The first thorough excavations of ancient burial mounds in Ukraine and Russia have yielded a treasure trove of information about the nomadic peoples known as the Scythians and Sarmatians. But tens of thousands of these mounds remain unexplored and, with money lacking to continue the excavations, concern is mounting about the possibility they may be plundered. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon talks to art experts about the problems.
New York, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Scythian and Sarmatian treasures now on display in two New York museums come from large burial mounds known as kurgans.
Excavation is a complex process because the Scythians and other nomads often placed their graves as deep as 15 meters below ground and then covered them with up to 20 meters of earth.
Some of the kurgans were plundered in antiquity but recent excavations uncovered a wealth of gold and silver objects. Experts at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art say the ability to see the objects the way they were buried is extremely valuable to understanding the nomadic cultures.
With little evidence of settlements or homes, the burial mounds provide the primary information about groups like the Scythians and Sarmatians, who roamed the steppes of Ukraine and parts of Russia, among other places, for several hundred in the first millennium B.C.
The exhibit currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art focuses on nomads believed to be Sarmatians. The exhibit's organizer, Joan Aruz, says major discoveries about these peoples are made each time a kurgan is excavated. And there are hundreds more of the unexcavated kurgans in southern Russia.
In eastern Ukraine, there are an estimated 40,000 unexcavated kurgans. That means the hundreds of objects that have fascinated antiquities experts represent only a fraction of what still lies buried under great mounds.
The co-curator of the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit focusing on the Scythians is Ellen Reeder. She traveled to excavation sites in Ukraine to help produce a video accompanying the Brooklyn museum's exhibit. Reeder says that many of the kurgans are in the middle of giant collective farms in areas previously closed to the West.
She says she is concerned that as the societies become more open, the prospect of looting grows. That would disturb the complete burial information archaeologists have so far been able to derive from the mounds.
"This is information that is so incredibly important. Most works of art from an ancient site that are on the market today -- most of them are from looted sights, most of them have been detached from their context or from their original objects, and we can't reconstitute them. We'll never be able to again."
Reeder and Aruz hope the objects on display in New York will help raise awareness about these treasures and make their protection a priority. They say Ukrainian and Russian officials have also shown concern in preserving these cultural treasures but lack the financial resources to do a thorough excavation of all sites.