Wine-drink­ing, weed-smok­ing war­riors storm the Bri­tish Mu­seum in a be­guil­ing show that’s part Game of Thrones

The Guardian - - JOURNAL | THE CRITICS - Art Scythi­ans Jonathan Jones

When the com­poser Igor Stravin­sky and the artistar­chae­ol­o­gist Ni­cholas Ro­erich sat down to cre­ate a primeval bal­let of pre­his­tory and hu­man sac­ri­fice in 1911, they found in­spi­ra­tion in the strange world of the an­cient Scythi­ans. The Rite of Spring, the bal­let un­leashed in Paris two years later, draws on Ro­erich’s own ex­ca­va­tions to paint its scyth­ing mu­si­cal pic­ture of the vi­o­lent Scythian past. His set in­cluded paint­ings of their burial mounds.

The con­tents of those mounds can be seen in all their eerily pre­served bar­bar­ian splen­dour in the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s res­ur­rec­tion of a past that feels very re­mote. In one case, I saw a decorated an­i­mal hide – but no, on closer in­spec­tion, this was the tat­tooed skin of a Scythian war­lord, pre­served along with his fierce-look­ing head. The Scythi­ans un­der­stood the preser­va­tive power of ice and capped their tombs with heaps of stone to keep in the cold. This ex­hi­bi­tion abounds in the in­ti­mate relics th­ese un­der­ground freez­ers pre­served: leather sad­dles, em­broi­dered rugs, felt clothes – an en­tire no­madic cul­ture re­trieved from time.

The Scythi­ans are not un­known to his­tory – or myth. They flour­ished from about 900 to 200BC, rang­ing from their Siberian home­lands to the Black Sea and China, a no­madic peo­ple who pi­o­neered so­phis­ti­cated sad­dles that let them fight more ef­fec­tively on horse­back than any of the set­tled civil­i­sa­tions they en­coun­tered. They fought off the Per­sians and scared the an­cient Greeks. It is pos­si­ble they in­spired the Greek myth of the cen­taur, a half-horse, half-hu­man crea­ture. oun­tered. he The idea be­comes much more be­liev­able when you see the elab­o­rate ar­mour and hel­mets they cre­ated for a horse to wear, to carry its owner into the af­ter­life. Some an­cient rulers were buried with their slaves or wives, but Scythian lords were ac­com­pa­nied by their horses. It sug­gests a very close con­nec­tion – and a Scythian rid­ing into bat­tle re­ally might have looked to awestruck wit­nesses like a cen­taur. In Greek mythol­ogy, cen­taurs go mad when they drink wine. Ob­jects re­cov­ered from their tombs re­veal how the Scythi­ans learned about wine from Greece and got ad­dicted to it. If heavy drink­ing was big in their cul­ture, so was smok­ing weed. The Greek his­to­rian Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th cen­tury BC, is of­ten ac­cused of mak­ing up his out­landish sto­ries. One tale he tells about the Scythi­ans is that they loved to smoke hemp, which they burned under a kind of tent that you could put your head into. One such de­vice is in this ex­hi­bi­tion, re­cov­ered from a Scythian tomb. Herodotus got this one right.

I’ve men­tioned Stravin­sky and Herodotus but a lot of the time this ex­hi­bi­tion is sheer Game of Thrones. The horse-rid­ing no­madic Scythi­ans men­ac­ing more set­tled so­ci­eties in China, Greece and Per­sia have a lot in com­mon with the TV fan­tasy world’s Dothraki, who sim­i­larly skirt the rim of civil­i­sa­tion. In time, the Scythian life­style would pro­duce a chain of war­lords in the same part of the world, from the Huns to the Mon­gols, who would bring down Rome and con­quer China.

A primeval war­rior power, dark and mer­ci­less, em­anates from the most bizarre ob­ject here: a gi­ant wooden cof­fin, big enough to hold about four bod­ies, in which a sin­gle war­rior was en­tombed so that he would be re­mem­bered as a su­per­hu­man gi­ant. Yet the Scythi­ans had artis­tic skill as well as strength. They cre­ated golden images that are more than mere shiny things. In a fa­mous an­cient Greek sculp­ture, a lion at­tacks a horse. In Scythian gold, there are tigers fight­ing camels, mon­sters at­tack­ing horses.

It was when th­ese gold mar­vels started com­ing out of Siberia in the early 18th cen­tury that the Scythi­ans be­gan to emerge from leg­end into ar­chae­ol­ogy. Peter the Great, the west­ern­ising tsar who built St Peters­burg, grabbed the finds for his royal col­lec­tion. The Her­mitage has since ac­cu­mu­lated the world’s great­est Scythian horde and has lent a stu­pen­dous ar­ray.

My only quib­ble with this ab­sorb­ing jour­ney into the rites of the Scythi­ans is that it doesn’t open out enough. We get a lot about Peter the Great but why not ex­plore mod­ern Rus­sia’s ob­ses­sion with the Scythi­ans more? I’d have liked to see Ro­erich’s art and de­signs for The Rite of Spring. In­stead this ex­hi­bi­tion is de­ter­mined to let th­ese war­riors speak for them­selves, even though they left no writ­ing. We’re urged to put aside prej­u­dices against an­cient “barbarians” and see things from their point of view.

The re­sult is be­guil­ing, but by the end it gets a bit nar­row and en­closed. Per­haps that, too, is an ac­cu­rate re­flec­tion of the Scythian world: horses, wine, war and good hemp to smoke – what else do you need?

I saw the tat­tooed skin of a Scythian war­lord, pre­served along with his fierce-look­ing head

Scythi­ans: War­riors of An­cient Siberia runs from to­mor­row un­til 14 Jan­uary.

Trea­sure trove … clock­wise from above, Siberian burial mounds; horse head­dress; gold plaque of a Scythian rider Pho­tographs: State Her­mitage Mu­seum, St Peters­burg

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