MARJORIE SIMON

JEWELER | WRITER | EDUCATOR

"Scythian Gold: Treasures from Ancient Ukraine."

Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, October 29, 2000-January 30, 2001.
The Nelson - Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, June 8-August 19, 2001.

"The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. October 12, 2000-February 4, 2001.
By Marjorie Simon

These overlapping but complementary exhibitions brought to New York an extraordinary treasure of goldwork and exotic cultural history. The Scythians roamed the steppes of central Asia, Crimea, and the Ukraine from circa 7000 B.C.E. to circa late 4th century B.C.E., about the time of Alexander the Great, when they were succeeded by the Sarmatians. In The Iliad, Homer mentions the fierce nomads who drink mares' milk, and the Greek historian Herodotus describes the method by which blinded Scythian slaves induce horses to release milk by blowing through a hollow reed into a mare's nostril, forcing her udder to drop. Herodotus depicts the Scythians as a restless band of well-armed horsemen, users of strong hallucinogens, plundering throughout the East. With their golden plaques, headdresses, scabbards, and bridles, the approaching tribe must have made an imposing spectacle, the glittering of the precious metal in the sunlight, a noisy announcement of their arrival.

Since 1975, when the last exhibition of Scythian gold was mounted at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, there have been some remarkable discoveries of burial mounds, or kurgans, in the Ukraine, which have come to light and have been included in the current collection. Like the tombs of ancient Egyptians, the Scythian burial mounds contain men and women with all of their personal wealth, some of which are reproduced in situ, revealing vessels, jewelry, and personal and household objects. In addition, the mounds hold more than one person, including servants and, astonishingly, more than one horse burial mound, containing not only the animals but all of their gold, silver and bronze accoutrements, as well as the remains of iron wheels and bronze finials from funeral wagons. Equally astonishingly, the burial mounds do not seem to have been looted in the intervening millennia, and the placement and inventory of objects is remarkably consistent.

All of Scythian culture is revealed in the assembled gold objects, from the many animals found on the Eurasian steppes to everyday activities such as milking and sewing, as well as mythical winged and hoofed beasts. The Met exhibition concentrated on the animals, particularly the stag, frequently sporting "magnificent antlers of openwork scrolls terminating in bird or griffin heads," all covered in hammered gold. A picture emerges of a people who lived close to the elements in a time when lions, tigers, and bears roamed the same mountains as humans living intimately with horses and reindeer. Of particular interest to metalsmiths are the methods of construction and workmanship of the various objects. The famous gold deer, or reindeer, may have been cast, but were more often thin sheets of chased and repoussed gold nailed onto a three-dimensional wooden form. You can see the remains of the support struts in huge wooden bowls that were also discovered in the burial mounds. The scabbards, by contrast, were hammered over a bronze matrix. The numerous small plaques, presumably sewn directly onto clothing, were definitely formed over a matrix.

It is believed that the Scythians either hired Greek goldsmiths or learned from them. In some of the jewelry objects, the Greek influence is obvious, but the level of craftsmanship seems crude compared with contemporaneous Greek and Etruscan goldwork. One is left with the impression that there must have been a lot of accessible gold in the rivers and hills of central Asia, easily beaten into foil and used to cover otherwise simple forms of bowls, amphorae, and the many objects for daily and ritual use. Just to the south of the Crimea, the region of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) is believed to be the source of much early silver. In fact, there were some silver plaques, and a large bowl of silver and gold on view.

Scythian imagery is a rich mixture of East and West, indicating perhaps multiple influences over hundreds of years. Themes of metamorphosis are common; one life form is transformed into another. Some petroglyphs are distinctly northern, particularly in the selection of animal imagery, reminiscent of Mongolian-Siberian imagery, while the finer goldwork reveals a definite Greek influence. It is believed that the addition of realistic detailing, such as scales, feathers, and bristles, represents a Hellenizing influence in presentation. Much of the scholarship on Scythian art concerns the study of the plentiful gorytoi, or bow and quiver cases. These objects were large enough to show off elaborately worked friezes of scenes of daily life, the later ones (4th century B.C.E.) appearing almost Nordic in their hooded raiment and laced boots. Also of considerable size were bronze vessels, some as large as three feet in diameter, of graceful Grecian-like forms accompanied by cast handles and spouts.

Jewelry is not well represented, but small plaques, which were sewn directly into clothing and headgear, are plentiful. Strands of beads carved from agate, chalcedony, onyx, bone, and glass paste show remarkably contemporary concern for color, form, and surface design. There appears to be some true enamel in the fourth-century work, and there are also some earlier cloisons that are questionable and might be glass or stone inlays. The Cimmerians, who predated the Scythians in the same area, used inlaid stones, faience, or glass inlays as early as 900-800B.C.E. Five hundred years later, the Sarmatians routinely added colored stones such as turquoise and garnets to the hammered gold leaves and granulation of the Greek artisans.

Each museum has put together a magnificent catalogue with large color plates and scholarly essays on all aspects of the excavation and discovery of the burial mounds, as well as theories on the organization of Scythian culture. Although there is no substitute for viewing the works "live," together the catalogues provide a large-than-life illustration of these remarkable objects.

This article first appeared in Metalsmith, Fall 2001, Vol. 21, No. 3, p. 47.