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Scythian art

    Scythian art is art, primarily decorative objects, such as jewellery produced by the nomadic tribes in the area ranging from inner Mongolia to European Russia known classically as Scythia. This art is also known as steppes art and was produced in a period from 7th-3rd century BC to the period when the Scythians were gradually displaced by the Sarmatians in a lengthy process lasting from 4th century BC to 2nd century BC. As the Scythians came in contact with the Greeks, their artwork became influenced by Hellenic civilisation but their artwork primarily reflects their nomadic culture. Scythian art especially Scythian gold jewellery is highly valued by museums and many of the most valuable artefacts are in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. In recent years, archaeologists have made valuable finds in Pazyryk north of Novosobirsk, Siberia, the Ukraine and as far west as Hungary.


    The Scythians worked in a wide variety of materials such as gold, wood, leather, bone, bronze, iron, silver and electrum. As nomads, the Scythians worked in decorative materials for use on their horses, tents and wagons and many of the pieces are small so as to be portable.
    As the Scythians prospered through trade with the Greeks, they settled down and started farming. They also established permanent settlements such as a site in Belsk, Ukraine believed to the Scythian capital Gelonus with craft workshops and Greek pottery prominent in the ruins. Felt appliqué wall hangings have been found at the tombs at Pazryzk displaying the Great Goddess or anthromorphic beasts. Other of these decorations show geometric or animal motifs. Archaeologists have also uncovered felt rugs as well as well crafted tools and domestic utensils. Clothing uncovered by archaelogists has also been well made many trimmed by embroidery and appliqué designs. Wealthy people wore clothes covered by gold embossed plaques.
    Scythian art became well known to the west through the Scythian gold exhibition from Ukrainian museums which toured North America in 2000. This exhibition highlighted the impressive gold jewellery made by Scythian craftsman. Scythian jewellery features animals featuring stags, cats, birds, horses, bears, wolves and mythical beasts.
    The gold figures of stags in a semirecumbent position are particularly impressive approximately 30.5 centimetres long. These were often the central ornaments for shields carried by fighters. In the most notable of these figures, stags are displayed with legs tucked beneath its body, head upright and muscles tight to give the impression of speed. The most notable of these figures include:
    • an example from the burial site of Kostromskaya Stanitsa in the Kuban dating from the 6th century BC;

    • an example from Tápiószentmárton in Hungary dating from the 5th century BC; and

    • an example from Kul Oba in the Crimea dating from the 4th century BC.


    Russian explorers first brought Scythian artworks recovered from Scythian burial mounds to Peter the Great in the early 18th century. These works formed the basis of the collection held by the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Catherine the Great was so impressed from the material recovered from the kurgans or burial mounds that she ordered a systematic study be made of the works. However, this was well before the development of modern archaeological techniques.
    One of the first sites discovered by modern archaeologists were the kurgans Pazyryk, Ulagan district of the Gorno-Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk. The name Pazyryk culture was attached to the finds, five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949 opened in 1947 by a Russian archeologist, Sergei Rudenko; Pazyryk is in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. The kurgans contained items for use in the afterlife. The famous Pazyryk carpet discovered is the oldest surviving wool pile oriental rug.
    Recent digs in Belsk, Ukraine uncovered a vast city believed to be the Scythian capital Gelonus described by Herodotus. Numerous craft workshops and works of pottery have been found. A kurgan or burial mound near the village of Ryzhanovka in Ukraine, 75 miles south of Kyiv, found in the 1990's has revealed one of the only unlooted tombs of a Scythian chieftain, who was ruling in the forest-steppe area of the western fringe of Scythian lands. There at a late date in Scythian culture (ca. 250 - 225 BC), a recently nomadic aristocratic class was gradually adopting the agricultural life-style of their subjects. Many items of jewellery were also found in the kurgan.
    A discovery made by Russian and German archaologists in 2001 near Kyzyl, the capital of the Russian republic of Tuva in Siberia is the earliest of its kind and predates the influence of Greek civilisation. Archaeologists discovered almost 5,000 decorative gold pieces including earrings, pendants and beads. The pieces contain representations of many local animals from the period including panthers, lions, bears and deer.


    The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has the longest standing and the best collection of Scythian art. A museum in Miskolc, Hungary also has a notable collection. The Scythian Gold exhibition came from a number of Ukrainian exhibitions including the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, the Institute of Archaeology in Kyiv and the State Historical Archaeological Preserve at Pereiaslav-Khmel'nyts'kyi.

    Further Reading

    • Reeder E. D. (ed.) Scythian Gold: Treasures from Ancient Ukraine Abrams Inc, New York 1999

    • Piotrovsky, B., L. Galanina, and N. Grach Scythian Art Phaidon, Oxford, and Aurora, Leningrad 1987

    • Stoddert, K. (ed.) From the Lands of the Scythians The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1985

    • Charrière G. Scythian Art: Crafts of the Early Eurasian Nomads Alpine Fine Arts Collections Ltd, New York 1979.

    • Borovka G. Scythian Art Paragon New York 1967

    • Lehtinen I. (ed.) Traces of the Central Asian Culture in the North Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura Helsinki 1986

    • Rice, T. T. The Scythians Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. New York 1957

    Further Reference