A shadow looms in the British Museum’s Scythian exhibition.
The first sight which greets visitors is a larger than life portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller. For it was Peter, we are told, who discovered the Scythians. Peter’s portrait and drawings of his kunstkamera line the walls in the first room of this five star exhibition.
“His stately form, his intellectual forehead, his piercing black eyes, his Tartar nose and mouth, his gracious smile, his frown black with all the stormy rage and hate of a barbarian tyrant” welcome the crowds, to quote Lord Macaulay.
Peter the Great was the great moderniser of Russia. He expanded Russian territory, founded St Petersburg, and instituted cultural change. Part of this was the institution of learned societies. In Britain he is possibly most famous for his visit to London. He stayed some time at the home of the diarist John Evelyn in Deptford and trashed it. Until recently a large scale mural stood in Creek Street commemorating this visit. The paining by Kneller (above) was painted during his visit to London and presented to King William III.
From the viewpoint of the West, we see Peter as a westerniser. He was fascinated by the sea. In Amsterdam he learnt much about shipbuilding, at Deptford he may have worked incognito on the docks and in Portsmouth he witnessed naval exercises and sham battles.
Yet his “piercing black eyes” turned east to the other edges of his vast Empire. During his reign, several intricately wrought gold objects were found in Siberia (specific locations are not known). These included personal jewellery such as earrings and bracelets and belt buckles. Several of these objects contain similar designs and ornamental flourishes, and often depict fantastical animals attacking each other. They are genuinely beautiful pieces. Gold can keep its shape well and is an instinctively alluring artistic medium. It is not surprising that Peter kept the pieces. He went further, banning the excavation of burial mounds in the region without his permission.
His portrait deserves to be hung somewhere in the exhibition but to place it prominently at the start betokens a certain politic choice. Much of the artefacts on display come from the Hermitage Museum (part of a growing relationship which began with the lending of the Parthenon sculpture in 2014). It is not so much that we are to see Peter as a stand in for other Russian leaders, but rather the Russianess of the Scythians (and the research behind it) is emphasised. Otherwise, we may think that a Greek discovered them.
Scythia is the Greek term for the area around the Crimea and the North west of the Black Sea. It is doesn’t really cover modern Siberia, but is a similar nebulous geographical region which covered much of the steppe lands.
In the ancient and medieval world the Eurasian steppes were a strategic and impenetrable threat to the settled civilisations of the Middle East. The Scythians are mentioned by Herodotus in terms of the military and political challenge they threatened against the Persian Empire. In 513 BC Darius I preempitvely attacked the Scythians, but was unable to defeat them. We know of this campaign, because Herodotus recorded it in his History. The Persian debacle in Siberia preceded the Greek defeat a century later.
The Scythians, like the Greeks, lived on the edges of the civilised world. Unlike the Greeks, who lived on rocky outcrops of the Mediterranean basin, the Scythians lived on the grassy steppe. The steppe was not good for cereal agriculture but was well suited to grazing of livestock. This created nomadic societies which followed a transhumance lifestyle.
To call the ancient Steppe people, Scythians, ignores the fact that it is hard to identify a unified people from this vast region. Their shared art and culture may point to cultural transmission rather than political dominance. Their “love of horses” was shared across millennia by other Steppe cultures. There is no evidence for centralised political power, although Herodotus’ account may point to a confederation of sorts.
Herodotus portrayed the Scythians as noble savages. They drank to excess, they performed strange rituals and were the opposite to the Greeks. It is primarily as excellent warriors that the Scythians are remembered in the Western tradition. Lord Macaulay’s portrayal of the Europhile Tsar Peter draws on this tradition.
Yet the material remains on show at the British Museum point to the deep cultural life of the Steppe. Not only did this group master the art of horse archery, they also perfected a bow design which made an effective weapon. The gold objects are small portable masterpieces which can be easily carried on the move, and may also draw on mythic symbolism. The exhibition depicts the every day objects which place the Steppe people in a more complex cultural space.
The exhibition is worth visiting to see the Steppe clothes. Highly ornate conical hair pieces worn by elite women, ornamental horse coverings and boots. More ghastly are the remains of tattoos found on skin and even preserved heads. The tattoos follow similar designs to the gold work but may also have their own meaning and symbolism.
My favourite piece was the hemp smoking apparatus. Herodotus reports how:
” The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and creep under the felt coverings, and then they throw the seed upon the stones which have been heated red-hot: and it burns like incense and produces a vapour so thick that no vapour-bath in Hellas would surpass it: and the Scythians being delighted with the vapour-bath howl like wolves” [Herodotus, Book IV]
A hexapod stand, felt covering, small brazier and hemp seeds were found together in a burial mound in Pazyryk preserved in the permafrost. It seems like Herodotus may have been right.
Although the show begins under the shadow of Peter, really it is the shadow of Herodotus that looms over this show. Whilst walking through the show, I overheard an old man say “Herodotus said that, but then he was Herodotus“. The implication being that we have to take all that Herodotus wrote with a pinch of salt. The trouble with understanding the Scythians is that we have very little sources about them. It is impossible to step out of the gloom cast by Herodotus’ shadow. To do so we enter into another gloom.
To its credit, this exhibition reveals the richness of life and custom and the international connections which Herodotus revelled in, but adds an immediacy that is shocking at times but deeply moving and beautiful.
— Simon Bralee (@Braleebatch) December 22, 2017
Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller Public Domain