Gold of the Great Steppe

Beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspians, beyond whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory reaches to the sea.

Herodotus 4.12.31

The Saka culture of Central Asia is due a reappraisal. Since Herodotus described strange peoples beyond the ken of his world, Western scholars and artists have been entranced by the mysterious beyond.

Scholars in the countries he wrote about, have known better. In recent years, this knowledge has been further developed by discoveries from the melting permafrost and the painstaking work and scientific expertise of Kazakhstani archaeologists.

the griffins that guard gold

Gold of the Steppes, a new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam explores treasures recently excavated in Kazakhstan.

The Saka inhabited the vast Eurasian steppes. They were sometimes identified with the slightly better known Scythians, but were a separate group of people. The word ‘Saka’ was used interchangeably in Persian for the two groups. However, when Herodotus described the Scythians in his histories, he also identified other groups who inhabited the regions further east of the Black Sea region. 

It has been suggested the gold-guarding griffins are in fact the Saka people. The icon turns up in their art however, we do not know what they called themselves.

The exhibition brings together the grave goods from various kurgans, the elaborate mounds of the steppe. It is important to state that this is not a cross slice of Saka society. These were elite objects. 

It seems that the Saka society was hierarchical with an elite class.

Even within this stratified society, crafts people would have been important. The time and expense of extracting and refining both the raw material and then creating luxury goods suggest a developed economy. The skill required would have been immense. For example in some graves, tens of thousands of delicate cylindrical gold beads of around 1 mm were sewn on clothing. 

Items in distant styles have also been excavated. A Bactrian style headdress was found in Kazakhstan hinting at long distance connections, either in items or ideas.

Delicate gold beads

Saka art depicts stylised and abstract animal and bird forms in beautiful gold. The items in the exhibition are portable goods, but standing stones and rock faces were also identified with the style. Art historians have identified regional traits, but as yet have not created a chronology for different styles. 

This ‘animal style’ hints at the world view of the Saka, but the significance of the different animals is not clear. In common with other inhabitants of the steppes at the time, they were noted horse riders. Horses have been found buried with humans, sometimes with elaborate ornaments. Some of these outfits would have been worn in life, while others were too delicate and may have only been put on in death.

It is in the presence of death that we reach closest to an understanding of the divine, within Saka thought. The ornate grave goods and outfits given to both man and beast perhaps allude to some sense of the afterlife. 

Archaeologists also believe that gifts like clothing and jewels were left at graves on the anniversaries of the dead. A similar ritual survives to this day in Kazakhstan.

We can only speculate on what people believed at those moments, but it is easier to imagine their emotional states.

Centuries later, the bodies and objects they carefully laid to rest have emerged bringing back to life the art and culture of their society.

Gold of the Steppes is a thought provoking and entrancing exhibition with well laid out displays and captions. A model of exhibition UX. A visit is recommended.