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Scythian treasures, gold decorations and amazing discoveries
Oles Pankiv tells a story of an antique piece of jewellery of a great historical and artistic value, known as “the pectoral.”
When the British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the largely intact tomb of the Egyptian King Tutankhamen in 1922, it was trumpeted as a sensational discovery, one of the richest and most celebrated contributions to Egyptology.
5th Earl of Carnavon, an amateur Egyptologist, who was the patron and associate of archaeologist Howard Carter in the unearthing of the tomb of King Tutankhamen, died in a Cairo hospital from infections and complications that arose after he was bitten by a mosquito while on a visit to the just-opened burial chamber of the tomb. A legend was born — the curse of the pharaohs. Those who dare to disturb the peace of the dead pharaohs are doomed to die soon after the sacrilege is committed.
When the Ukrainian archaeologist B. Mozolevsky discovered a treasure of a great artistic value in the Tovsta Mohyla Barrow in the Ukrainian steppe in 1971, this discovery did not get to be a front-page news around the world. It was mentioned in the then soviet media but it did not get the extensive coverage it surely deserved. Gradually the news of the find percolated through the soviet bureaucratic system “to the masses”; its worth, both historical and aesthetic, was duly appreciated, and some of the most striking of the unearthed artefacts were displayed in a museum for the general public to come and gawk at. The museum which was pompously called “Museum of the Historic Treasures of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic,” was housed in one of the buildings of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery which at that time was no monetary at all, but also a museum, or rather, in the turgid and hypocritical soviet parlance, “a historical and cultural preserve.”
A treasure discovered in a tomb
Now, many years later, after Ukraine’s independence, the monastery has been revived (at least in one section of the Lavra territory), the museum of “historic treasures” is still there and the Tovsta Mohyla treasures can be looked at and admired in all their glory. There is one item though that is not often bodily there — instead of it you can see a hologram, whatever it may be (a dictionary definition: a three-dimensional image record created by holography; the hologram consists of a light interference pattern preserved in a medium such as photographic film; when suitably illuminated, it produces an image that changes its appearance as the viewer changes viewing angle) which does look like the real McCoy. This item is known as “a pectoral decoration,” the pectoral for short.
The pectoral which is believed to be twenty-five hundred years old and which was dug out by the archaeologist Mozolevsky, is often lent to foreign museums to be exhibited in various parts of the world. It is indeed an amazing piece of artistic craftsmanship. Our admiration is only heightened when we are told that the thing is made of pure gold.
It was not a chance discovery that was made back in 1971. Similarly to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, it was rather a result of many years of archaeological digging though neither Carter nor Mozolevsky knew what it was they were to unearth.
Tovsta Mohyla was one of the many burial mounds that dotted the Ukrainian steppe in what is now Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in Eastern Ukraine. Mozolevsky, an archaeologist by occupation and a poet by nature, spent many years in the field digging in and around those barrows. But similarly to the tombs of the Egyptian kings, the Ukrainian tombs hidden in the burial mounds, had been robbed long before the historians and archaeologists began exploring them. The archaeologist Mozolevsky was richly rewarded for his enthusiasm and determination — and of course, a stroke of luck helped.
Tovsta Mohyla is almost nine meters high (about 27 feet) and fifty-seven meters in diameter, and at a site this big it does take some luck to dig at the right spot. Two tombs were discovered, a bigger one with several chambers, and a smaller one. In the central tomb, a body (or what was left of the body after twenty-five centuries of being buried) of a rich Scythian, forty or fifty years of age, was placed on what used to be a wooden platform. The Scythian’s clothes were decorated with gold pieces. Among the items discovered were a horn decorated in silver, evidently for use as a ceremonial vessel; a bronze mace; weapons and armour, and over six hundred gold items, one of which was the famous pectoral. All of these things were found in the corridor leading to the central tomb; the adjacent chambers contained skeletons of three men, probably servants, slaves or “grooms,” plus skeletons of four horses and remains of a carriage. The smaller tomb contained a skeleton of a woman, twenty or thirty years old at the moment of her death, a gold decoration with pendants on her head, gold bracelets on her wrists and rings on her fingers. Right next to this woman there was a sarcophagus with the remains of a little child inside. In the niches, silver plates, glassware, a bronze mirror, a brazier and a cauldron were found. Evidently, it was the tomb of a wealthy Scythian family but it was impossible to establish with any certainty the actual social position of this family in the Scythian social hierarchy. A careful examination of the tomb revealed that it had been robbed at an uncertain time in the past but the robbers had left, for some reason, a number of things behind. If even a robbed tomb yielded so much, what an enormous treasure it must have contained originally!
Symphony in gold
Mozolevsky called the pectoral he unearthed “a symphony and a story in gold.” Very little is known about the background of this amazing piece of jewellery. There are reasons to believe that it was created by a Scythian goldsmith (some scholars are inclined to attribute it to a Greek master who must have known the life of the Scythians at first hand) some time between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE (Before Common Era). Many of impressive pieces of Scythian art were cast of solid gold but many were recovered in the seventieth–nineteenth century, before the development of modern archaeological methods that might have shed more light on their origins.
The crescent-shaped pectoral has a well-balanced composition which is symmetrical but not rigidly so. The ends of the crescent that come close together are decorated with stylized lion heads holding rings in their mouths; these rings served as clasps. The pectoral is divided into three “tiers” or bands with gold braids framing each “tier.” The central band is purely decorative but it also carries stylized and realistic representations of flowers and realistic representations of birds pruning their feathers or pecking at the gold beads. Some of the smaller flowers definitely look like bluebells. The outer band, the widest of the three, carries representations of winged griffins attacking horses; lions and panthers tearing at a boar and at a deer; hounds pursuing hares, and grasshoppers in the corners where the gold crescent tapers off. The inner band unfolds before the viewer peaceful scenes of domestic life — in the centre, two bearded, long-haired men, naked to the waist, and wearing Scythian trousers and boots, hold what looks like a fleece (two quivers with bows in them are by their side); a mare suckling a foal on one side of the two male figures, and a running horse on the other; another Scythian is milking a sheep; cows, goats, dogs and birds complete the scene.
Some scholars claim that the gold images of the pectoral are symbolical rather than purely representational and reflect Scythian mythology. But if there is little to substantiate such claims, there is a lot to admire. The pectoral is much more than just a skilfully made decoration — it is a truly perfect work of art.
Rather much is known about Scythian art. A lot of it is essentially an animal art. Combat scenes between two or more animals are numerous, as are single animal figures. Many real or mythical beasts are represented, the majority of the types having roots in deep antiquity, but the Scythians fashioned them in a manner that was new and characteristically their own. The decorative objects they produced are generally small in size, but many are made of precious materials and practically all are of superb workmanship. The Scythian gold figures of stags, are outstanding; they were probably used as the central ornaments for the round shields carried by many Scythian fighters. The Scythian artistic idiom is one of great compression as well as of synthesis; contrasting positions of the body are combined with astonishing skill to depict every possible aspect of the animal when visualized during all its diverse activities. Though the Scythian art is basically representational in character, it is at the same time imaginative in spirit, often verging on the abstract in conception. Yet however complex its elements, they are fused in the finished work into a single entity of compelling force and beauty.
What little is known of the Scythian tribes (called Scyths, or Sacae, in the classical sources), indicates that they established control of the plain north of the Black Sea over a period of several centuries, from the 7th–6th century BCE. The Scythians founded a rich, powerful empire that survived for several centuries before succumbing to the Sarmatians during the fourth century BCE — second century CE. Much of what is known of the history of the Scythians comes from the account of them by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited their territory.
The Scythians were feared and admired for their prowess in war and, in particular, for their horsemanship. They were among the earliest people to master the art of riding, and their mobility astonished their neighbours. The Scythians destroyed the Cimmerians and set themselves up as rulers of an empire stretching from west Persia through Syria and Judaea to the borders of Egypt. The Scythians were remarkable not only for their fighting ability but also for the civilization they produced. They developed a class of wealthy aristocrats who left elaborate graves filled with richly worked articles of gold and other precious materials. This class of chieftains, the Royal Scyths, finally established themselves as rulers of the Ukrainian steppe and Crimean territories. It is there that the richest and most numerous relics of Scythian civilization have been found. The Scythian army was made up of freemen who received no wage other than food and clothing, but who could share in booty on presentation of the head of a slain enemy. Many warriors wore bronze helmets and chain-mail jerkins. Their principal weapon was a double-curved bow and trefoil-shaped arrows. Every Scythian had at least one personal mount, but the wealthy owned large herds of horses. Burial customs were elaborate and called for the sacrifice of members of the dead man’s household, including wife, servants, and a number of horses.
Scythians, proto-Ukrainians and King Darius
There is not enough evidence to conclude that at least some of the tribes among those that are loosely referred to as “Scythian” were related or linked in some way to proto-Ukrainians who must have been living in Ukraine since the Trypillya culture of the sixth-fourth millennia BCE. On the other hand, there is quite a substantial body of evidence which suggests that there was a cultural and ethnic continuity through all the millennia down to the Ukrainians of today. Neither the Trypillya culture people nor the Scythians had script (if they did, it has not been recovered), and thus there are no written records of any kind available from those ancient times. All we have are artifacts unearthed in archeological excavations, and information that can be found in the ancient Greek and Roman authors, and this information leave too much room for conjecture but gives little or no ground for well-substantiated theories.
It is not known for sure where the Scythians originally came from, or to what extent they got mixed with the local, autochthonous population. It is not known, for that matter, whether all the tribes the ancient authors called “Scythians” were of the same ethnic background.
Herodotus, the Greek historian, “The Father of History,” of the fifth century, writes about several different groups, or tribes, of the Scythians, among who there were cattle breeders, land tillers and nomads. Herodotus travelled widely and recorded his observations, and it has been concluded by the twentieth-century scholars that in his travels, he did visit “the southern shores of the Euxine,” and that most of what he writes, concerning the Scythians, is not fiction, or “embroidered pieces of gossip and hearsay”, but solid fact.
Herodotus, in Book I of his History (chapters 103–105) and in many chapters of Book IV, claims that the Scythians appeared on the historical arena when they laid siege to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Later, these Scythians drove the Cimmerians out of Europe and became masters of all Asia. They even attempted to conquer Egypt but were turned away with presents and prayers. The Scythians, Homer goes on to tell us, returned to their own country in the steppes of Ukraine (Herodotus, of course, had a different name for this country) and settled between the Danube and the Sea of Azov. Some of the Scythians remained nomads.
Herodotus offers several versions of the origins of the Scythians, according to one of which it was Hercules himself who was the progenitor of the Scythians. Of the biggest river in the lands of the Scythians, Borysthenes (the Dnipro), Herodotus has this to say: it is the largest and the most productive of all others except the Egyptian Nile. It affords, says Herodotus, the most excellent and valuable pasture for cattle and fish of the highest excellence and in great quantities: the water from it is most sweet to drink; the sown land around it is of the best quality and the grasses on it are very tall; there live very large fish in it without spinal bones; the meat of these fish is very delicious and can be cooked in various ways, and is also fit for salting (alas, alas — the Dnipro of today is very much different from what it used to be in Herodotus’ time).
No wonder the Persian King Darius who styled himself “The King of Kings”, on learning about these wonders desired to conquer the enormously rich land of the Scythians (he was not the first and by far not the last to do so — since Darius, many rulers and many invaders made attempts to conquer Ukraine). He brought together a formidable army and led it through many lands, conquering them all, on his way to the land of the Scythians. He was warned that the Scythians were a hardy, fierce and freedom-loving people and would be extremely difficult to subjugate, but the proud king did not listen to the good advice. The Scythians, instead of fighting one decisive battle as the king hoped they would, lured Darius into the depth of their territory, retreating but destroying all the crops and sources of water in their wake, and harassing the Persian army. Then, at the right moment, when the army was exhausted, hungry and suffering from lack of drinking water, they struck back. Darius fled, leaving his army behind to die.
Some of the Scythians, writes Herodotus, were indeed wild and fierce, practicing human sacrifice, scalping their enemies and drinking wine from the enemies’ skulls. But most of the Scythians were peaceful enough, unless provoked. After their king dies, says the Greek historian, his body is opened, cleaned, filled with incense and embalming substances, covered with wax and carried around the land on a chariot. The Scythians who happen to meet the procession, cut off a part of their ears, shave off their hair, cut themselves on the arms, lacerate their foreheads and noses, and drive arrows through their left hands. Then the body is placed in the grave on a bed of leaves and spears are fixed on each side of the dead body which is then covered with pieces of wood. In the remaining space of the grave they bury one of the king’s concubines, having strangled her, a cup-bearer, a cook, a groom, a page and also horses, gold goblets, swords with gold handles, and gold decorations. Having done all this, they heap a large mound which they try to make as big as possible. Around the mound they put fifty finest horses, with dead riders on them, whom they strangle beforehand.
Many centuries later, some of these gold decorations, pottery and other things Herodotus wrote about, have been recovered, examined and placed in museums. The pectoral remains one of the most wondrous finds. As a true work of art, it can be enjoyed for its own merits, regardless of the time and circumstances it was made in.
Photos by Mykhailo Andreyev