The exhibition “Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia” will be held in the British Museum in London from September 2017 to January 2018.
The title of the exhibition was devised by our British colleagues after some thought and reflects above all the way the European public is particularly attracted to the theme of Russia’s legendary region of Siberia, one of the best-known images of our country abroad. And interest in the theme of the warrior, the barbarian Scythian always remains high, wrapped in the romantic aura of the deep past, highlighted by the realities and myths of the modern world.
In the first millennium BC the Scythians inhabited a vast area of northern, steppe-land Eurasia, including Siberia. Nomadic pastoralism and Scythian culture itself are considered to have originated in the south of Siberia – the Altai-Sayan highlands and adjoining regions of Mongolia and northern China. It was from there, beginning in the 8th century BC, that the nomads’ expansion began, towards the West, where the Scythians found settled neighbours – the Assyrians, Greeks and Persians. The Scythians were known from earliest times as skilled mounted archers and fearless, ruthless warriors. Many people around the world today have heard of the Scythians as well, associating Scythian culture with the enormous wealth of their rulers and an abundance of precious gold and silver artefacts, some of which will be presented at the exhibition.
In Russia, the Scythian subject area has always been particularly close and dear to people’s hearts, despite the fact that the Scythians were not ancestors of the Slavs or the Russians. We learn about them in school, reading Alexander Blok’s poem The Scythians, opening a history textbook that has on its cover a depiction of one of the most famous Scythian masterpieces – the gold comb from the Solokha kurgan (burial mound), or viewing Victor Vasnetsov’s painting Battle of Slavs and Scythians. The theme of Scythians and the “Scythian life” is present in the literature of Russia’s early-20th-century Silver Age, in Russian painting and sculpture, music and even politics. It is no coincidence that in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue Mikhail Piotrovsky wrote that “the Scythians, a people made famous by Herodotus, acquired a particular mystical significance in Russian culture.”
But among today’s Europeans far from everyone is aware that “Scythian” Siberia is not only a huge remote cold region, but also a rich historical and cultural realm, a territory inhabited by humans from deep antiquity, where different cultures developed and interacted for centuries, home to peoples with different religions, lifestyles and mentalities. Siberia was a sort of “ethnic generator”, mixing races and cultural achievements over millennia. The Scythians were the first of the mounted nomadic people to arrive in the south Russian steppes from the East. They initiated a succession of barbarian incursions that shocked Europe in the period of the Hunnic, Turkic and Mongol waves. The Scythian era proved one of the most striking episodes in this history.
The discovery of this world was to a large extent made possible by the researches of Russian archaeologists, whose work over two and a half centuries was, and still remains, an important contribution by Russia to the collective history of humanity. And the Hermitage is not simply an art museum, it is a major scholarly research centre. Each year the State Hermitage’s archaeological expeditions continue their work in Siberia and the results have substantially enriched historical science and the museum’s collection, and have found reflection in the present exhibition.
The Scythian world, which in its time extended for thousands of kilometres from northern China to central Europe, actually consisted of numerous tribes that were quite often different from one another. Nevertheless, they also had much in common, making it possible to speak of the unity of that world on the basis of what is known as the “Scythian triad” – characteristic weaponry, horse tack and art (the distinctive “Animal Style”, featuring depictions of animals, often shown fighting or tearing one another apart). The tribes were also linked by a common method of husbandry, based on making maximum use of the natural resources of the steppes, a way of life on horseback, a shared world view and, possibly, linguistic kinship.
For this very reason, the emphasis in the exhibition is placed firstly on what is probably the chief characteristic of the ancient Scythians, who were above all nomadic animal herders and warriors, and secondly on the artefacts from Central Asia and southern Siberia that due to their state of preservation define Scythian culture particularly vividly, at times with ethnographic precision and authenticity. The exhibition will feature more than 850 items from the Hermitage: arms and horse tack, vessels, clothing, jewellery and watercolour depictions of finds, many of which have been in the museum since the 19th century and are true masterpieces of ancient craftsmanship and art.
Among the archaeological finds, an extremely important place goes to the highly artistic gold items from what is known as the Siberian Collection of Peter I, which marked the start of archaeological exploration of Russian territory and also the exhibits from the royal kurgans of the Northern Black Sea region – Solokha, Kul-Oba and Chertomlyk – that were explored in the 19th century. A special part of the display is made up of antiquities in the unique collection from the Pazyryk kurgans in the Altai mountains, where the deep-frozen burial chamber preserved objects made of felt, leather and fur, fabrics, wood and horn. They include unique imported articles from the Middle East, China and Central Asia.
The exhibition will feature items from three departments of the State Hermitage – the Department of the Archaeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia, the Department of the Ancient World and the Department of the History of Russian Culture. The last supplied 18th-century watercolours depicting finds from the Siberian Collection and prints showing Saint Petersburg at the time of the first archaeological discoveries. The Hermitage items will be supplemented by a few pieces from museums in Kazakhstan and Britain, including several items from the famed Oxus Treasure kept in the British Museum.
The exhibition catalogue, written by leading specialists from the Hermitage and British Museum, examines in detail various subjects connected with the Scythians in one way or another – historical outlines, the characteristics of archaeological finds from Central Asia and southern Siberia, the history of research and the fate of Scythian collections, the martial traditions, arms and armour of the Scythians, their everyday life, conceptions of life and death, the unique art and contacts with neighbours.
Various cities and museums in many European countries and America have already hosted (in certain cases more than once) special exhibitions from the Hermitage devoted to Scythian culture and art. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to encompass and reflect in a single event all the aspects and nuances of an ancient culture, although the organizers of the exhibitions will seek to do so.
Very many items are being presented at this temporary exhibition for the first time. Some of them are the results of work by present-day Hermitage archaeological exhibitions in Central Asia and Siberia (materials from the Arzhan 2 kurgan in Tuva and from Bugry in the Altai), while the inclusion of some has become possible thanks to scientific and technical researches in the museum (mummies and tattoos) and painstaking work by restorers.