Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Scythians are coming to the British Museum


Warriors of ancient Siberia 14 September 2017- 

14 January 2018 

British Museum London 

organised with the State Hermitage St Petersburg Russia 

2,500 years ago groups of formidable warriors roamed the vast open plains of Siberia. Feared, loathed, admired – but over time forgotten… Until now.

This major exhibition explores the story of the Scythians – nomadic tribes and masters of mounted warfare, who flourished between 900 and 200 BC. Their encounters with the Greeks, Assyrians and Persians were written into history but for centuries all trace of their culture was lost – buried beneath the ice.
Discoveries of ancient tombs have unearthed a wealth of Scythian treasures. Amazingly preserved in the permafrost, clothes and fabrics, food and weapons, spectacular gold jewellery – even mummified warriors and horses – are revealing the truth about these people’s lives. These incredible finds tell the story of a rich civilisation, which eventually stretched from its homeland in Siberia as far as the Black Sea and even the edge of China.
Many of the objects in this stunning exhibition are on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Scientists and archaeologists are continuing to discover more about these warriors and bring their stories back to life.
Explore their lost world and discover the splendour, the sophistication and the sheer power of the mysterious Scythians.
e 2017 – 14 January 2018

Introducing the Scythians

The Scythians (pronounced ‘SIH-thee-uns’) were a group of ancient tribes of nomadic warriors who originally lived in what is now southern Siberia. Their culture flourished from around 900 BC to around 200 BC, by which time they had extended their influence all over Central Asia – from China to the northern Black Sea.
From September 2017 you can discover these fearsome warriors and their culture in a special exhibition at the British Museum. But before that, swot up on some key facts and impress your friends down the pub with your new-found Scythian knowledge.
1. They were formidable warriors
Gold plaque of a mounted Scythian. Black Sea region, c. 400–350 BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Until the 1700s, a lot of what we knew about the Scythians was cobbled together from a range of ancient sources – none of them written by the Scythians themselves as they didn’t ‘do’ writing. So what we had was a collection of accounts written by Greeks, Assyrians and Persians – and they were usually terrified (although often also impressed).
The Greek historian Herodotus, in his Histories (Book 4, 5th century BC), wrote: ‘None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found.’ Assyrian inscriptions from the 7th century BC also refer to fighting Scythians, with one mentioning a peace treaty secured by marrying off an Assyrian princess to a Scythian king.
When the Scythians weren’t being hide and seek champions, or being fobbed off with foreign princesses, they even developed a powerful new type of bow which was made from different layers of wood and sinew. It was much more powerful than a regular wooden bow, as the different layers increased the forces and energy when the string was released.
Gold sew-on clothing appliqué in the form of two Scythian archers.
In battles, the Scythians would use large numbers of highly mobile archers who could shower hundreds of deadly arrows within a few minutes. As late as the 6th century AD a Byzantine writer described the deadly effect of mounted archers like these: ‘they do not let up at all until they have achieved the complete destruction of their enemies.’ If this were not terrifying enough, several classical writers state that the Scythians dipped their arrows in poison!
Arrow heads
Scythian arrow heads. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
When the Scythians fought on foot, their weapon of choice was a battle-axe with a long narrow pointed blade (like a narrow pick-axe). This type of fighting was personal and face to face – the weapons’ tell-tale puncture marks have been found on the heads of excavated human remains.
So all in all, pretty fearsome.
2. They were nomads
Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
The brilliantly named ‘pseudo-Hippocrates’ wrote that: ‘The Scyths… have no houses but live in wagons. These are very small with four wheels. Others with six wheels are covered with felt; such wagons are employed like houses, in twos or threes and provide shelter from rain and wind … The women and children live in these wagons, but the men always remain on horseback.’
Nomadic peoples tended not to leave a lot behind in terms of cities or literature – what used to be called ‘civilisation’. What we know of the Scythians is largely through excavations of burial mounds (kurgans), and examples of rock art. It is from these remains that we have the archaeological evidence to see if the ancient writers like Herodotus were right – or if they were making it up as they went along.
In fact, our old friend Herodotus thought that the fact they were nomads meant they were extra scary:
‘For when men have no stablished cities or fortresses, but all are house-bearers and mounted archers, living not by tilling the soil but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons, how should these not be invincible and unapproachable?’ (Histories, Book 4)
Being nomadic, of course, meant having portable possessions that were robust. The objects the Scythians buried with their dead are generally small or lightweight – such as small drinking flasks and wooden bowls. There is no furniture to speak of – the few surviving tables are low and come apart. Thick floor coverings were essential though – sheepskins, felt rugs and even an imported pile carpet have all been found in tombs.
3. They loved their horses
Artist’s impression of a Scythian on a horse. Reconstruction by D V Pozdnjakov.
Siberia is vast. It stretches over eight time zones and borders Europe, China, the Pacific Ocean and Arctic Circle. It is made up of three major ecological zones – icy tundra at the north, dense forest in the central part, and mixed woodland and grassy steppe in the south. This last section forms a wide grassy corridor of rich grazing from Mongolia and China to the Black Sea. It is here that the Scythians began to develop more efficient ways of riding horses which meant they could move bigger herds to new grazing grounds over larger distances.
The Scythians developed horse breeding and riding to a new level. They were accomplished riders and did not use spiked bits or muzzles. Scythian horse gear (saddles, bridles, bits etc) was also highly developed and functional, durable and light. We know this because the large burial mounds contain large numbers of sacrificed horses. These were accompanied by halters, bridles and saddles, and occasionally whips, pouches and shields.
The saddle horses were buried with very elaborate costumes including headgear with griffins or antlers, saddle covers decorated with combat scenes, and long dangling pendants.
Horse headgear. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Scythian horses were well looked after – many were aged between 15 and 20 years when they were put to the grave. Almost all the buried horses were killed in the same manner – a hard blow of a pointed battle-axe to the mid-forehead. Although this is regarded today as a ‘humane’ method, within a society which prized horses, the killing of horses must have made a deep impression.
4. They liked getting drunk and high!
Gold plaques showing Scythians drinking. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Like many cultures, the Scythians drank to excess and got high. Feasting was an important part of Scythian funeral ceremonies – it was also important for social bonding between individuals and tribes. Originally known as ‘milk drinkers’, the Scythians adopted wine consumption from Greeks and Persians. They soon acquired a reputation for excessive drinking of undiluted wine (the Greeks used to mix their wine with water). Greek authors then commented on how the Scythians, like the Persians, liked to drink to excess. You can lead a horse(man) to water (but he’d prefer wine, apparently).
Herodotus also describes how the Scythians had a ritual which involved getting high on hemp in a kind of mobile ‘weed sauna’:
‘They anoint and wash their heads; as for their bodies, they set up three poles leaning together to a point and cover these over with woollen mats; then, in the place so enclosed to the best of their power, they make a pit in the centre beneath the poles and the mats and throw red-hot stones into it… The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, creeping under the mats, they throw it on the red-hot stones; and, being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour-bath. This serves them instead of bathing, for they never wash their bodies with water.’ (Histories, Book 4)
The Scythians realised the pain relieving effects of marijuana, which no doubt came in useful if they had been in a riding accident or a fierce battle.
5. They were tattooed
Fragment of mummified skin showing a Scythian tattoo. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
All the frozen Scythian bodies examined so far from different sites are heavily tattooed. The designs covered the arms, legs and upper torsos. They include fantastic animals locked in combat, rows of birds and simple dots resembling modern acupuncture.
Line drawings of tattoos on a Scythian man.
Other than tattoos, what did the Scythians look like? Some of the women have fair hair and blue eyes but the men are strongly built and have red or dark hair.
6. They liked a bit of bling
Gold torc with turquoise inlays. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Scythian craftsmen were good at casting metal. They worked gold, bronze and iron, using a combination of techniques like casting, forging and inlaying with other materials. None of these required large amounts of equipment and Siberia is rich in metal ores, but it did require skill. There will be many exquisite examples of Scythian metalwork in the exhibition.
7. They mummified their dead
Artist’s impression of a burial mound. Watercolour illustration, 18th century. Archive of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.
In the high Altai mountain region near the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, the frozen subsoil has meant that the organic remains of Scythians buried in tombs have been exceptionally well preserved in permafrost.
The Scythians took great effort to preserve the appearance of the dead using a form of mummification. They removed the brain matter through holes cut in the head, sliced the bodies and removed as much soft tissue as possible before replacing both with dry grass and sewing up the skin.
Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
As already noted, nomads do not leave many traces, but when the Scythians buried their dead they took care to equip the corpse with the essentials they thought they needed for the perpetual rides of the afterlife. They usually dug a deep hole and built a wooden structure at the bottom. For important people these resembled log cabins that were lined and floored with dark felt – the roofs were covered with layers of larch, birch bark and moss. Within the tomb chamber, the body was placed in a log trunk coffin, accompanied by some of their prized possessions and other objects. Outside the tomb chamber but still inside the grave shaft, they placed slaughtered horses, facing east.
WOAH! That’s enough for now…
Although Scythian culture remains relatively unknown, new discoveries are happening all the time. Stay tuned to the blog and our other social media channels to find out more about these fascinating nomadic warriors, and book your tickets now to see their culture on display in our special exhibition.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum from 14 September 2017 to 14 January 2018. Supported by BP.
Find out more about some of the key objects on display in this blog post.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Bactrian Mirage: Iranian and Greek Interaction in Western Central Asia

The Bactrian Mirage: Iranian and Greek Interaction in Western Central Asia

(Edinburgh Studies in Ancient Persia)

Hardcover – 31 Jul 2018

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Head of Atargatis or Tyche with doves

Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
In the recently published volume 7 of the Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology I came across this extremely beautiful Syrian limestone sculpture with the head of Atargatis or Tyche with doves
Dura-Europos (Syria)
Graeco-Roman or Parthian
On view
Ann Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 103–104, pl. 44, ill.
Susan B. Downey, The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report III (Los Angeles: Insititue of Archaeology, University of California Los Angeles, 1977), 47–8, 172–180, no. 33, pl. 9, fig. 33.
Christa Bauchenss-Thüriedl, Erika Simon, and Ingrid Krauskopf, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 8 vols. (Zurich: Artemis, 1981–97), vol. 3, p. 356-57, no. 20; vol. 7, p. 156-57, no. 3, pl. 98.
Handbook of the Collections, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1992), 271, ill.
Jerome J. Pollitt, “An Obsession with Fortune,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1994): 23, no. 55, fig. 7.
“Catalogue of the Exhibition ‘An Obsession with Fortune: Tyche in Greek and Roman Art’,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1994): 116, no. 55, fig. 7.
Lisa R. Brody and Gail Hoffman, eds., Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity (Boston: McMullen Museum of Art, 2011), 351, no. 44, pl. 44.
Jennifer Chi and Sebastian Heath, eds., Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos, exh. cat. (New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2011), 53, no. 36, fig. 2–24.

Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 2012 

L. Russell-SmithJ. Lerner (eds.)

324 p., 200 b/w ill. + 58 colour ill., 216 x 280 mm, 2016ISBN: 978-2-503-54348-2Languages: English Paperback The publication is available.Retail price: EUR 69,00 excl. tax
How to order?

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Ancient Saraishyk settlement on the Silk Road to be reconstructed


ASTANA – The Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Sports has allocated 100 million tenge (US$319,400) for the first stage of reconstructing the ancient settlement of Saraishyk, reported Tengrinews on Apr. 3.
“After the construction work, where a dam will be installed in order to preserve the natural site of the settlement of Saraishyk, we will start restoration work. One hundred million tenge (US$319,400) was allocated for the restoration work; this is the first stage. Each year step by step, we will move forward,” said Minister of Culture and Sports Arystanbek Mukhamediuly.
Saraishyk is located on the right bank of the Ural River, 55 kilometres from modern Atyrau. The ancient settlement measures more than 100 hectares, according to archaeologists.
The biggest challenge for the work is the fact that most of the ancient settlement has been destroyed by the river’s floods and a modern Muslim cemetery with new burials was built on the surface.
Due to the change in the river channel, the shore washed up and the remains of the ancient city’s ruins were submerged, according to the ministry. As a result, structures have disappeared forever, taking valuable items with them. Each year, the Ural destroys about five-seven metres of the coast where Saraishyk is located. To solve the issue, 1.6 billion tenge (US$5.1 million) was allocated earlier from the Atyrau region local budget, according to Kazinform.
Mukhamediuly added the dam construction, which will protect the settlement, is almost half completed.
“About half of the works have already been done, despite the winter time. As soon as the construction works that are needed for restoration work are completed, we will start restoration work,” he said, adding that archaeological excavations will be carried out before the restoration to find the most significant parts of the ancient city.
“The excavations will be guided by academician Zeinolla Samashev. There is no need to cover the whole city with restoration work. Archaeologists should establish the main streets of the city, as well as where the central streets and the eastern and northern gates are,” he added.
Saraishyk is officially dated to the 13th-16th centuries. Based on the results of archaeological research, during its existence the city was an important trade and cultural centre on the Silk Road and its roads connected the East and West. This is evidenced by the numerous objects of everyday life discovered during the excavation, such as ceramic items decorated with various texts of Arabic script, as well as fragments of bowls made with Chinese porcelain and a large number of objects created from bone, iron and bronze. The rich numismatic material testifies to the development of active trade in the city.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Wu Zetian: The Secret History of China's Female Emperor Documentary

Wu Zetian  China's Forgotten Emperor 

The chances are you won’t have heard of Wu Zetian. But in her story Channel 4 has dug up one of those shards of history that still seems etched in vivid colours more than a millennium after it happened. In the late seventh century AD, Wu rose from being a teenage palace concubine to become the only woman across 3,000 years of history to rule China in her own right. How she did so is the subject of some dispute, because most subsequent historians painted her as a vicious monster, even prepared to smother her own infant child to frame a rival. But archaeological evidence also points to a strong, shrewd ruler who expanded her empire and dominated the economic and cultural superpower of her day. So what is the true picture? With access to priceless treasures from Wu Zetian's time, Secret History looks to set her record straight.

Tourism and development threaten ancient painted caves in western China

At the heart of the ancient Silk Road, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, lies a centuries-old place of pilgrimage: hundreds of caves hewn from a sandstone cliff, containing some of the most exquisite Buddhist frescoes and figures in the world.
Abandoned for centuries, the Mogao Grottoes somehow survived everything that nature and man could throw at them, including earthquakes, floods and sandstorms. Marauding Muslim rebels, plundering European explorers and White Russian soldiers all left their mark. Rampaging Red Guards were turned away at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Pursuit of profit and hordes of visitors pose growing problem to fragile Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures in Mogao on the edge of the Gobi Desert

Today, the caves outside Dunhuang in western China enjoy a new stature, at the heart of China’s efforts to revitalise and rebuild the Silk Road as a testament to its growing power in Asia. They also stand as a symbol of Sino-American cooperation in China’s cultural preservation, thanks to pioneering work by the Getty Conservation Institute.
But the fragile wall paintings, some of which date to the 4th century and show stories from the Buddha’s life and visions of the afterlife, face another threat – from a new army of tourists and the lure of profit.

“In the past 100 years, most of the damage has been done by nature, but visits by more tourists will break the original balance inside the caves,” says Wang Xudong, president of Dunhuang Academy, which runs, preserves and restores the site. “Constant entrance and exit changes the temperature and humidity inside the caves. Human bodies also carry microorganisms, and if they start to grow inside the caves, it would be very scary.”

More than 1.1 million tourists visited the caves in 2015, a rise of 40 per cent in just a year and a roughly 20-fold jump in the past two decades.
The vast majority are Chinese, as the country’s growing wealth fuels a huge boom in domestic tourism and as interest is renewed in China’s Buddhist past.
With advice from Getty’s experts, the Dunhuang Academy initially tried to cap the number of tourists at 3,000 a day but later realised “that limit just would not stop people from coming”, Wang says. The limit was then raised to 6,000 a day, but demand regularly exceeds that in the peak July-to-October season.
To relieve the pressure, tourists are asked to register in advance and, before visiting the site, watch two 20-minute movies in a sweeping new visitors’ centre on the history of Dunhuang and the caves themselves.
Later, they are guided through a selection of the 40 caves that are open to the public, forbidden to take photographs in case their camera flash damages the frescoes.
Register too late, above the 6,000 cut-off, and you’ll miss the movies and get to see only four caves. By giving these latecomers “a very bad experience”, Wang says he hopes to encourage more people to come during the low season, when ticket prices are halved.

The question is whether Wang can stem the tide. Beside the visitors’ centre, nine miles from the caves, construction workers are building a privately funded tourist complex, including a theatre and hotels.
In the city of Dunhuang, a US$250 million conference centre and a bigger, 2,000-seat theatre are being built to house an annual Silk Road Cultural Expo. The large modern airport is being expanded, with a US$150 million upgrade.
“There is enormous commercial pressure,” says Neville Agnew, who has been visiting and working in the caves for 28 years for the Getty Conservation Institute. “The growth of the city of Dunhuang depends ultimately on the Mogao Grottoes. They are going to have their work cut out to control visitation, and, of course, I think you’d find many people who are interested in development of the region want more visitors.”
Yet there is also state-of-the-art restoration work going on here, thanks to a longstanding collaboration between the Dunhuang Academy, Getty and other foreign experts.
Painstakingly, the restorers start in each cave by taking hundreds of high-resolution photographs, in colour and black-and-white. Then the frescoes are examined to see what materials were used – and the causes of deterioration diagnosed – before experts decide on the best materials and methods to restore them.
Some of the paintings, rendered on a base of mud and grass, are partly detached from the rock face, and enormously vulnerable to humidity or earthquakes. Different kinds of grout were extensively tested before one was chosen to fill the gaps.

The project has produced guidelines that have been applied to other grottoes across China, as well as principles that have helped the country better manage its heritage sites. It has also spawned a major new exhibition at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles that runs until September and includes full-size replicas of three of the caves.

It is a much happier example of Sino-Western collaboration than the caves experienced a century ago. In 1907, Hungarian British archaeologist Aurel Stein persuaded a local monk to sell him 24 trunks packed with ancient Buddhist scriptures and five trunks of paintings, embroideries and other artworks that had only recently been discovered in a small walled-up cave. He paid the equivalent of £130.
French, Japanese and Russian explorers took thousands more priceless documents in subsequent years before American Langdon Warner showed up in 1923 to find the portable treasures gone. Determined not to leave empty-handed, he took some of the sculptures and used adhesive glue to rip a dozen paintings off the walls.
The official history calls them the “despicable treasure hunters”.


Others who weren’t seeking relics inflicted their own sorts of damage. In 1870, Muslim rebels turned up at the caves, burning down many of the wooden ladders that gave access. They may also have been responsible for scratching off the faces from some of the paintings.

In 1921, White Russian soldiers who had retreated into China during the war against the Bolsheviks were detained by the Chinese government and temporarily jailed in the caves. The damage from their fires, and their graffiti, is still visible in several caves.
But history was kinder during China’s Cultural Revolution, when, on orders from Premier Zhou Enlai, People’s Liberation Army soldiers and police were dispatched to protect the caves from gangs of Red Guards intent on destroying them.
Today, 735 caves remain, hewn from the cliff over a period of 1,000 years. Nearly 500 have paintings on the walls – undecorated caves were for meditation – while more than 2,000 sculptures have survived.
With partners all over the world, the Dunhuang Academy is working on a major digital archiving project, photographing the caves and everything that was once contained within them. Wang says more than 40,000 artworks or scriptures are scattered around the world but this is a way to unite them and preserve them forever.
“Of course, we hope that when the world truly becomes a big family, they can come back to Mogao caves and unite with the other relics here,” he says. “But reality is quite cruel sometimes. If we can get them back to the internet family through digitalisation, that is a target we can achieve for now.”