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Ukraine/Russia: Scythian Gold From The Steppes Stirs Interest

  • Robert McMahon

Two current exhibits at New York museums provide new insights into nomadic peoples who ranged from Central Asia to the Black Sea more than 2,000 years ago. The exhibits display hundreds of rarely seen pieces of early Eurasian art that suggest these nomads helped link some of the cultures they encountered. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon talks to museum experts about the new finds.

New York, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For centuries, little has been known about the Scythians, aside from their reputation for fearsomeness as they migrated across the steppes from Central Asia to modern-day Ukraine.

They possessed no known written language, so what few impressions we have come from ancient historians such as Herodotus or the 20th century martial music of Prokofiev's "Scythian Suite."

But the Scythians and other nomads left behind a wealth of objects at their burial sites in Ukraine and Russia. Recent excavations are providing a new understanding of how they lived and traveled.

Two exhibits in New York are displaying some of these newly uncovered objects that have proved exciting to both art historians and the viewing public. Museum officials involved in organizing each exhibit say the objects show how the Scythians and a lesser-known group of nomads called the Sarmatians bridged a world that extended from the Altai mountains in eastern Central Asia to the Black Sea settlements of modern-day Ukraine.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit is showing "Gold of the Nomads," a collection of objects unearthed from Scythian burial sites in Ukraine during the past two decades and rarely seen outside that country. The Scythians came to the region early in the first millennium BC -- that is, before Christ -- and grew prosperous through the trade of grain to Greek and other Mediterranean markets.

They were legendary warriors, but the Brooklyn exhibit emphasizes that the wealthiest Scythians were also great art patrons. Many of the objects on display are believed to have been commissioned by the Scythians from workshops in Greek settlements along the Black Sea.

Gold jewelry, drinking vessels, and weapons found in the teams bear a Greek style. But there is a Scythian influence in the depiction of animals such as the spotted leopard and golden eagle -- native to the Altai mountains. Scythian designs also make frequent use of spirals, animals in combat, and other shapes that convey restless movement.

The co-curator of the Brooklyn exhibit, Ellen Reeder, tells RFE/RL that the objects on display show the mingling of two cultural art forms.

"Many of the works of art coming out of these burials are showing a very successful fusion of Greek style with Central Asian. It's not just an alignment or a clash of different kinds of artistic traditions."

This fusion of styles can be seen in one of the most striking objects in the exhibit, a gold bowl ringed by a high relief of horse heads. It is an image inspired by a frieze on Greece's Parthenon but with a Scythian accent. The position of the horse heads is like the massing of horses around a water source -- an image the drinker would have seen inside the bowl.

In addition to gold and jewelry on display, throughout the exhibit are emblems of a warrior people on the move -- helmets, food containers and numerous adornments for their horses. Reeder says it is natural that such items would be counted among the greatest treasures to be buried among these nomadic people.

"What we have to remember is that as a nomadic people, you don't express your status, your wealth, who you are by means of heavy material goods. You really have to indulge yourself and define yourself to others through what you can wear, what you can carry and by what your horse can wear and carry."

Most historic accounts show the Scythians fading in about the third century BC and being supplanted by the Sarmatians, another group of invading nomads. The Sarmatians developed a similar but distinct artistic style that is now on view at an exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibit features pieces recently excavated from an archaeological site in Filippovka, in southern Russia. Like the pieces at the Brooklyn museum, many of the Sarmatian objects are gold and are dominated by animal imagery.

But the so-called "animal style" of the steppe nomads changes sharply in the form of more than 20 golden deer, which were excavated at Filippovka. The deer, averaging about two feet in height, were carved in wood and covered in gold and silver. They differ from the other numerous depictions of deer in nomadic art in many ways. Their elongated snouts with bared teeth, high curling antlers, and bodies decorated with spirals mark a progression in styles from pieces found in China and the Altai mountains from the same period.

The organizer of the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Joan Aruz, tells RFE/RL that the golden deer and other objects provide a link between Siberia and the Black Sea.

Aruz says the nomadic peoples who settled on the Russian steppes toward the end of the fourth century B.C. came into contact with many of the great empires of the time. They were never conquered but apparently were influenced by the cultures they encountered.

"They came into contact with Greece, with Persia, and with China. So therefore this is one big cultural condition of interaction among all these various cultures, and Central Asia plays a very strong role in these connections. Sort of a northern version of the Silk Route."

The objects on view at the Metropolitan museum are from a region that scholars have associated with the Sarmatians, but Aruz says the excavations at Filippovka raise more questions than they answer. The golden deer and some other items are such distinctly different artistic styles, she says, that they may represent a new culture.

Also mysterious are gold and silver items from the Filippovka tombs that resemble art from ancient Iran.

"We really don't know who they were. We don't know because we have nothing in writing about them. We don't know whether they were Iranian speakers, like the Sarmatians, so it's yet another mystery."

The Metropolitan exhibit joins together objects from the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Archaeological Museum of the city of Ufa, in Bashkortostan. It runs until Feb 4 and will next be seen at the Palazzo Reale in Milan in the spring of 2001.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibit displays objects on loan from Ukraine's Museum of Historical Treasures, Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences, and the State Historical Achaeological Preserve. This exhibit lasts in New York until January 21, and then goes to the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada starting Feb 18.

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