Understanding Scythian culture is underlined by the same core issue as that surrounding Socrates – they themselves never wrote anything, and instead, our perception of them relies on piecing together some heavily unreliable Greek historical narratives. Herodotus, one of our most extensive sources on Scythian culture, had a notoriously complex relationship with the truth, to the extent that a significant portion of his Histories is decidedly untrue. Similarly, any Roman comment on the Scythians often tends to be derogatory, or part of an extended simile looking to emphasise a character’s brutality and savagery. Consequently, the Scythians are rather misunderstood and frequently marginalised – often, the best way to comprehend them is through analysing the physical remnants of their culture left behind.
Despite being an illiterate, nomadic civilisation, the Scythians proved immensely helpful in the preservation of their own culture for posterity in that they understood the conservational capacity of ice. They went to great lengths to preserve their dead, mummifying them and then burying them in mountainous regions across Eurasia – Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China and Russia. This choice of locale meant, rather conveniently for later archaeologists, that Scythian tombs have been preserved almost flawlessly in permafrost.
It is thus that we know, for example, they were heavily tattooed, had access to incredible metalwork, and were buried with their horses. They were keen riders – horses were instrumental within their nomadic lifestyle, and cavalry was their main form of attack. They were brilliant horse riders and even better riders. Their favourite horses, in burial, would be dressed with elaborate headgear, taking the form of animals such as griffin, suggesting their new form in the afterlife.
Despite their constant characterisation as an uncivilised Other by the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians and Persians, the Scythians had a well-developed visual culture. This can be seen especially in their metalwork – Scythian gold is world famous for both its quality and its craftsmanship. Some objects are incredibly elaborate pieces of jewellery, many of which are now in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. The use of gold was not exclusively reserved for masterpieces, however, and there are a variety of smaller, everyday objects made of fine gold, from combs to pins for clothes. On offer, we have a variety of golden mounts, which would have been used to pin clothing (for example, EH-013, AH-267 or SB-017) – an opportunity to collect a small piece of one of the world’s most enigmatic cultures.
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