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Athena Review Exhibition Reports: 

Gold of the Nomads

Brooklyn Museum of Art

200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238   (tel: 718/638-5000).

October 13, 2000 - January 21, 2001

Organized by the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the San Antonio Museum of Art, in cooperation with museums of the Ukraine, the Brooklyn exhibit presents a wealth of golden objects (fig.1) found in elaborate burial mounds known as kurgans or kurhans. It also provides us with a history of the Scythians, nomads who apparently moved west from the Altai Mountains early in the first millenium, replacing the Cimmerian tribes to control the rich agricultural lands north of the Black Sea (modern Ukraine) from ca. 600-300 BC. Much of our knowledge of these horse-riding tribes comes from the 5th century BC historian Herodotus who recorded such details as their custom of using the skin of their enemies' hands to make quivers, and their propensity to drink fermented mare's milk.

Entering the main exhibit hall we get our first look at these famed warriors, depicted on a magnificent golden helmet uncovered in 1988 . Nearby is an elaborate gold cover for a gorytos, or bow and quiver case (fig.1) one of four found in Scythian burial mounds, each hammered against the same template, probably by Greek craftsmen working in the kingdom of Bosphorus.

[Fig.1: Gold cover for gorytos or quiver, 4th c BC (Gold of the Nomads, Brooklyn Museum of Art).]

Although Scythian women are rarely represented on works of art, we are provided with some idea of how they looked by a display of their garments. Wealthy Scythian women, it seems, were literally covered in gold from head to toe, wearing such items as a headdress covered in 243 gold plaques depicting gorgon heads, rosettes, lotuses and palmettes, a dress decorated with gold plates showing various fantastical scenes, and shoes also appliqued in gold. A rare depiction of a Scythian woman, on a golden diadem excavated one hundred years ago, is probably of the principal Scythian deity, Tabiti (cat. #40). Here she holds a mirror, objects frequently found in women's burials throughout Central Asia (several bronze examples are in this exhibit), and is surrounded by men playing instruments and participating in ritual drinking.

Considering the importance of horses in Scythian society, it is not surprising that their mounts, too, were covered in adornment, especially those that were sacrificed and buried alongside their riders to accompany them to the next world. The exhibit features the silver trappings from one such horse, buried along with thirteen others in the Khersons'ka Oblast' region. The trappings include finely wrought cheekpieces in which a winged deity fights a lion, and a noseband with a raised lions head. Another kurgan excavated ten years ago in the same region contained not only the skeletons of horses still wearing their gold and bronze bridle ornaments, but also a gold necklace with horse-head finials and a magnificent gold phiale (cup) decorated in high relief with six horse heads rotating in open- mouthed agitation around a central amber inset (fig.2).

Horses, however, are not the animals most commonly depicted in Scythian art; far more prevalent are the stag, feline and bird of prey, which can be seen on everything from gold plaques, to bronze poletops, to a bone bow-tip. Scholars believe these are meant to represent red deer, spotted and snow leopards and the golden eagle, all animals which inhabit the forested region of the Altai mountains, not the grassy steppes of the Ukraine. The depiction of these animals thus appears to reflect a concern with prey and predator from when the Scythians originated as a hunting society in eastern lands.

When more than one animal is depicted in a scene, they are often shown in mortal combat, as in the gold quiver cover presenting a stag under attack from a feline, eagle and snake (cat. #50). This scene also demonstrates one of the central tendencies of Scythian art, that of transformation from one form to another, probably reflecting the centrality of movement and evolution in this nomadic society. In this case, we note that the lion's jaw emulates a bird's head, while other birds' heads can be seen in both the hooves and antlers of the fallen deer. This transformation of antlers to birds' heads is apparent in a number of other objects in the exhibit, and may express the Scythian belief in rebirth and regeneration, and probably stems from the observation that the male red deer sheds his antlers every year, only to grow them anew the next spring. Some scholars thus believe the antlers were seen as branches in the Tree of Life, which themselves evolved into birds in an eternal life-cycle, a hypothesis which certainly makes sense of an unusual bronze staff finial in which a man is surrounded by four 'branches' or antlers, each topped by an eagle with outstretched wings (cat. #39). The nude, phallic figure, unusual in Scythian art, is probably a deity (perhaps Papaeus, next in importance to Tabiti in the Scythian pantheon). Attached pendants and bells were undoubtedly meant to chime as the finial was carried in some religious ceremony, reflecting the Scythians interest in sound as well as movement.

The remainder of the exhibit focuses on Scythian contacts and relationships throughout the ancient world. Early in their wanderings westward, it is known that they played a considerable role in the power struggles of the Near East, becoming enough of a military threat to the Assyrians that the king Esarhaddon (681-668 BC) married his daughter to a Scythian noble. The influence of the Near East clearly shows in both Scythian art and daily artifacts, including such motifs as the griffin (which fit well with the Scythian fondness for both felines and eagles, and their conceptions of transformation between the two) and objects such as the rhyton, or drinking horn.

[Fig.2: Cup with horse heads, 5th c BC (Inst. of Archaeology, Kyiv).]

The establishment of Greek trading colonies, including Olbia, Cheronesos and Pantikapaion on the Black Sea coast in the 7th century BC, brought additional influence from the Greek world on Scythian culture. Greek objects become increasingly common in Scythian burials, as the Scythians exchanged local resources such as grain, sturgeon, animal pelts, honey and amber for imported Greek wine, oil and luxury items. A striking example of how deeply Greek trade-goods penetrated into Scythian territory is the discovery a large cache of Greek bronze vessels in a peat bog 300 miles (500 km) up the Dneiper River. All of the finds were manufactured in Greece, but include decorations, such as an eagle-headed griffin attacking a stag, which undoubtedly were chosen to appeal to popular Scythian tastes (cat # 84).

While Greek items such as helmets, amphoras and even rings made from Greek coins, as well as locally-manufactured copies of Greek objects, become increasingly common in Scythian tombs, equally noteworthy is the growing Greek influence on Scythian art. It is difficult to determine the exact ethnicity of the craftspersons who created many of the finest gold and silver objects, since the Scythians themselves were already skilled metallurgists, while the prospect of wealthy customers must have attracted metal-workers from regions as far as southern Italy. Most scholars, however, now believe that many of these objects were produced by Greeks living in Pantikapaion, the capital of the kingdom of Bosphoros. Catering directly to the Scythian market, these metalworkers often modified their style to local preferences. In the gold gorytos described above, for instance, the artist must have been aware of Scythian modesty, for the genitalia of the male figures are carefully covered in a manner the Greeks would not have thought necessary. In many cases it is also seems that local craftspersons worked in collaboration with Greek masters; thus, on the gold helmet discussed earlier, we can note the difference between the detailed, skilled rendering of the heads of the combatants and the less practiced hand evident in the depiction of the garments.

One of the final objects in the exhibit, a brilliant, 4th century BC, gold pectoral (cat.#172) shows influence from both the Near East and Greece, in style and subject matter. Yet in its own way, it is uniquely Scythian. In its outer register we see, finely sculpted in the round, a world that evolves from wild and mythical death-struggles to everyday, mundane conflict: in the center, griffins attack horses, flanked by scenes of leopards and lions assailing a boar and a stag, towards the edge a hound chases a hare, and finally, two grasshoppers face-off. Quite different is the top register which depicts rare scenes from daily peaceful Scythian life: at center, two men stitch a fleece, their bow and quiver cases at rest near-bye; they are surrounded by horses and cows with their young, some of whom are nursing. Then on each side, shepherds are at work, one milking, while the other holds an amphora, followed by goats, kids and a bird. Perhaps here we are witnessing the domestication of the Scythian people, who, at the time the pectoral was created, were becoming increasingly sedentary and eventually, vulnerable to attack from newer immigrants from the east, the Sarmatians.

Michele A. Miller

From Athena Review, Vol.2,no.4.

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