The Scythians Have Ridden Into The British Museum

Scythians, The British Museum ★★★☆☆

The Scythians Have Ridden Into The British Museum Scythians, The British Museum 3
A dynamic gold plaque showing a Scythian warrior. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo V. Terebenin.

Ever heard of the Scythians? Before this blockbuster exhibition was announced, neither had we. They were the original horseback raiders, preceding the Huns and the Mongols.

As the Scythians were nomadic, there were no cities to unearth, to uncover their secrets and they had no written language either; instead the British Museum has used the treasures found in tombs to piece together evidence, and shine a light on these warriors who lived — and killed — over 2,000 years ago.

Sweeping landscapes cover the wall to give a feel of what the Scythians' home would have looked like. © V. Terebenin

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia sets the scene well. The sound of the wind whistling and horses whinnying make us feel like we're entering an ancient Siberian landscape.

The Scythians loved their gold, and the golden belt plaques are some of the most impressive items. One depicts a yak, a tiger and a vulture in a three way tussle; another shows Scythians hunting a wild boar — the scenes are small, but beautifully carved and packed with a dynamic energy that suggests they could burst into the life.

A reconstruction of what a Scythian rider would have looked like.

There's a slight lull in the middle of the show in a section exploring domestic life; yes there are some interesting stories here but the majority of the artefacts are a tad dull. Stockings and cooking pots just don't capture the imagination like the weapons or gold.

Things pick up when referencing the horses the Scythians used for food, milk, transport and as steeds in war. Many of their bridles were elaborate, and as the bond between horse and rider was so strong, horses were even buried with their owners. That's not the strangest discovery here: servants were also buried with their masters — and one tomb has uncovered a full set of nail clippings, probably taken at time of death.

Elsewhere, a head is covered with a funerary mask that can't be removed as it may damage the remains, however CT scans have revealed the man had a reddish-brown moustache and a pierced ear. It's a remarkable insight that typifies how intricately researched the British Museum's exhibitions are.

We can't get enough of these gold plaques — this one depicts a funerary scene. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo V. Terebenin.

The Scythian tribes fought with their neighbours and with each other, even stooping to desecrating each other's grave sites. As war was a way of life, there are examples of bows being refined to make arrows fly faster — they may even have used poison tipped arrows for a guaranteed kill.

As the Athenian historian Thucydides once said:

There is no people who would be able on its own to withstand the Scythians, if they were united

These people weren't just great fighters, but good traders too — Athens would use Scythian archers as their city police, and many trade missions took place with their neighbours in Assyria, Greece and Persia.

One downside: the exhibition has a tendency to jump around between sections and this can often be a little jarring — horses to domestic life, and then back to horses. These few flaws aside though, this is a fascinating look at a culture that remains unknown to most.

The BP Exhibition - Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is at the British Museum from 14 September-14 January. Tickets are £16.50 for adults.

Last Updated 12 September 2017