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The Scythians


By Professor Jan Bouzek


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Nomadic and sedentary (Imperial) Iranic Peoples in 6th century BCE


Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near Kerch. The warrior on the right strings his bow, bracing it behind his knee; note the typical pointed hood, long jacket with fur or fleece trimming at the edges, decorated trousers, and short boots tied at the ankle. Scyths apparently normally wore their hair long and loose, and all adult men apparently wore beards. The gorytos appears clearly on the left hip of the bare-headed spearman; his companion has an interesting shield, perhaps representing a plain leather covering over a wooden or wicker base. (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The earliest mention of the Scythians is in Assyrian records dating to the reign of Sargon II (prior to 713 BCE). They were called Ashkuzi by the Assyrians; a similar name is known from the Hebrew Bible in the pedigree of Noah's decadency (Gn. 10:1-3): Askeneze was the son of Gomer (i.e., Cimmerians). According to Herodotus (4.11) the Scythians came from the steppes east of the Araxes River (modern Syr Darya) and were pushed westward by the drying up of the steppe and by their wilder eastern neighbors, the Massagetes (cf. also Diodorus Sicarus 2.4337).


The language of the Scythians belongs to the Iranian group. Herodotus (1.5-10) gives two legends of their origin. The first describes Skythes as the youngest son of the first man, Targitaos (son of Zeus and the daughter of the Borystenes River, now the Don). He had two elder brothers, but only Skythes was able to touch the four gold objects that had fallen from the sky: plow, yoke, axe, and bowl. In the second version, the mother of the three sons is a goddess whose upper body is human and whose lower body is in the shape of a snake; their father is Herakles. Because Skythes was the only one who could successfully handle their father's bow, he became the ancestor of the Royal Scythians. A gold vessel from the Kul'-Oba kurgan displays this myth: two men hurt themselves while trying to handle the bow, and only the third is successful. Though the first mythological story speaks in favor of an agricultural ancestry, the Scythians were true nomads, with mounted archers as their main military force.


The earliest Scythian finds from the Kelermes kurgans (discovered in 1903-1904 and dated to the mid-seventh century BCE) suggest that their earliest material culture strongly resembles that of the late Cimmerians (known from the Novocherkassk hoard), but their own artistic expression initially combined the traditional Animal Style of northern Eurasia with the arts of Media and neighboring areas in the Near East, where the Scythians carried out their military activities. According to Herodotus (4.1) Scythian military supremacy there lasted twenty-eight years, but their actual presence in the Near East extended for more than a century. Their center north of the Caucasus Mountains remained in the Kuban area (there are only a few early rich Scythian tumuli in the Ukraine); in the Near East, their kingdom had its core in the area of Lake Urmia in Noerth-West of Iran. In the 670s BCE, the Scythians became dangerous neighbors for Urartu and also for the Assyrians. In 673 BCE Esarhaddon gave his daughter in marriage to the Scythian king Parthatua (Protothyes in Greek sources), apparently seeking an alliance against Urartu and another Iranian of the region, the Medes. Protothyes' son Madyas later helped the Assyrians when the Medes attacked Nineveh (Herodotus 1.103).


Scythian power apparently grew after the middle of the century, but the peak of their military raids in the Near East falls between 630 and 625 BCE. Using the opportunity created by the Assyrian loss of power, Scythian cavalry plundered Syria and Palestine. They were only stopped at the Egyptian frontier by Psammetichus, who had to pay the Scythians richly to spare his country. The impact of the military success of the Scythian cavalry and its bravery made a strong impression: the Hebrew self-declared prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah) used these campaigns in their imagery to describe their terrifying visions. At the end of the seventh century BCE, the time of the final collapse of the Assyrian Empire (609-605 BCE) and then of Urartu in the sixth century (between 590 and 585 BCE), the Scythians experienced problems with the rising power of the Medes. Herodotus (1:106) describes the killing of Scythian leaders during a feast given by the Median king Cyaxares. In the early sixth century BCE, the core of the Scythian Empire returned, slowly, from the Kuban region to the northern Pontic steppes of the Greater Iran.


Characteristic Scythian art appeared in the late seventh century BCE, during the period of their military campaigns. It joined Iranian traditions with the Eurasian Animal Style to create a new style. The best works of early Scythian art found in Asia Minor (at Sardis and Ephesus), in the Kuban region, the northern Pontic area, and in Hungary may well have been executed by Ionian artists, who also served the Persians (see R. Stucky, "Kleinplastiken, Anatolisches Zaumzeug aus Ost and West," Archdologie Mittelungen aus Iran 18 [1985]: 119-124; 20 [1987]: 161-165).) One of the earliest complexes of Scythian art is found in the treasure associated with the site of Ziweye, in North-West of Iran, and in several of the Kelermes kurgans (see Schiltz, 1994) .


The Royal Scythians inhabited the Pontic steppes. They were nomads in the full sense of the word, moving with their herds across that vast pastureland. Their families lived in wagons, and horses served not only for riding and transport but as a food source. Herodotus (4.110-117) reports Scythian farmers, plowmen and other inhabitants of the Pontic area between the Danube and Don Rivers (east of the latter was the territory of the Sauromatae). Archaeological investigations have uncovered cultures with settled population and forts in the forest-steppe zone north of the Royal Scythians, to whom their neighbors paid some kind of tribute. The Scythians, also in the sixth century BCE, attacked their western neighbors, and their military raids reached as far west as present-day Austria and the Polish western frontier. In the latter area, a hoard was found at Witaszkowo (Vettersfelde) with Scythian parade armor. Scythian military supremacy reached its peak there, and the peoples affected by their raids learned their technique of horsemanship. Herodotus (4.118-143) describes the Scythian campaign of Darius the Great in 512 BCE, from which the great king of Achaemenid dynasty had to retreat, when his army became exhausted from chasing the Scythians across the steppe.


As with other nomadic cultures without characteristic traces of dwellings, the main archaeological source for Scythian culture is their monumental tombs under barrows of extraordinary dimensions. The one at Tolstaja mogila (see Mozolevs'kij, 1979) was 8.5 m high and consisted of 1,500 cu m of earth: the preserved lateral chamber (the central burial was partially destroyed by tomb robbers) was 7 m under the present ground level-more than 15 m under the top of the tumulus. Horses and even servants were sacrificed to the noble dead, and the body of a woman, deposited later in the undisturbed chamber, was buried with a small boy and several servants. Her body and funeral bed were lavishly equipped with precious objects: gold jewelry, toilet equipment, glass vessels, and fine Greek pottery. Hidden in a special pit, near the main chamber, was a sword in a gold sheath and a gold pectoral weighing 1,150 gr. There are more than twenty truly royal barrows; the more numerous graves of middle-class Scythians are less well equipped and lack gold objects.


Achaemenid Akinakes

The bow and arrow were the main weapons used by the Scythians. The gorytus was a sheath protecting them, while a short sword called an akinakes was protected by a sheath. In the burials of the wealthy, both were covered by sheet gold decorated in relief. Most of the known examples depicting animal fights or scenes. Horse harnesses included many decorated ornamental parts for covering the animal's forehead, nose, and chest. Scythian noblewomen wore a high tiara; the dress in which they were buried was covered with sheet gold ornaments decorated in relief. Poles topped with bells and other objects were paraphernalia used in shamanistic rituals; the Animal Style was the art of shamanistic religion.


The Scythians rejected the Greek way of life, but their aristocracy frequently used jewelry and toreutics made by the Greeks especially for them and adapted to their taste. The best works of Scythian art were made in the late fifth century BCE.


Representations of Scythians beginning in the latter part of the fifth century BCE show them in distinctive Iranian clothing, including trousers; fourth-century iconography shows a turn from warlike scenes to amicable negotiations and myths propagating the legitimacy of the dynastic rule. The simpler objects in the Animal Style, mainly showing predators attacking herbivores, were made by local craftsmen in a style reminiscent of woodcarvings. Early Animal Style Scythian art in the represents organic forms, while the later works dissolve the bodies into individual parts.


In the fifth century BCE, the Scythians were a fairly strong military power respected by both the Pontic cities (Olbia was a Scythian protectorate) and their neighbors-the Getae and other Thracians living in the eastern Balkans and the Sauromatae of Iranian stock (later called Sarmatians) east of Don-though the last mentioned slowly moved westward.


A second peak of Scythian power and the golden age of their art were reached toward the middle of the fourth century BCE under King Ateas. Ateas subdued Dobrodgea (since called Scythia Minor), south of the Danube River, and fought battles against the Triballoi in the central Balkans and against Philip II of Macedon. To Ateas's reign date the best-known Scythian tumuli, with royal jewelry and toreutics (as at Tolstaya mogila, Kuf-Oba, and Great Bliznitsa), and the introduction of Scythian coinage. In his last battle against Philip, in 339 BCE, Ateas (then ninety years old) was killed and his army defeated. Philip II took twenty thousand women and children as part of the booty, in addition to an equal number of horses. In 331 BCE, Olbia, with the help of the Scythians, resisted an attack of the Macedonian general Zopyrion, sent by Alexander II; during the third century BCE, however, the Scythians lost most of the Pontic steppe to the Sarmatians, and their kingdom became confined to the inner Crimea and to a coastal strip between Crimea and Olbia.


The Scythian kingdom in the Crimea, with its capital at Scythian Neapolis, fought, with more or less success, its Greek neighbors and the mountainous Taurae in the southern Crimea. In 110 BCE, the Scythians were severely defeated by Diofantes, a general of Mithridates VI of Pontus, but they maintained some of their positions until the third century CE, when they finally disappeared from history.





Artamonov, Mikhail L, and Werner Forman. The Splendor of Scythian Art. London, 1969.

From the Land of the Scythians. New York, 1980. Exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mozolevs'kij, B. M. Tvosta Mogila. Kiev, 1979.

Piotrovsky, Boris B., and Norma Grach. Scythian Art: The Legacy of the Scythian World, Mid-Seventh to Third Century B. C. Leningrad, 1986.

Piotrovsky, Boris B., and Klaus Vierneisel. L'or des Scythes. Brussels, 1991. Exhibition catalogue, Musee Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire.

Polosmak, N. V., and Francis van Noten. "Les Scythes de 1'Altai." La Recherche 26 (1995): 524-530

Rolle , Renate, et al., eds. Gold der Steppe: Archdologie der Ukraine. Schlesswig, 1991.

Schiltz, Veronique. Les Scythes et les nomades des steppes, 8e siecle av. J.C.-zer siecle après J.- C. Paris, 1994.



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