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.