Scythians in the new British Archaeology

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We put Scythians on the front cover of the new British Archaeology. They look great on the magazine, and they make a really terrific exhibition, a rare display of good old-fashioned archaeology at its jaw-dropping best. The article is written by St John Simpson, the show’s curator.

In one of my favourite features of all time, John Hines explains one of the oddest detectorist finds, a lead plaque with the words “The dwarf is dead” inscribed in runes.

Archaeologists have been looking at Roman Lancaster, at iron age hillforts and at ice age Scotland. We have news of a possible wealthy Anglo-Saxon grave in Rutland, and a unique Roman hoard from Gloucestershire containing a bronze dog. And there is much more, with reviews, photography, TV, books, exhibitions, awards and stories from the world of archaeology in Britain.

I wrote about Scythians in the Society of Antiquaries newsletter (Salon):

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Journalists turning up at British Museum openings are used to meeting objectors to one of the institution’s significant sponsors, a major oil and gas company called BP. The protestors politely hand out leaflets and stage minor theatrical events (thankfully the more aggressive tactics that led to acts such as molasses being poured at the foot of the museum’s Easter Island statue seem to have been dropped, at least for now). You think briefly about what they say, wonder who would pay for the exhibition without a sponsor (what organisation with the required financial clout will have skeleton-free cupboards?), and tell yourself that anyway, the problem is not the supplier of fossil fuels, but those who use them (a few years ago protestors memorably turned up outside Tate Britain in a taxi). That’s all of us.

However, the British Museum’s wonderful new exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, has raised the level of debate, and it’s interesting. First, perhaps for no reason other than we are hearing from a relatively new Director with his own ideas, Hartwig Fischer has made a point of publicly thanking BP. The museum has twice Tweeted Fischer’s comment, “We are very grateful to our sponsor @BP_plc for their support of the #Scythians exhibition,” and the press office is keen that we name them, referring to the show as “the BP exhibition Scythians”. And this time at least the protestors have a relevant case. Oil is destroying the exhibits.

British Museum Scythians

When you look at pictures of things in this show, what most impresses is the craft in fine goldwork. There is indeed a staggering amount of both – gold and exquisite artistry. Some of the best pieces come from Peter the Great’s collection, begun in the early 1700s and, notwithstanding its name, grown over the following century or so. The exhibition’s first room is devoted to the collection, with an oil portrait of the man painted in London.

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There is plenty more treasure throughout the large gallery; somehow the design manages to make tiny exhibits sing of the vast open steppe, and this would be enough to reward a visit. But as you progress, you start to realise the real stars are not made of metal, but of perishable, typically brown materials – wood, seeds, leather, felt, fur, horn, wool, hair (look out for an intricately decorated leather tube made to hold a plaited horse’s tail), a sheepskin, nail clippings and even tattooed human skin. These materials are often worked as skilfully as the gold, and in larger pieces. Many are outstanding: a little stuffed felt swan; fantastic headgear made from wood and leather featuring an eagle’s head holding a deer’s head in its beak, and geese carved into its neck; a decorated woman’s shoe to knock Jimmy Choo off its perch.

As wonderful as all these things are, the archaeologist in me cannot stop marvelling at the fact they are there at all. A truly enormous wooden coffin and a tomb chamber built like a log hut appear to be freshly made replicas. Yet they are real, well over 2,000 years old. This extraordinary preservation, which shows us so much more about these ancient people than we have any right to expect, ironically means we are better informed about their material culture, constrained by their life on the hoof, than we usually are for settled peoples privileged to make and build whatever they felt like.

The principal reason for this survival is permafrost. The exhibition explains how the burial mounds of loose stones allowed precipitation to percolate through, but prevented the ground below thawing in spring (we show this in a diagram in British Archaeology). Large grave pits equipped with wall hangings, treasures, even carts and horses, froze and stayed that way. Wood is so tough, the Curator St John Simpson told me, that at the famous Pazyryk tombs excavated in southern Siberia in the 1920s and 40s, great logs raised from the graves still lie scattered on the ground.

The permafrost is melting. Archaeological research on Scythians is continuing, says the catalogue, with excavations each year across the Eurasian steppe, from Mongolia through Kazakhstan and Russia to Ukraine. There is a new urgency, turning this already challenging work from research into rescue. Many thousands of unexplored graves with all they contain are threatened by global warming.

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Logs so fresh and solid, I had to ask for confirmation that this was a prehistoric burial chamber, not an experimental reconstruction

The protestors, BP or not BP?, say the British Museum is exercising climate-change denial by accepting BP’s sponsorship, and that the company welcomes the opportunity for that very reason. This is unconvincing; the exhibition itself raises the issue as a threat. In fact, is there not here a spectacular metaphor for the real problem facing us all? As we wonder at the decorated fabrics and carved wood, the stitched leather and the woollen leggings, and we think about where these things come from and what, until now, has kept them safe, are we not confronted with the real culprits – ourselves – and the power of climate change that can wreak destruction across even such a vast and remote landscape?

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is open until 14 January 2018. There is a conference at the British Museum, Scythians and Early Nomads from Siberia to the Black Sea, from 27 to 29 October.

Apologies for the fuzzy photos, taken with my phone in a dark gallery. The clear shots are from the British Museum.

  • I’ve been editing Salon since June 2015, an online newsletter that mostly goes out every other week. You can find them all here (in the archive, my first one was no. 345).
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2 thoughts on “Scythians in the new British Archaeology

  1. The ‘Dwarf is Dead’ article was worthy of a ‘proper’ academic journal. And looking at the Skythian photos like you I cannot believe they are not reconstructions (I’m sure they are not). I’d planned to go to the exhibition as a ‘walk up’, now I better reserve a ticket so I’m don’t find it’s sold out to BA readers. One of your best issues – and that is saying a lot!

  2. Thank you Andrew! I agree with you about John Hine’s article. The Dwarf is Dead is an extraordinary story, and one that I was delighted he wanted to write for the magazine. So much to say about such a small find. It’s easy to imagine that without the Portable Antiquities Scheme, it would have just disappeared and none of us would be the wiser. Having said that, of course it wouldn’t have been found in the first place without the detectorist and all the junk they would have got through before coming across it. I glad you like BA, though you’ve given us quite a challenge for the next edition!

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