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.

Rhyton
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.

References:
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
.

New Exhibit Now Open! Six Thousand Years of Ukrainian History

Today’s blog post is brought to you by one of our amazing volunteers, Gail Larsen Peterkin, Ph.D. Her article is about our newest exhibition, Ancient Ukraine, now open! See artifacts from the last six thousand years.

Ancient Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations, which opens today, includes 166 objects from the Museum of National Cultural Heritage PlaTar. The PlaTar Collection began in the 1990s, when two wealthy Ukrainian businessmen, Sergei Platonov and Sergei Taruta, noticed the large number of Ukrainian antiquities offered for sale on the open market. They resolved to purchase as many of these artifacts as possible, to preserve them in Ukraine and on behalf of the Ukrainian people. After Platonov’s death, his son Nikolai continued his efforts. The trio amassed the largest private collection in Ukraine, now numbering over 15,000 artifacts. The collection was named the PlaTar Collection, after Platonov and Taruta.

The enigmatic Trypillian culture is especially well represented in the collection—apropos, because over 2,000 sites are known from Ukraine! The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture occupied parts of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, during the Neolithic, Eneolithic, and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) periods, approximately 5400–2750 BCE. The Trypillians were agricultural; they grew crops, raised livestock, especially cattle, and perhaps even kept bees! They lived in large settlements of single- and double-story buildings. One of their cities, Talyanki, had a population of 25,000—earlier and larger than Sumer! Oddly, the Trypilians burned their settlements and moved every sixty to eighty years. Copper was present in the later stages of Trypilian culture. The entire culture vanished at the dawn of the Bronze Age.

Zoomorphic Statuette with Wheels

Trypilian pottery is spectacular, with vividly painted ceramic vessels in all shapes and sizes. Some of the pottery has markings that a few scholars interpret as “proto-writing;” unfortunately, we will have to reserve judgment, as none of these pieces are included in the current exhibition. There are, however, dual-cupped, “binocular” vessels and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Stylized female figures suggest the existence of a Goddess cult and an emphasis on female fertility, while a wheeled ceramic bull with prominent horns might represent just the opposite—the bull is a traditional symbol of virility. (Then again, maybe it was just a pull toy …) The Trypilians even made clay models of buildings. Although the ones with horns might be temples, they also reproduced the interior of a house, complete with an oven and storage jars!

Binocular-Form Vessel

Beginning in the Bronze Age, many of the artifacts on display were manufactured elsewhere and arrived in Ukraine as luxury imports. Delicate repoussé goldwork first appeared in the Iron Age; the exhibit features an iron sword, with a gold hilt festooned with feline heads. Around this time, Greek writers like Herodotus began to write about the nomadic tribes they encountered on the Eurasian steppes—the Cimmerians, the Scythians, and the Sarmatians. These tribes spoke Indo-Iranian languages and originated further to the east (hint: remember the Silk Road and Central Asia?). The Scythians eventually settled down and established the Scythian kingdom, reaching the height of their power and influence in the fourth century BCE.

Sword

Many of the material remains recovered from Scythian sites are understandably small, portable, and metallic (bronze, silver, and gold), reflecting their nomadic roots. Jewelry and objects of personal décor were elaborate and finely worked, and they often have Classical Greek, Roman, and Persian designs. This so-called “Scythian gold” was produced from the seventh through the third centuries BCE. Peter the Great was one of the great early collectors of Scythian and Siberian gold, and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg houses many of his most spectacular pieces—thus giving HMNS a potential double dose of Scythian gold this summer!

Eagle-Shaped Plaque

Roman influence persisted after the demise of the Scythian kingdom (around 100 BCE), until Rome itself fell to “barbarians” in 476 CE. Around this time, the Slavic people first moved into Ukraine, filling the Scythian void. Under Byzantine rule, brothers Cyril and Methodius brought Orthodox Christianity to Ukraine, along with the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kyivan Rus’, centered on the city of Kiev, was founded in 882, and Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Slavic empire in the tenth century. During its “golden age” under the leadership of Vladimir the Great (980-1013) and his son Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054), the Kyivan Rus’ was the largest state in Europe. Its rulers regularly intermarried with European royalty.

Wine Jug (Oenochoe)

The shift from Roman paganism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity is immortalized in several of the objects on display. Although the exhibit includes many Roman-style artifacts, from lamps to jewelry, one glass vessel stands out. It is an exquisite blue, blown-glass wine jug, decorated with ethereal haloed figures. As the focus shifted from Rome to the eastern empire, formal Orthodox Christian iconography emerged and is evident in the later artifacts on display: a chalice; a reliquary; a pendant bearing the image of St. George; an icon of Christ emerging from the tomb; and, dating from the twelfth to thirteenth century CE, an elaborate gold cross depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.

Chalice

The amazing PlaTar Collection, showcased in Ancient Ukraine, covers at least six thousand years of Ukrainian history! The organizers hope the exhibit will introduce the U.S. to the wonders of Ukraine, from the little-known Neolithic Trypilian culture through the medieval Kyivan Rus’—a remarkable historic foundation for the modern nation-state of Ukraine.

Want to learn more about Ukraine and their history? Check out Dirk’s blog and see the exhibition for yourself.

References

Aruz, Joan, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova, eds. The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes. The State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, and the Archaeological Museum, Ufa. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2000.

Soltes, Ori Z. The Glory of Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations. Bethesda, The Museum of the National Cultural Heritage PlaTar and Foundation for International Arts and Education, 2010.