Horse fancy dress, mummies and lots of gold help make the British Museum’s latest exhibition stand the test of interpreting a little-known culture…
As someone who both loves history and horses, the Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia exhibition at the British Museum looked like it was going to have the potential to tick a lot of boxes, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Scythians were nomadic tribes who roamed what is now southern Siberia between 900-200 BC, although their influence was felt across an area that stretched from the Black Sea to China.
They didn’t leave anything written behind, so much of what is known about them is garnered from the writings of other cultures – such as the Ancient Greeks – and what has been dug up from their icy graves, a process that started happening under Peter the Great of Russia.
Given our knowledge of the Scythians is scant compared to our knowledge of other ancient cultures, there was a danger that the British Museum could have gone down the route of using to many video recreations to conjecture what the Scythians were like. However, they pleasingly kept this to a minimum (there was an animated projected of Scythians charging around the steppe and horse noises played on loop in the background) and let a really fascinating range of objects speak for themselves.
For those attracted by shiny things, there were a lot of beautiful gold objects, such as belt plaques and ornaments that would have been sewn onto clothes. Although my favourite of the ornaments was actually a belt buckle carved from horn into an intricate Ibex.
For those who love a bit of war and/or the gruesome, there were arrowheads with wince-worthy spikes to make pulling them out harder, and some often had poison on them (basically other cultures were terrified of coming across the Scythians in battle based on these items and the writings of others), several mummies, a skull with axe puncture wounds in and the owner of that skull’s tattooed leathery skin on display.
Meanwhile, for those who love horses, there were saddles, decorative bridles, bits and possibly my favourite item – a headpiece to dress up the equine wearer as a griffin. Yep, these Scythians took dressing up their horses very seriously (probably for festivals).
The range of objects and the clear explanations alongside them combined with an intriguingly little-known culture help make this exhibition one of the most fun to have been put on by the British Museum in a while.
Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum until 14 January 2018