The Scythians [Ancient Ukraine]

Traditionally we can divide mankind’s past into two parts: before and after writing, or, prehistory and history. There is, however, a third period, which characterizes the transition from one to the other. Occasionally we may know of cultures through texts written by a third party. Such is the case for the Scythians.

In this blog, I will review our sources for the study of Scythian culture. These include archaeology and text materials. We will start our acquaintance with the Scythians through the results of dirt archaeology. Toward the end, the reader will see the remarkable accuracy – keeping in mind their antiquity – of Greek writings on Scythian culture. Throughout the blog, I will refer to objects on display at our current exhibit, ДРЕВНЯ УКРАЇНА (Ancient Ukraine) – Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations, to illustrate these points.

Archaeology has been our main source of information on nomadic people in general.

The Scythians in particular appear to have roamed across an expansive part of Asia into parts of Eastern Europe. In the summer of 2006, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of a Scythian individual in Mongolia. Until then, the conventional wisdom among archaeologists was that Scythians lived and roamed in an area west of the Altai Mountains.

This discovery proved them wrong.

Compare these two maps, each representing the areas where Scythians were once thought to have lived, and consider how far we have come since Herodotus first wrote about the Scythians.

World map - Herodotus
Modern rendering of Herodotus’ worldview, with a reference to where the Scythians once lived.
Modern map of the Scythian realm
Modern map of the Scythian realm.

Over the last two and a half centuries Scythian artifacts primarily come from burial mounds, or kurhans.

In some cases, looters ransacked the tombs they knew were inside these mounds, leaving only few discarded objects for archaeologists to find. On happier occasions, archaeologists were able to investigate kurhans that had not been damaged yet. Hundreds of these kurhans have now been excavated and the discoveries published (Piotrovsky, 1974: 26-31).

With a sample this size, it has become easy for archaeologists to identify patterns. The size of the burial mounds reflects the importance of the individuals buried inside. The presence of servants buried alongside with the deceased, as well as the richness of the grave goods all supports this notion. In anthropological terms, we are looking at a stratified society, a society composed of multiple social layers, with unequal access to resources.  Horses, so important to nomadic people like the Scythians, are widely represented in art. We also find countless horse skeletons, buried alongside their master in the kurhan.

The Scythians roamed far and wide and their interactions with other cultures are also reflected in their grave goods. Greek cities along the Black Sea coast of Ukraine traded with the Scythians. A ceramic vessel on display in our current exhibit is of Greek design and is decorated with an image of an octopus.

Greek Amphora
Greek amphora with octopus design on temporary
display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
(Image courtesy of the Foundationfor International Arts and Education,
Bethesda, Maryland, the Government of Ukraine and the Museum
of Cultural Heritage PLATAR.)

It appears that wine and seafood was known (and appreciated) by more than just the Greek population along the Black Sea.

Ancient Greek Colonies of the Northern Black Sea
Greek cities, such as Olbia, located along the shores of the Black Sea, traded with the Scythians.

The Scythians and Persians also knew of each other.

This awareness of the other resulted in trade, exchange of ideas and art forms, as well as outright hostilities and protracted warfare. Among the more peaceful expressions of this back and forth between these two cultures, one could point to Persian-inspired drinking horns, or rhytons, two of which are on display at the museum.

A Persian-inspired gold drinking cup on display at the Houston Museum of
Natural Science. (Images courtesy of the Foundation for International
Arts and Education, Bethesda, Maryland, the Government of
Ukraine and the Museum of Cultural Heritage PLATAR).

We know of very few Scythian permanent settlements.

There is Bilsk, (also known as Bel’sk), a large fortified settlement on the banks of the Vorskla River. Earthen Ramparts some 33 km (or 20 miles) in length enclose an area of 4,000 hectares (almost 10,000 acres). Within this fortified area, there were two additional, smaller fortified sections with an area of 72 and 62 hectares. Modern reconstructions show it with palisades.

Another fortified city, tentatively identified by some as the Scythian capital, is Kamenka (Rolle, 1980: 119). Kamenka occupied about 12 km2 (more than 4.5 square miles) with an area of 900 hectares (or more than 2,000 acres) with an acropolis and extensive metal works (Kristiansen, 1998: 279).

I outlined at the beginning of this blog that there are cultures which we know of courtesy of descriptions left by third party authors. We do not know of any Scythian authors, very likely because there may not have been any. Yet we do have lengthy and interesting descriptions compiled by a well known Greek historian and overall great storyteller, Herodotus.

Here is one of Herodotus’ passages on the Scythians:

The Euxine Sea, where Darius now went to war, has nations dwelling around it, with the one exception of the Scythians, more unpolished than those of any other region that we know of. For, setting aside Anacharsis and the Scythian people, there is not within this region a single nation which can be put forward as having any claims to wisdom, or which has produced a single person of any high repute. The Scythians indeed have in one respect, and that the very most important of all those that fall under man’s control, shown themselves wiser than any nation upon the face of the earth. Their customs otherwise are not such as I admire. The one thing of which I speak is the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it pleases them to engage with him. Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?

In describing this non-Greek culture, Herodotus resorts to a rather common Greek sentiment. He describes them as “barbarians,” elaborating that he cannot find many redeeming traits among Scythian culture. Herodotus scholars identify both areas of congruence between archaeology and Herodotus’ writings as well as areas where there is dissonance. For example, there is overlap between what Herodotus wrote about the kurhans and what archaeologists have subsequently unearthed. However, Herodotus appears misguided when it comes to where he locates the kurhans, limiting them to a much smaller area than where they have been found and investigated by archaeologists (Hartog 1988:3 – 11).

These are sentiments to keep in mind as you walk through the exhibit.

What is left of this culture is still largely seen through the filter of grave goods, with very little in terms of text material and settlement archaeology to provide context. Imagine a future historian writing a book about the first 250 years of US history limited to information gathered at Civil War cemeteries. There is a lot more to the picture. Undoubtedly future archaeological projects will fill in these blanks. In the meantime, do come see the exhibit. After September 5, you will have missed the boat.

Hartog, François
1988 The Mirror of Herodotus. The representation of the other in the writing of history. Translated by Janet Lloyd. university of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles

Kristiansen, Kristian
1998 Europe Before History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York

Piotrovsky, Boris, et al.
1974  “From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U.S.S.R., 3000 B.C.–100 B.C.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 32, no. 5

Rolle, Renate
1980 The World of the Scythians. Translated by F.G Walls from the German Die Welt der Skythen. University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles

Old and new: Modern Ukraine and the Trypilian culture

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is hosting two exhibits coming from Ukraine, opening on May 27 and June 5. One of these covers the archaeology and history of the country. The second exhibit focuses on icons and religious regalia from the 11th to the 19th centuries. This blog starts with a brief introduction to modern Ukraine. Next we will cover the earliest known Ukrainian culture: the Trypilian. Later blogs will cover more recent aspects of Ukrainian history.

Modern Ukraine
Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe. Slightly smaller in size than Texas, Ukraine is the  largest country wholly in Europe.

Map showing location of Ukraine in Europe

Ukraine borders Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia.

Map of Ukraine, identifying neighboring countries.

Ukraine is one of Europe’s youngest nations. On August 24th this year, the country will celebrate its independence. It so happens that this year, 2011, will mark the 20th anniversary of that event.

The city of Kyiv, also known to us as Kiev, is the capital.  Tradition has it that Kyiv was founded by four Viking siblings in the late 9th century, an event associated with Viking migration through the area on their way to the Black Sea and areas beyond. Even though more than 1000 years separate us from the founding of Kyiv, we  need to go back many more millennia to reach the period the Trypilian culture flourished.

The Trypilian culture

When and where?

Archaeologists have known about the Trypilian culture since 1896, when Ukrainian archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika discovered an ancient settlement near the village of Trypillia, about 40 km south of  modern Kyiv.

We now know that at its zenith, the Trypilian culture extended across parts of Ukraine, into Moldova and Romania (where the local variant is known as the Cucuteni culture).

Map showing the extent of the Cucuteni-Trypilian culture.

Origins and chronology

There are differences in opinion (to put it diplomatically) with regards to the origin of this phenomenon. Russian scholars placed the origin in the area between the Bug and Dnieper Rivers and then suggested it moved westwards. Romanian scholars, on the other hand, see it exactly the opposite way: they locate the origin of the culture in Moldova. Later they see markers of  the culture appear in Ukraine and Romania (Garašanin 1994: 534).

Recent DNA analysis carried out on human remains retrieved from the Verteba cave in Western Ukraine revealed that the ancestors of some of these individuals likely arrived in Europe in the Pleistocene and that they survived locally through the last Ice Age. The ancestors of the remaining individuals tested are identified as people associated with the expansion of Neolithic farming out of the Near East. Based on this extremely small sample, one could tentatively argue that the Trypilians had roots both in Pleistocene Europe as well as the Near East.

Ukrainian and Romanian scholars, working on the Trypilian and Cucuteni aspects of the culture respectively, came up with their own chronology. It was only after the data started being published that the realization grew in both countries that they both were dealing with the same culture. That insight, however, did not result in a universally agreed upon chronology. Instead, we are faced with two different sets of dates, an unfortunate and confusing situation.

As one archaeologist put it (Anthony 2007: 164):

“Romanian archaeologists use the name Cucuteni and Ukrainians use Tripolye, each with its own system of internal chronological divisions, so we must use cumbersome labels like Pre-Cucuteni III/Tripolye A to refer to a single prehistoric culture. There is a Borges-like dreaminess to the Cucuteni pottery sequence: one phase (Cucuteni C) is not a phase at all but rather a type of pottery probably made outside the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture; another phase (Cucuteni A1) was defined before it was found, and never was found; still another (Cucuteni A5) was created in 1963 as a challenge for future scholars, and is now largely forgotten; and the whole sequence was first defined on the assumption, later proved wrong, that the Cucuteni A phase was the oldest, so later archaeologists had to invent the Pre-Cucuteni phases I, II, and III, one of which (Pre-Cucuteni I) might not exist. The positive side of this obsession with pottery types is that the pottery is known and studied in minute detail.”

However, the general consensus still seems to be that the Trypilian culture flourished from 5400 to 2700 BC.

Settlement size and dwellings

Trypilian dwellings are known through excavations and ancient ceramic models. The layout of these houses seems to have followed a certain blueprint. A hearth was placed immediately inside the door; a row of storage vessels was arranged against the opposite wall. At the far end of the room lay a small platform, thought to have served some ceremonial function. Smoke was vented through an opening in the ceiling.

Imprints of human fingers left on walls
during the daubing
(House 41, Talianki).
Image courtesy Dr. Francesco Menotti,
Institute of Prehistory and Archaeological Science,
Basel University.

The majority of archaeologists today believe that the most typical Trypilian dwellings were early timber frame buildings with wooden walls and ceilings plastered with clay. The houses had a thatch roof.  Archaeologists have found clay wall fragments, still sporting imprints of human fingers left on walls during daubing.

Some Trypilian structures had two floors, as indicated by ceramic models. The second floor, with its hearth, was used for living while the first floor was used for storage, and as animal shelter. In this way the household complexes of the early period in Trypillia were kept warm. Some sources suggest that there might have three story houses in the larger communities.

Not all structures found at Trypilian sites were dwellings. At the site of Talianki, for example, archaeologists identified three storage structures. Ceramic workshops were also excavated. These were situated close to dwellings but were differentiated as separate work places.

One of the most notable and enigmatic aspects of the Trypilian culture is the existence of large settled communities, capable of holding between 10,000 and 15,000 inhabitants. Archaeologists did not become aware of these sites until aerial photography brought them to light in the 1970s. Some of these communities covered 800 acres, or about the size of Central Park in New York.

In all ten of these giant communities are known, all of them concentrated in the Cherkassy region of modern Ukraine. This area is known for its fertile soil and the presence of fairly large woodlands. Such a setting offered an ideal environment for agriculture, cattle-breeding and livestock activity.

Map identifying the Cherkassy region in modern Ukraine,
home of all known giant Trypilian settlements.

These large Trypilian communities existed toward the end of the culture (between 3200 – 2700 BC). None of them were contemporary with each other, rather what we are looking at is a sequence of settlements. It appears that they were abandoned every 60 to 80 years or so.

The abandonment of the settlements involved the intentional use of fire. Archaeologists have found evidence of high sustained temperatures during these acts of destruction; they have inferred from this that additional combustible material was placed inside the buildings to maintain the fires.

Remains of burnt dwellings. Maydanets’ke, Cherkassy domain.
Excavated by M.Shmaglij and M.Videiko, 1988. Image courtesy
Dr. Mykhailo Videiko. Institute of Archaeology,
National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Scientists do not know why this cycle of destruction occurred, although suggestions include soil depletion, deforestation, conflict and diseases affecting the population. Researchers continue to pursue answers to this question.

There was no public architecture in these communities. Archaeologists assume that this “lack of public infrastructure within the settlements forced the Trypilians to include all aspects of everyday life in their own private premises.” A lack of differentiation in architecture, with only dwellings and storage places identified, reflects a lack of social stratification, according to some researchers. No palaces? No rulers, is the thinking in this case. If this is confirmed by additional discoveries in the future, this would make the Trypilian culture stand out when compared to other cultures in the region during the mid fifth millennium BC. In neighboring Bulgaria, for example, grave goods found in 310 graves in the Varna cemetery clearly showed the presence of political rank. Dating to about 4500 BC, the cemetery is the oldest known yet where humans were buried with golden ornaments.

Unfortunately, the sample of Trypilian burials is limited in number. Most date to the between 3400 – 2750 BC. As far as earlier periods go, it appears that the Trypilians disposed of their dead in an archeologically untraceable manner.

Subsistence: what was on their plate?

Archaeological research at several Trypilian settlements has revealed the subsistence strategies of these early Ukrainians. With regard to the site of Maidanets’ke, archaeologists tell us:

“Emmer and spelt were the most common cereals recovered; barley and peas were also recovered in one house. Cattle (35% of domesticates) were the most important source of meat, with pig (27%) and sheep (26%) a secondary sources; the remaining 11% was equally divided between dogs and horses. About 15% of the animals were red deer, wild boar, bison, hare and birds.” (Anthony 2007: 495, n. 19).

Findings such as these clearly tell us that the introduction of agriculture and animal domestication did not mean the immediate end to hunting and gathering. Rather, people seem to have pursued a strategy in which they took advantage of all available resources.

Technological achievements

The Trypilians bridge the divide between the last phase of the Stone Age and the beginnings of the Copper Age. This period sees the introduction of agriculture into the region, marking a shift in the subsistence strategy for the locals away from nomadic hunting and gathering to a more sedentary way of life.

Greater sedentism, or staying put in one place for extended periods of time, became possible because of agriculture and animal husbandry. Both of these milestones in human development, achieved outside of Europe, permit, even force, people to stay on one place. This greater permanency in residency leads to more permanent architecture as well as the manufacture of items such as pottery that would be deemed unwieldy, and too heavy by hunter gatherers.

The Trypilian culture  is known for a variety of decorated pottery as well as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ceramic figurines.

The Trypilians excelled in making ceramics. Some of their pots were large storage vessels,  decorated with painted or incised geometric designs. They have also left us with countless ceramic models of homes, some showing the interior, some showing what might have been “row houses” typical of their larger settlements.

Figurines in the shape of animals and humans are abundant. Some of the animal figurines depict cattle and are equipped with wheels. The female form is so abundant that anthropologists at one point used them to posit the existence of a goddess cult, a line of thinking not always well received by other anthropologists. Other ceramics include models of houses.

Model of a Trypilian house.

The Trypilian civilization in a broader context

Social structure

The material record retrieved from Trypilian sites does not contain easily recognizable signs of social stratification. We do not have evidence of palaces in which rulers would have lived, nor do we have any signs of organized religion practiced in public spaces such as temples.

There is however, strong evidence that the Trypilians had a sense of community and were able to organize themselves. The periodic resettlement required strong community organization utilizing the collective efforts of all its members. Burning down an entire community, especially a settlement with hundreds if not thousands of houses was not an easy task. Moving to a new location and rebuilding must have involved across the board decision making and intense collaboration among all members of society.

Giant settlements: can we call them cities?

The giant Trypilian settlements, such as Maidanets’ke, pre-date the first Mesopotamian cities by about 1000 years. However tempting it may be, however, to refer to these Trypilian settlements as “cities,” archaeologists have refrained from doing so. What appears lacking from the Trypilian communities is public architecture (palaces, temples, markets) that define what we would call a city. Instead we find a huge number of domestic dwellings, closely packed together along what might have been pathways, or streets. They compactness of the settlement, combined with the sheer number of inhabitants would have increased security.

Rise of civilizations elsewhere

Outside Europe, we see the rise of civilization starting in places like Çatalhöyük, in Central Anatolia, present-day Turkey, around 7000 BC. The site of Tell Halaf, in eastern Anatolia, began around 6000 BC. The Ubaid culture originated in Southern Iraq around 6200 BC.

The beginning of the Pre-dynastic period in Egypt is generally dated to between 4500 BC and 4000 BC.

Within Europe’s borders, we do not know of any settlements this size this early.

*    *    *

I will end with this thought. The Trypilian culture in the Ukraine presents us with an interesting juxtaposition: one of Europe’s youngest nations was once home to one of Europe’s oldest civilization. Now on display at a museum near you.


Anthony, David W.
2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language. How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Garašanin, Milutin
1994 The Balkan Peninsula and South-East Europe during the Neolithic. In S.J. de Laet, ed., History of Humanity, Vol. 6, pp. 527 – 539. UNESCO, Paris and London.