I went today to see the British Museum's Scythians exhibition. It finishes on the fourteenth of January, so time was in danger of running out if I didn't get round to visiting this side of Christmas. The Scythians were nomadic tribes who roamed the steppes from the borders of modern day China to the Black Sea between 800 and 200 BC, precursors to the Goths, the Huns, and the hordes of Ghengis Khan. I was curious about them, and besides the Guardian gave the exhibition five stars.
The Scythians did not have any written culture, and what we know about them is based largely on their grave goods, the Scythians appearing to have quite elaborate burial rituals and the climate of Siberia being conducive to preservation. The exhibition thus offers a fascinating but skewed portrait of Scythian culture. There are gold torques and belt buckles, fragments of the kind of clothes the most powerful people were buried in, weapons, drinking cups, horse bridles, and cooking pots. It is amazing that textiles over two thousand years old have survived at all, and fairly amazing that the horse bridles did.
We learn that the Sythians warred among their separate tribes as well as raiding the settled communities on the periphery of their territories. They also traded with the settled people for things that a livestock based nomadic lifestyle could not supply, which must have led to some interesting conversations. Their bows and arrow were of sophisticated design. Although they did not have a written culture, the Greeks did record some observations of the Scythians, and so we know they burned hemp seeds for pleasure, and did inhale. Their art was heavily based on natural forms, real and mythical animals, and plants. To a non-expert eye there seemed to be some similarities with Viking art. The women wore tall, pointed head dresses and shaved their heads, or was that only after death as part of the funeral ritual?
That leaves an awful lot we don't know from the grave goods and passing Greek commentators. Their surviving clothing was sown together with the most tiny stitches, and seemed to be made from very small bits of cloth. How did they do it? How did they make needles, what did they use for thread, what were their looms like? How did they supplement their horse milk and meat diet so as not to get all sorts of deficiency diseases? Did they have priests? Shamans? Slaves? What were women allowed or expected to do, or not allowed to do?
It seemed a slight waste to be visiting a gallery on a dry and warmish day, but I had already agreed to go and see my aunt and uncle in north London afterwards. As I walked up the hill from Tufnell Park tube station a parakeet flew shrieking across the road.