Among the treasures in the rich collection in the Museum of Historic Jewellery of Ukraine there is one item which is particularly famous. It is a gold pectoral* which is believed to have once graced the breast of a Scythian king. Every figure, every tiny detail, every curvature of this superb piece of ancient craftsmanship bears witness to the vivid imagination and great skill of its creator whose name has unfortunately remained unknown. It is an outstanding work of art indeed, created twenty five hundred years ago that has come to us practically intact. The representations of griffins, lions, boars, peaceful domestic animals and human figures produce a profound effect of living power that has lost none of its vitality since the time it was placed into the lcing's tom'o so many centuries ago.
The Pectoral is one of the most famous — if not the most famous — finds in the history of Ukrainian archaeology. In some respects it can be compared to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 in the valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt, by Howard Carter and Earl of Carnarvon.
It was discovered by B. Mozolevsky, an archaeologist and a poet, in the Tovsta Mohyla Barrow, in the Ukrainian steppe, not far from the town of Ordzhonikidze, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast’, in 1971. It was not a chance discovery.
The fist kurhan (that is a barrow, a tumulus, or in other words, a large mound of earth or stones over the remains of the dead) was explored back in the 18th century.There are quite a few of burial mounds of this kind to be found in the Ukrainian steppes and the systematic archaeological excavations of more recent times have unearthed a lot of creations of goldsmith art and other artefacts, dating from the sixth and later centuries BC. The archaeologist Mozolevsky was among those who were conducting a systematic search for many years and his untiring efforts had been crowned with many a success but the discovery of the Pectoral surpassed them all. Being a person of a poetic nature, he called the Pectoral a work of art which was like a symphony and a story in gold telling many things about the life and world of the ancient Scythians.
The crescent-shaped pectoral is a highly-balanced work without being rigidly symmetrical. It is both exquisitely ornamental and representational in the sense that it tells a story of the world rich in imagery. The ends of the crescent that come very close together are decorated with stylized heads of lions holding rings in their mouths which served as clasps. The Pectoral is divided into three tiers or bands by gold braids both inside and on the outer and inner edges. The central band is the most decorative in the sense that it has but a few representations of realistically portrayed birds, pruning their feathers or pecking at the gold beads, and stylized and realistic flowers.
The remaining space of the central band is filled with coiled flower stems and leaves. Some of the smaller flowers definitely look like what we would call today bluebells. The outer band, the widest, carries representations of winged griffins attacking horses, lions and panthers pouncing on a wild boar and a dear, and dogs and hares scampering away, and grasshoppers in the corners where the gold crescent tapers to its ends. The inner band is a departure from the violence of the outer and unfolds before the viewer peaceful scenes of domestic life. Right in the centre one sees two human figures holding what looks like a fleece.
Two long-haired bearded men, naked to the waist, wearing typically Scythian trousers and boots, one of them with a headband around his head, are doing something which can be interpreted as mending or making a short sheepskin coat. But other interpretations suggest that it is indeed the Golden Fleece that they have in their hands, the Golden Fleece that figures so prominently in the ancient Greek mythology. The creator of the Pectoral was so amazingly careful in portraying the living creatures and inanimate objects that he has not only put two quivers (one of them is actually hanging above the fleece) with bows inside, close to the two Scythians but also adorned the quivers with decorativedesigns!
On both sides of these two amazing figures we see two horses portrayed in a stunningly realistic manner.One of the horses is a mare suckling an evidently new-born foal, still wobbly on its unsure legs. In contrast to the horse being devoured by the griffins in the scene below, in whose eyes you can see horror and pain, the mare looks so full of care and tenderness towards her foal. In the same band with the two Scythians holding the fleece one can see two more human figures, one of whom is milking a sheep. This crouching man wears a sort of a shirt. By the look of him he is in no great hurry to get the milking done. His movements are deliberate, he is not new to the job. Goats and cows with calves wander to the very end of the band.
Cosmogonic Theories
There are scholars who offer theories which regard the Pectoral as being much more than a breast ornament with casual representations of men and animals. They claim that the Pectoral reflects the Scythian understanding of the world and its opposing forces, or even the cosmogonic myths of the Scythians.
But there is one thing which does not need any theories. It is enjoyment of good art. The more one looks at the Pectoral the more one is taken with its beauty. The entire composition, the portrayal of humans, animals and flowers, the skill with which everything has been handled are nothing short of perfection. Several techniques of goldsmith work have been used in creating this masterpiece. Even if you don’t know anything about the Scythians and their way of life, even if you don’t believe griffins ever existed, you just can’t help admiring this Pectoral.
We do not know the name of the artist who created it, we do not know whether he was a Greek or a Scythian, we do not know when exactly this superb piece of artistic jewellery was created, we do not know the name of the Scythian king who commissioned it. But we do know that it dates to the 5th or the 4th century BC (though some scholars suggest even earlier dates). We do know that the human figures represented show four ancient Scythians the way they usually looked. Among the many gold works that have been discovered in the burial mounds and elsewhere in Ukraine there are some that faithfully represent Scythians in their garb rather than in the stylized forms of Greek gods and goddesses but the Pectoral surely stands out unique in its many features, already mentioned.
We know that the ancient Scythians actively traded with the Greeks who lived in their «city-states» situated along the Black-Sea shores of the present- day Ukraine and the Crimea. Some of the latest ethnographic theories connect some of the Scythian tribes with the proto-Slavs but for the pre-history and very early history of the Slavs, and consequently Ukrainians, our information rests mostly on archaeological and linguistic evidence and for somewhat later periods on incidental passages in Greek and Latin historians and geographers.So, though the links of the Scythians with the proto-Ukrainians may be hypothetical, we possess a considerable amount of information about the Scythians. They did not have any writing and it is archaeology and the prominent ancient Greek historian Herodotus that have given us most of our knowledge about the Scythians.
The Scythians in History
Back in prehistory, the bronze age Cimmerians who had inhabited the vast steppes of what we call Ukraine today, were conquered and replaced by the Scythians. It is not known for sure where they had come from. Some scholars place them originally in the areas further East. Herodotus used the word «Scythians» very loosely for almost any «barbarians» (let’s remind the reader that for the ancient Greeks anybody who was not a Greek, was a «barbarian» because all he could say was «br-br-br») living north of the Euxine (Black Sea) but the «true» Scythians, says Herodotus, were the nomads. This is supported to a certain extent by the selection for portrayal in their metal work of predominantly wild animals and beasts of prey: the panther, lion, deer, as well as the horse and cow (where do the griffins come in, one wonders).
Herodotus names several different groups, or tribes, of the Scythians, among who there were cattle breeders, husbandmen and nomads. Evidently for a long stretch of time lasting several centuries the Scythians dominated most of Ukraine. They traded with the Greeks and this trade accounts for Greek coins, pottery, jewellery and other artefacts found in the Scythian burials. The pressure from the East, exercised by the Sarmatians and later from the north by the Goths had eventually forced the bulk of the Scythians into other areas. It is known that a group of the Scythians had a kingdom established in the Crimea with the capital in the vicinity of the present-day city of Simferopol as late as the second century AD. Thanks to the combined Greek-Scythian artistic effort we know today how the Scythians looked and dressed (at least some of them) more than two thousand years ago. Most of what has been said so far about the Scythians has become known thanks to highly reliable archaeological evidence. Recent studies of the History written by Herodotus who lived in the 5th century BC, have shown that most of what Herodotus says about the Scythians is not fiction or «embroidered pieces of gossip and hearsay» but solid fact. 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» too and what he relates comes almost straight from the horse’s mouth.
Stories of Herodotus
So, let’s have a look into the books of Herodotus where he tells his story of the Scythians and of the ill-fated attempt of the Persian king Darius to conquer their land (Book 1, chapters 103-105, and many chapters of Book IY) bearing in mind that by the Scythians he loosely meant many tribes inhabiting in his time vast areas of the present-day Ukraine.
Herodotus claims that the Scythians appeared on the historical arena when they fought a king laying a siege of Ninevah, 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. They returned to their own country (what is the steppes of Ukraine) and settled between the Danube and the Sea of Azov, some of them remaining nomads. Herodotus offers several versions of the origins of the Scythians one of which has it that it was Hercules himself who was the progenitor of the Scythians. Of the biggest river in the lands of the Scythians, Borysthenes, that is the Dnipro, Herodotus has this to say: it is the largest and the most productive not only of the Scythian rivers but 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, it flows pure in the midst of turbid rivers; the sown land around it is of the best quality and the grasses on its banks are very tall; there live in it very large fish without any spinal bones; the meat of these fish is very delicious and can be cooked in various ways, and is also fit for salting. Alas, the Dnipro of today is only a pale shadow of what it used to be in Herodotus’ time. No wonder the Persian king Darius, who styled himself «the King of the kings», on learning about these wonders desired to conquer the enormously rich land of the Scythians (since then Ukraine has attracted innumerable hosts of invaders seeking to take possession of her lands). In 512 BC the King brought together a formidable army and marched at the head of it, conquering all on his way. He was warned that the Scythians were a hardy and fierce and freedom-loving people whom would be extremely difficult to subjugate. But he did not listen to this good advice. Though the Scythians had to fight the Darius’ army, several hundred thousand strong, alone, all the neighbouring tribes and peoples being too frightened to put up an opposition, they lured Darius into the depth of the territory, retreating but destroying all the crops and sources of water in their wake and harassing the Persian army all the while. Then at the right moment they struck back. Darius fled, leaving his army behind to die. The Scythians were excellent horsemen and some of their tribes were indeed wild and fierce, practising human sacrifice, scalping their enemies and drinking wine from the enemies’ skulls. One of the colourful stories relating to the Persian defeat is worth to be retold in some detail. The kings of the Scythians sent Darius gifts consisting of a bird, a mouse, a frog and several arrows. The bearer of the gifts refused to explain the meaning of this present and advised the Persians , if they were wise, to discover themselves what the gifts meant. After a long deliberation and many suggestions one of the Persians sages offered his explanation which was, probably, very close to the true meaning: «Unless, O Persians, he said, you become birds and fly into the air, or become mice and hide yourselves beneath the earth, or become frogs and leap into the lakes, you shall never return home again but will be stricken by the Scythian arrows.» Unfortunately the rulers very seldom heed the words of wisdom.
Burial of Scythian Kings
Of a particular interest for us in relation to the Pectoral that we show here, on these pages, and that was discovered in a burial mound of a Scythian king, is the description given by Herodotus of the burial rites of the Royal Scythians (as he calls one of the mightiest Scythian tribes). 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 meet the procession cut off a part of their ears, shave off their hair, wound 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, gold decorations. Having done all this, they heap up a large mound which they try to make as big as possible. Around the mound they put fifty finest horses, dead , in supporting frames, with dead riders on them whom they strangle beforehand. Thus they bury their kings, says Herodotus.
And many centuries later some of the gold and pottery and many other things Herodotus spoke of in the fifth century BC, have been discovered, examined and placed in the museums. One of the marvels thus dug up, the Pectoral, never fails to be admired for its perfect artisty and for the story it tells.
More Photos

Reported by Olena PIDVYSOTSKA
and Tetyana SAMINA
Photos by Mykhailo ANDREEV