries in Scythian tombs eventually lead to reassessing some aspects of ancient history or deepening our knowledge of ancient civilisations?
I think they do. In two ways: firstly, we are familiar with ancient civilisations and ancient history mainly because of the discoveries from settled societies: ancient cities, ancient villages. In other words, ancient history, by definition, is a written account left from Antiquity. Those perspectives give us a lot of information about the developing of writing, thought and urban civilisation in settled societies. However, what we are very unfamiliar with, is the world of the nomad. And this is what this exhibition tries to explore: the world of the nomads who had left no written records of their own, but who developed an extraordinarily sophisticated material culture — carved wood, felted textiles, woven rugs, intricate golden items, the development of the new form of the horse gear to accompany their horse-riding skills. That material survived particularly well in the Pazyryk region in the high Altai mountains because of exceptionally frozen tomb conditions, so all of the organic remains survived wrapped in perpetuity in ice in these tombs. To show this material means not only to demonstrate the master craftsmanship of the nomad, but also the source of remains that would otherwise perish and never survive from antiquity.
Also, the Scythians were neighbouring, in modern terms, Europe, China and the Middle East. They were actively interacting with Greeks, Assyrians, Persians and various Chinese cultures. And this instantly shows in the objects which were both, direct imports from these regions or were influenced by them. This influence and interaction, obviously, flows in all directions: East-West, or West-East, across the Eurasian Steppe, and up-and-down into the areas of ancient empires and ancient kingdoms. This level of interaction went on over centuries and contributed positively to the development of art, style and the material culture of all these societies. In a sense, it is a precursor to what we think of as the Silk Road.
In your opinion, what are the highlights of the exhibition? Which objects on display should not be missed?
I think, this exhibition is the once- in- a- lifetime opportunity to see these objects the way we have displayed them. Also, it is for the first time that we display at the British Museum the watercolours commissioned in the early eighteenth century to record golden objects from the Siberian collection of Peter the Great in a one-to-one scale. I think, the watercolours and the gold displayed together are revelatory. It is a really magical moment.
There is a chance to see the oldest tattoos on human skin preserved from antiquity, or fragments of the oldest Scythian textiles dyed with indigo and madder, or else look at the soft saddle and the coffin that had been found in Pazyryk. For me these are some of the highlights of the exhibition, which encapsulate the craftsmanship, nobility and death ritual of the Scythians.
What was the significance of the Scythian culture? Was it an important vehicle in spreading or bringing together important aspects of ancient civilisation?
Undoubtedly, their use of the horse, not just as the herd animal but as an animal that could be ridden, sped up the process of change and accelerated the pace by which ideas, technologies and fashions could move in and out of the steppe, and spread across the steppe, to other cultures. It is probably equivalent to the invention of the steam train or the air-plain. These horses and riders were catalysts of cultural change.
Are there any further plans for partnering exhibitions between the British Museum and the State Hermitage Museum?
We are in discussion about the development of other projects between ourselves and the Hermitage, and we have no doubts that this is going to be another step in a very long-term relationship at institutional and individual level.
You can find further details on preparation of the exhibition on the BM blog