Scythians review – wine, weed and war as the Siberian nomads charge into battle
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2017-09-18 Size:
When the composer Igor Stravinsky and the artist……

A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand from Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum.

When the composer Igor Stravinsky and the artist-archaeologist Nicholas Roerich sat down to create a primeval ballet of prehistory and human sacrifice in 1911, they found inspiration in the strange world of the ancient Scythians. The Rite of Spring, the ballet unleashed in Paris two years later, draws on Roerich’s own excavations to paint its scything musical picture of the violent Scythian past. His set included paintings of their burial mounds.

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man; late 4th - early 3rd century BC.

The contents of those mounds can be seen in all their eerily preserved barbarian splendour in the British Museum’s resurrection of a past that feels very remote indeed. In one case, I saw a decorated animal hide – but no, on closer inspection, this was the tattooed skin of a Scythian warlord, preserved along with his fierce-looking head. The Scythians understood the preservative power of ice and capped their tombs with heaps of stone to keep in the cold. This exhibition abounds in the intimate relics these underground freezers preserved: leather saddles, embroidered rugs, felt clothes – an entire nomadic culture retrieved from time.

The Scythians are not unknown to history – or myth. They flourished from about 900 to 200BC, ranging from their Siberian homelands to the Black Sea and China, a nomadic people who pioneered sophisticated saddles that let them fight more effectively on horseback than any of the settled civilisations they encountered. They fought off the Persians and scared the ancient Greeks. It is even possible they inspired the Greek myth of the centaur, a half-horse, half-human creature.

The idea becomes much more believable when you see the elaborate armour and helmets they created for a horse to wear, to carry its owner into the afterlife. Some ancient rulers were buried with their slaves or wives, but Scythian lords were accompanied by their horses. It suggests a very close connection – and a Scythian riding into battle really might have looked to awestruck witnesses like a centaur.

In Greek mythology, centaurs go mad when they drink wine. Objects recovered from their tombs reveal how the Scythians learned about wine from Greece and got addicted to it. If heavy drinking was big in their culture, so was smoking weed. The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BC, is often accused of making up his outlandish stories. One tale he tells about the Scythians is that they loved to smoke hemp, which they burned under a kind of tent that you could put your head into. One such device is in this exhibition, recovered from a Scythian tomb. Herodotus got this one right.

Southern Siberian landscape with burial mounds.

I’ve mentioned Stravinsky and Herodotus but a lot of the time this exhibition is sheer Game of Thrones. The horse-riding nomadic Scythians menacing more settled societies in China, Greece and Persia have a lot in common with the TV fantasy world’s Dothraki, who similarly skirt the rim of civilisation. In time, the Scythian lifestyle would produce a chain of warlords in the same part of the world, from the Huns to the Mongols, who would bring down Rome and conquer China.

A primeval warrior power, dark and merciless, emanates from the most bizarre object here: a giant wooden coffin, big enough to hold about four bodies, in which a single warrior was entombed so that he would be remembered as a superhuman giant. Yet the Scythians had artistic skill as well as strength. They created golden images that are more than mere shiny things. In a famous ancient Greek sculpture, a lion attacks a horse. In Scythian gold, there are tigers fighting camels, monsters attacking horses.

Six sticks of a smoking tent frame and brazier.

It was when these gold marvels started coming out of Siberia in the early 18th century that the Scythians began to emerge from legend into archaeology. Peter the Great, the westernising tsar who built St Petersburg, grabbed the finds for his royal collection. The Hermitage has since accumulated the world’s greatest Scythian horde and has lent a stupendous array.

My only quibble with this absorbing journey into the rites of the Scythians is that it doesn’t open out enough. We get a lot about Peter the Great but why not explore modern Russia’s obsession with the Scythians more? I’d have liked to see Roerich’s art and designs for The Rite of Spring. Instead this exhibition is determined to let these warriors speak for themselves, even though they left no writing. We’re urged to put aside prejudices against ancient “barbarians” and see things from their point of view.

The result is beguiling, but by the end it gets a bit narrow and enclosed. Perhaps that, too, is an accurate reflection of the Scythian world: horses, wine, war and good hemp to smoke – what else do you need?

• Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is at the British Museum, London, from 14 September until 14 January.

[Editor] 张艳