A formidable force that was feared and admired in equal measure, the Scythians might be the most powerful ancient civilisation you’ve never heard of. This nomadic tribe roamed the vast plains of Siberia over 2,500 years ago, fighting bloody battles against the Greeks and Persians, and also making exquisitely beautiful objects. While evidence of the Scythians remained lost for much of history, a new exhibition at the British Museum, which is located just a short walk from The Montague on the Gardens, sheds light on this fascinating warrior tribe. Here, St John Simpson, the exhibition’s curator, explains the dramatic story of the Scythians and their appeal for a modern audience.
Can you describe the Scythians in three words?
“Warriors, horsemen, craftsmen.”
What effects do you think the nomadic lifestyle of the Scythians had on their civilisation?
“Theirs was a nomadic culture rather than a sedentary civilisation, but we should not under-estimate their power or their ability to make beautiful objects.”
Why should a modern audience be interested in the Scythians?
“The Scythians are the oldest culture documented on present Russian territory, and when they were discovered in the 18th century, they immediately captured the public imagination and interest.”
What, in your opinion, made the Scythians such formidable warriors?
“In my mind, the combination of a deadly bow and the speed and mobility provided by the Scythian horses made them a force to be reckoned with.”
If you had to pick one highlight exhibit from the exhibition what would it be and why?
“The coffin: it is the largest object in the exhibition and symbolises the importance that death and burial had for Scythian society, and why so many objects survive as they were all placed as grave-goods for the afterlife.”
You worked in collaboration with the renowned State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on the exhibition, can you describe what that process was like?
“They were perfect partners and immediately recognised that our concept for this exhibition was completely different to anything ever previously attempted: it combines famous objects with completely unfamiliar pieces drawn from their reserve collections, and exhibits objects from the Siberian Collection of Peter the Great alongside 18th century watercolour drawings of them for the very first time. Their willingness to lend so many pieces, and allow us to research them together in our Department of Scientific Research, shows a genuine desire for open and intellectual collaboration and successfully underpins why we are doing this exhibition 100 years after the October revolution of 1917.”
It’s clear that horses were an important part of Scythian civilisation, can you explain a little about how and why that was?
“The domesticated horse gave them the ability to move herds over larger distances, control larger areas and dominate the grassy steppe which acts as a natural corridor of connection between China and the northern Black Sea.”
From a revered power with influence across Central Asia to a largely forgotten civilisation, what do you think led to the ultimate downfall of the Scythians?
“I believe their downfall was brought about when they were overcome by more efficiently organised groups of nomads, with even more deadly forms of bow.”
Located adjacent to the British Museum, The Montague on the Gardens is within easy distance of London’s top cultural attractions.
Image Credits: Lead image © The Trustees of the British Museum. Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin. A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin. A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.