British Museum to go more than skin deep with Scythian exhibition

Margie Jones
This article is more than 6 years old

Tattooed piece from warrior’s torso part of show that hopes to shine light on empire of fierce nomads unknown to many in west

A piece of tattooed skin from the upper torso of a warrior who died about 2,400 years ago will be one of the more unusual items on display as part of a British Museum exhibition which opens in September.

The exhibition will shine a light on the Scythians – fierce nomadic horsemen who ruled an empire stretching from the Black Sea across Siberia to the borders of China for 1,000 years. Little known in the west, they are regarded as part of the ancestry of all Russians.

Tattooed part of human skin with a tattoo.
Tattooed part of human skin with a tattoo. Photograph: V Terebenin/tate Hermitage Museum

The skin will be among hundreds of objects on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Many are leaving Russia for the first time, including some excavated only in the last few years. The extraordinary preservation of wood, skin, bone, textiles and even food – such as a leather bag found still containing two pieces of cheese – was because the Scythians dug their tombs deep into the Siberian permafrost. Rescue excavations are now underway at many sites as climate change thaws the frozen ground, risking the destruction of treasures from a still mysterious civilisation.

A cheese bag.
A cheese bag. Photograph: Dmitry Sirotkin

Curator St John Simpson said: “Mostly in this museum we are familiar with peoples who built cities, lived in a built environment, and wrote their own histories … The Scythians had no written language and so left no accounts of themselves, and as nomadic herders they built nothing permanent except their tombs, which fortunately for us they filled with everything they owned in life. The tombs are their monuments.”

The museum has maintained warm relations with the Hermitage throughout the recent cooling of diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia, and sparked controversy in 2014 when it loaned the St Petersburg institution one of the bitterly contested Parthenon marbles, the first time it had left the UK since Lord Elgin brought them back from Athens in the 19th century. The loans from the Hermitage, and from the National Museum of Kazakhstan, make the exhibition possible about a culture on which the London museum has scant material.

Written accounts of the Scythians, superb horsemen, brilliant bowmen, and expert craft workers, come from their awed and frequently terrified neighbours. The accounts of Greek historian Herodotus include claims that after drinking their blood the warriors made cloaks of the scalps of their victims in battle. So vivid are the descriptions that Simpson believes Herodotus must have spent time in the Greek settlements on the Black Sea, meeting Scythians and travellers from their territory.

“It has been questioned whether Herodotus was the first of historians or the first of liars, but increasingly archaeology is proving the accuracy of his accounts.”

The curator believes one custom explains how the Scythians coped with the savage climate of much of their empire. Herodotus described how they took hemp seeds, threw them on red hot stones in a felt tent, breathed in the vapour, and then “delighted, shout for joy”. Recent excavations have recovered seeds, braziers, tripods and stones exactly as described, and the exhibition will recreate one of the hemp burners – though without the intoxicating fumes.

A modern day goat herder in front of the Altai mountains.
A modern day goat herder in front of the Altai mountains. Photograph: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many of the loans reflect the Scythians’ nomadic life style, including an ingenious collapsible table which Simpson described as “proto-Ikea flatpack”. Their herds provided them meat, milk and cheese such as the pieces found in the tomb which could have been made from sheep, goat or mare’s milk, and were intended as food for the afterlife of the warrior.

Among the loans will be a gold belt buckle showing a group mourning a dead warrior under a tree. His horses also look sorrowful, with good reason: the excavations show their slaughtered steeds accompanied the Scythians to the grave. It came from one of the earliest recorded tomb excavations at the time of Peter the Great, and became the first object in his new museum.

Another buckle, probably made by a Greek craftsman, shows a bearded warrior with flowing hair, riding bareback, spear in hand. He is wearing soft shoes and long embroidered robes, which Simpson thinks significant: it was their preserved bodies which proved that the Scythian men and women were heavily tattooed, but no outsiders described them. The bodies showed that the tattoos, of abstract patterns or stylised animals, were on chests, upper arms and legs which outsiders would not have seen.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene.
A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene. Photograph: V Terebenin/State Hermitage Museum

The tattoo on the skin coming to the exhibition shows part of an tiger with fierce claws. It was found in a tomb at Pazyryk, part of a Unesco world heritage site in the Altai mountains in Siberia, where the contents included the oldest known pile carpet in the world, and the bodies of five heavily tattooed people. Now refrigerated trucks stand by in case human or animal remains are found, such as a chieftain discovered in 2007 dressed in a sable coat.

When the Pazyryk tombs were excavated in the 1940s, Simpson said, they had no means of preserving the entire bodies and so pragmatically chopped off heads and any particularly interesting body parts.

The British Museum only has a tiny collection of Scythian related objects, mostly recording their contacts with neighbouring empires. One clay tablet records that the Assyrian king Esarhaddon agreed to send an Assyrian princess to marry the Scythian leader Bartatua in the 7th century BC to seal a peace treaty. “The treaty apparently held, but she swapped life in an Assyrian palace for a nomad’s felt tent – one would so love to have her side of the story, but we hear no more of her,” Simpson said.

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