Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

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Mummy head - British Museum
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Museums are built to gaze at the past, but in this unmissable new exhibition, the past stares right back at you. There’s an ancient warrior with a ginger moustache, many tattoos and a beautifully sewn-up scar from his eye to his jaw. He was one of the Scythians: a nomadic people who marauded across the Eurasian steppes from around the ninth to the first century BC and to whom this perfectly immersive show is dedicated.

Just over 2,000 years ago, he was ceremonially buried in the Altai Mountains, close to the Russian border with China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. He was lost to time, as was the story of his people. But in the 1940s, Russian archaeologists excavated him and his female companion, and their mummified heads have arrived at the British Museum, where they are behind glass, regarding the steady stream of international visitors with sightless eyes.

It’s uncanny viewing, and not just because of their disturbed graves. Hard stuff like stones, bones and metal often survive millennia. But the Siberian permafrost, nature’s deep freezer, has preserved the soft stuff as well. So here you can see the colour and texture of a warrior’s hair; the outlines of beasts tattooed on his skin; and the texture of domestic life – leather, felt stockings, a squirrel-skin jacket – all captured and held by the ice.

In the UK, the tattooed riders who dominated the steppes of the ancient world are less familiar than the Egyptians or the Greeks (who employed crack Scythian archers as policemen in Athens). This exhibition completely and memorably describes their nomadic culture, with its astonishing reach, right across the vast grassy plains of Europe and Asia.

The hard stuff is astounding too. Piles of astonishing artefacts have been imported from Russia. There’s gold and plenty of it, mainly worked into awesome, curly belt buckles depicting spectacular bestial battles (griffin v horse, tiger v camel, vulture v yak). There are weapons, a terrifying helmet that looks like it was carved yesterday, and an extraordinary bird-topped funeral mask for a war horse, designed to take him into the afterlife.

But what’s really impressive is how meaningful and moving this is as a close encounter with a fierce and sophisticated culture. It’s bound together atmospherically by diligent detail, great storytelling and, where appropriate, a subtle soundscape of galloping hooves and the occasional sweeping digital panorama (a hit with the kids). It’s not exactly the afterlife that Pazyryk man would have dreamt of.

 

By: Caroline McGinn

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4.3 / 5

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Tastemaker

The exhibition about the Scythians at the british museum was very interesting. I hadn't heard of these ancient siberian warriors/nomads before and I am really glad I now do. If you want to get educated and get a trip to the past by learning about this ancient civilisation then you will enjoy it too. It is also very well set with unique findings, exhibits, including mummies and graves but also beautiful golden jewelry as well as videos and displays. It is also relatively short - which to me is a good thing. Head to the gift shop for some really cool stuff.

tastemaker

Great, interesting, well curated exhibition. I had a rough idea about the Scythians as a social anthropology graduate but I have learned a lot and enjoyed the combination of visuals and well preserved and presented artifacts. British Museum never disappoints. 4 stars just because I find quite pricey for a temporary exhibition like this one. 

tastemaker

I went to this exhibition at the British Museum without being particularly aware of who the Scythians were and what I would see/learn about them. Well, I was amazed!!! I unearthed such a strong nomadic population, 2300 years old, used to survive to extremely rigid temperatures and inhospitable territories, producing finely garnished jewels and attentively sewn squirrel (yes, you got it right!) fur clothes. All extremely well conserved by the permafrost (and the massive carved trunks they used as coffins) and meticulously arranged for the exhibition. 

Go and bring along your children! They'll love it!

tastemaker

Not having ever heard of the Scythians, I was curious to learn more about this ancient, nomadic culture of warriors. The exhibition, housed at the British Museum, is very well curated and displayed. The artefacts range from gold belt buckles, jewellery and ornaments; ancient pieces of clothing; furniture and household items; coffins and various burial items. You need a good amount of time to really appreciate what is on display - at least 1,5hours. Well worth a visit and very educational - I’m considering going again!

tastemaker

A fascinating insight into the lives and culture of the Scythians civilisation! It was interesting to read about how the Scythians took care of themselves through the extreme weather conditions that they endured and how they went about daily life. The blend of their European and Asian heritage was equally intriguing to explore! I was particularly taken by the quote written on one of the walls in the museum about how the Scythians managed to have their land occupied despite being such innovative people and warriors. 


I appreciated the length of the exhibition, as it was sufficient to give a decent background on the Scythians without boring with excessive information. I liked the mix of artefacts as well as drawings and paintings, which appeals to different sorts of people and how they enjoy an exhibition. My favourite would have to be the pins that many warriors wore on their coats, which I found quite delicate and pretty! 

tastemaker

A beautiful and we'll thought out exhibition detailing a whole swathe of people that I certainly, and I'm sure many others had never heard about. The Scythians were a collection of nomad tribes travelling the Siberian length. They were expert horseman, and skilled craftsman and warriors.

The golden buckles and clips are probably there most defining feature, and you'll get to see examples a plenty. The British museums security better be good, that's all I'm saying.

I admired their simple, yet incredibly effective life, developing the bow and arrow so it would travel faster and consequently further, and dipping it in poison to make sure of its desired effect.

Their funeral rites are pretty impressive too, burying the body with everything it may need for the afterlife including fake beards, faithful servants, and for those rich and lucky enough, their horse!

Highlights for me included seeing the tattooed skin, stockings and 2500 year old nail clippings. Thank God for the perma frost otherwise a lot of the exhibits may have been lost forever. I wonder what else there is to discover, but for now, I urge you to go and see this for yourself.

Tastemaker

I love lates at any Museum but especially The British! Was lucky enough to see the Scythians exhibit. Lovely mummy examples and I couldn’t get over how intricate the metal work on the jewellery was. If I’m honest, i felt there was not enough to see and yet I felt honoured to be able to. Maybe that’s a good sign!

Tastemaker

How did I not know about these incredible nomad people before? I mean I had read a little about them in history books but didn't really know anything else.


This fabulous exhibition was the remedy to my lack of knowledge. It proved a great introduction to their culture and practices. There even was mummy heads and bits of mummified skin showing off bold tattoos. I really enjoyed learning more about the tribes.

Give yourself a good hour to properly look at all the exhibits.


The British Museum never fails to deliver.

Tastemaker

Another brilliant, temporary exhibition curated in the stunning (and always so informative!) British Museum. 

A part of history that isn't well known (and certainly not studied at school) is brought to light, describing the fascinating lives of the Scythians; tribes of nomadic warriors who were skilled craftsman (making beautiful jewellery, elegant but practical clothing) and impressive riders adorned in imaginative tattoos

The information the exhibition provides is mind blowing, especially as there were very limited written records, with only brief note of them in accounts from other cultures such as the Greeks. It is with thanks to the conditions in which they lived which enables these deductions alongside the conditions in which they lived - another testament to their lifestyle. With not only metal and stone surviving due to the climate ( constant permafrosts), the exhibition also houses clothing, wooden furniture and mummified remains of these incredible people as well. 

 A vast amount is on loan from Russian museums who have gradually been excavating since the interest of Peter the Great (1600's) instigated explorations all over Siberia so make sure you visit before the exhibitions ends.

Make sure you give yourself a good hour to wander round, longer if you want to read all info given with each artifact. 

tastemaker

This exhibition was interesting, I went in not knowing anything about the Scythians and came out quite informed.  There was a great variety of artefacts on display to give you a great idea on their customs, clothes and how they lived. It was amazing that they were influenced by the Chinese, Greeks and Persians. It was fascinating how they adopted images of animals in pottery and jewellery and made finer pieces (many in gold) with great craftsmanship. However I do think the £16.50 entrance for an adult is a little pricey. 

tastemaker

This exhibition was interesting as you totally forget about the other exhibitions in the museum and concentrate your efforts on Scythians. It was a shame we couldnt take any pictures but I believe its to preserve the artefacts. 


It was an interesting curation with it being a very serious and silent affair apart from the odd horse neighing and the sound of their hooves. 


A lot of reading which did cause bottle necks but it did make me think it was sad so many of the tombs have been raided. I certainly hoped the British museum obtained their artefacts in a controlled manner and not by cowboys who were just after the treasures. 

tastemaker

The craftsmanship of this ancient culture was phenomenal - the metal and fabric work is exquisite and I could hardly believe that these things were made almost 2,500 years ago!  The exhibit is really well put together and it is a great collection of pieces.  The human remains were also fascinating, though probably not for a faint-hearted!  Well worth a visit!

tastemaker

We are so lucky to live in a city that caters for such an array of exhibitions; perfect for cool Autumn afternoons for a bit of a leisurely educational wandering in a museum. There’s a lot on display so it can be a little cramped in the space, and strangely the quotes on the wall were so high up, which made it a little awkward to read. Nevertheless, it was amazing to see how much detail there is in the Scythian gold work, how vital animals were to their lives, and just how open these people were to adopting artefacts from new cultures spanning across East to West - there is even a pair of chopsticks that was found in one of the burial sites. A good exhibition, but may be a little advanced for younger children.

Tastemaker

I had vaguely heard of Scythians before the exhibition, but did not know much about them.  The start of the exhibition revealed why in that they didn't keep written records and most of what they know about them is from objects that they have found. 


The exhibition is nice and spacious so you're not having to crowd round to see the various objects.  It was interesting to read about their gold ornaments and about their lives, it took me about 45 minutes to go round the exhibition.  For some reason I had expected to see a fully preserved human which had been found encased in ice, but alas, it was not to be.  There were a couple of quite gruesome objects - tattoed skin and a couple of heads encased in masks.  I was a bit disappointed not to learn more about them but they can only tell us what they know.

Tastemaker

There are no bad exhibitions at the British Museum. Well, at least I’ve never been to one. Scythians is just another great eye-opening show presenting little known group of ancient nomadic tribe of warriors. Thinking the Siberian steppes 3000 years ago I imagine savage horse riders, but the exhibition reveals a culture of highly skilled craftsmen creating beautiful golden objects, from buckles to jewellery, featuring wild animals (especially deer). What I found most fascinating was the 2.500 years old human skin covered in tattoos, again predominantly presenting animals. Worth visiting to discover this mysterious tribe, which was forgotten until 17th century, when the first treasures were found.

Tastemaker

If your idea of Siberia is a desolate wasteland lacking in culture or beauty, this fabulous and shimmering exhibition will change your mind. From exquisite golden bling, including buckles, buttons, necklaces and other ornaments, to textiles to death masks to huge log coffins and even the mummified head of a noble chieftain, the British Museum demonstrates that the ancient Scythian culture of Siberia was a vast nomadic empire trading with the ancient Greeks and Arabs and other civilisations that have been, probably unfairly, much more celebrated. The most welcome part of the exhibit is the massive space in the Sainsbury's Galleries so that no matter the crowds, you can get up and close to the well-written and designed exhibition cases without being crammed against every other visitor (as often happens with other museum exhibitions). 


We may all whinge about the crime, pollution and other miseries of living in London, but this exhibition will remind all of us that we also get access to the best museum in the world, the British Museum.

tastemaker

The Scythians were a pastoral,nomadic, warfaring people I have never heard of. Why is this when they have a vibrant and exciting history?

Living on the Siberian plains, they accrued a history of at least seven centuries (8th century BC -1st century BC). It was Peter the Great (1672-1725), who sent out explorations into Siberia. Much of the findings have come from Scythian burial mounds and are housed in the Hermitage Museum in Russia.

Due to the permafrost, many of the more fragile artefacts have remained preserved in an unusually good condition; squirrel fur coats and sable fur pouches are totally recognisable rather than tiny remnants requiring the imagination to fill in the gaps; a sheepskin rug survives intact as does a funerary veil made of either fox cub fur or puppy!

There are many intricately decorated gold plaques and bridle fittings. In fact, the Scythians decorated much of what they made: gold headdress fittings, items made from wood, horn and leather and appliquéd saddle-covers. They even decorated their own bodies with tattoos.

Being nomads, their life was a get-up-and-go existence; their table legs unscrewed for convenience of packing; their hemp sets used tripods that folded flat and their horses were their best friends sometimes being killed and buried alongside their owner.

Animals abound in the decorations. Elks, leopards, panthers, bacterial camels, foxes, cheetahs, goats and horses to name but a few.

This is a gem of an exhibition with huge care taken to space. Sounds of winds across the Steppe and horses nearby, help to create an atmosphere of wild, nomadic living. But the real jewels are the exhibits themselves, creating a presence of the shaven-headed men and women having such skills in life but taking these with them into death.