A Warrior’s Face Frozen in Time, Gold, Hemp, Tents and Cheese Tell the Scythian Tale
The Scythians were a mysterious and fascinating people. They were nomads and left no known writing, yet their elaborate burials and tattoos have given up some of their story. A new exhibition at the British Museum wants to present as much of that information as possible, right down to the detail of a scar running along the cheek of a ferocious-looking Scythian warrior.
The Guardian reports the real face of the mummified head of the Scythian warrior was concealed by a clay mask for almost 2,000 years. His facial features are closely reflected on the painted mask that covers them.
Liz Leafloor of Ancient Origins provided a brief description of the Scythians:
“The Scythians were a nomadic people of Iranian descent who migrated from central Asia into southern Russia and Eastern Europe. They founded a powerful empire in the region of what is now Crimea, and were well known for their skills in battle and their horsemanship. No Scythian cities or settlements remain, but their burial kurgans can be found from Mongolia to the Black Sea.”
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Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs (Viktor Vasnetsov, 1881). (Public Domain)
With the combination of the mummified Scythian warrior’s head and a scan of the same, researchers discovered much about the man’s facial features. For example, they now know that his teeth were in good condition, he had a light-colored moustache and hair, a pierced ear, and a scar that ran from the corner of his left eye socket down to his jaw. They also found the hole where his brains had been removed from his skull.
The Scythian warrior’s face, showing a scar from his left eye socket to his jaw. (British Museum)
The preservation of the warrior’s head isn’t surprising because the Scythians were skilled at mummification. As an article created by the British Museum leading up to the exhibition explains, “The Scythians took great effort to preserve the appearance of the dead using a form of mummification. They removed the brain matter through holes cut in the head, sliced the bodies and removed as much soft tissue as possible before replacing both with dry grass and sewing up the skin.” From there, the permafrost took over on the preservation of the organic material.
Margaret Moose described the nature of elite Scythian burials for Ancient Origins:
“The Scythians buried their high-status dead in mounds called kurgans or tumuli. The dead were laid out often as if asleep in a hollowed-out log, facing the east. Grave goods included fine clothes, jewelry, food, cannabis, hand mirrors […] horse tack, bows, swords, shields, entire chariots and often other humans and horses.”
Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near Kerch. The warrior on the right is stringing his bow, bracing it behind his knee. Hair seems normally to have been worn long and loose, and beards were apparently worn by all adult men. The other two warriors on the left are conversing, both holding spears or javelins. The man on the left is wearing a diadem and therefore is likely to be the Scythian king. (Public Domain)
Horses were very important to the Scythians. The animals provided them with milk, meat, skin, and transport for regular travel and for archers rushing into battle. They were also essential companions for elites into the afterlife. An artifact included in the current exhibition which demonstrates the importance of horses to the Scythians is a felt and leather horse mask topped with a ram’s head and a cockerel between its horns. Gold leaf fish are located along the horse mask’s peak.
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Horse headgear. Mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC. (The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017/V. Terebenin)
The warrior’s head and its scan plus the horse’s mask are part of the exhibition ‘Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia’ at the British Museum. These artifacts are on loan from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia. Some of the other artifacts appearing in the exhibition include: sticks and a brazier that were used in tents where Scythians smoked hemp, a man’s headgear, furniture, tattooed skin, a decorated leather bag that held lumps of cheese, and skillfully made gold plaques.
One of the most interesting of the gold plaques depicts a dead man with a female deity, a man holding two horses’ reins, and a quiver hanging on a tree. The British Museum suggests that “The scene may refer to a symbolic marriage between the deceased and the ‘Great Mother’ – a giver of life who is also associated with underworld powers. Their sacred union was essential to the death and renewal of all living things.”
Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC. (The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017 /V. Terebenin)
Apart from artifacts on loan from the Hermitage museum, there are pieces on display from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.
Top Image: A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand. One of the artifacts currently on display. Source: V Terebenin/© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg