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Scythian art is art, primarily decorative objects, such as jewelry, produced by the nomadic tribes in the area known classically as Scythia, which was centred on the Pontic-Caspian steppe and ranged from modern Kazakhstan to the Baltic coast of modern Poland and to Georgia. This art is also known as steppes art and was produced in a period from 7th-3rd century BC to 4th century BC to 2nd century BC, when the Scythians were gradually displaced by the Sarmatians. Over this period many Scythians became sedentary, and involved in trade with neighbouring peoples such as the Greeks. In the earlier period Scythian art included very vigorously modelled stylised animal figures that had a long-lasting and very wide influence on other Eurasian cultures as far apart as China and the European Celts. As the Scythians came in contact with the Greeks, their artwork influenced Greek art, and was influenced by it; also many pieces were made by Greek craftsmen for Scythian customers.
Scythian art especially Scythian gold jewelry is highly valued by museums and many of the most valuable artefacts are in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Their Eastern neighbors, the Pazyryk culture in Siberia produced similar art, although they related to the Chinese in a way comparable to that of the Scythians with the Greek and Iranian cultures. In recent years, archeologists have made valuable finds in various places within the area.
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. Earlier pieces reflected animal style traditions; in the later period many pieces, especially in metal, were produced by Greek craftsmen who had adapted Greek styles to the tastes and subject-matter of the wealthy Scythian market, and probably often worked in Scythian territory.
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 Pazyryk displaying the Great Goddess and anthropomorphic beasts, others show geometric and animal motifs. Archaeologists have also uncovered felt rugs as well as well crafted tools and domestic utensils. Clothing uncovered by archaeologists has also been well made many trimmed by embroidery and appliqué designs. Wealthy people wore clothes covered by gold embossed plaques.
Scythian jewellery features various animals including stags, cats, birds, horses, bears, wolves and mythical beasts. The gold figures of stags in a semirecumbent position are particularly impressive approximately 30.5 cm (12 in) 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 examples from:
- the burial site of Kostromskaya in the Kuban dating from the 6th century BC
- Tápiószentmárton in Hungary dating from the 5th century BC
- Kul Oba in the Crimea dating from the 4th century BC.
Although gold was widely used by the ruling elite of the various Scythian tribes, the predominant material for the various animal forms was bronze. The bulk of these items were used to decorate horse harness, leather belts & personal clothing. In some cases these bronze animal figures when sewn onto stiff leather jerkins & belts, helped to act as armour.
The use of the animal form went further than just ornament, these seemingly imbuing the owner of the item with similar prowess & powers of the animal which was depicted. Thus the use of these forms extended onto the accoutrements of warfare, be they swords, daggers, scabbards, or axes.
The primary weapon of this horse riding culture was the bow, & a special case had been developed to carry the delicate but very powerful composite bow. This case, "the gorytus", had a separate container on the outside which acted as a quiver, & the whole was often decorated with animal scenes or scenes depicting daily life on the steppes. There was a marked following of Grecian elements after the 4th century BC, when Greek craftsmen were commissioned to decorate many of the daily use articles.
Scythian art has became well known in the West thanks to a series of touring loan exhibitions from Ukrainian and Russian museums, especially in the 1990s and 2000s.
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 Saint 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 Altay 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 Altay 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 mi (121 km) south of Kiev, found in the 1990s has revealed one of the few 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 archaeologists 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 Kiev and the State Historical Archaeological Preserve at Pereiaslav-Khmel'nyts'kyi.
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- 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.
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- Rice, T. T. The Scythians Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. New York 1957
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- New York Times article on 2001 Siberian discovery
- Article on Scythian culture and art
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