Scythians: Reflections on the new BM exhibition

Jessica Juckes, International Training Programme Assistant

The exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia has opened at The British Museum this week with fantastic reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph, among others. As well as items from the British Museum and a vast and generous loan from the stunning collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, there are also artefacts on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, one of our ITP UK partners.

Scythians Exhibition Homepage
How We Brought the Scythians to London
What do Nomads Leave Behind?
Ice Mummies and Burial Mounds

A peek inside the exhibition

A peek inside the exhibition

The exhibition offers some interesting food for thought on contemporary museum practice, so I thought I’d share some reflections with you and open up a few questions for discussion:

-The Scythians are distinct example of a nomadic civilisation without a written history and with no remaining oral history. How do we go about interpreting such cultures?
Luckily, the Scythians buried their dead with everything they would need for the afterlife (food, clothing, weaponry, jewellery, horses). The frozen conditions of the Altai Mountains have left us with amazingly well-preserved and beautifully crafted artefacts of wood, leather, fur and animal hair that would otherwise have been lost. Another thing that helps is that the Scythians had to wait until the ground had thawed in the high mountains to bury their dead, so they would mummify them while they waited for warmer weather. This means that human skin, tattooed with symbolic animal images, has been preserved.

Scythian burial mound in southern Siberia. c The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo V. Terebenin

Scythian burial mound in southern Siberia © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V. Terebenin

-Is the aim of museums to strive towards having all the answers?
The Museum does not shy away from the complexities of interpretation and is careful to inform us that it is not presenting any absolute ‘Truth’ regarding the lives and beliefs of the Scythians. Wall text tells us that scientists are still investigating how Scythian gold caste plaques were made. The very last thing we see as we leave the exhibition is a wall vinyl telling us that discoveries are still being made and the stories are still being told. With our postmodern approach to interpretation, can we ever claim to have the answers?

Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th-3rd century BC © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo V Terebenin

Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th-3rd century BC © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

-The exhibition makes the interesting history of discovery and display of Scythian artefacts a key element of the story being presented. Should the context of collecting always be part of museum presentation in this way?
The majority of the artefacts on show are on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The exhibition highlights the fact that our knowledge and understanding of the Scythians is inextricably linked to the context of Russian exploration from the 18th century onwards: Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) ordered expeditions to Siberia in search of trade routes and natural resources, which lead to the discovery of Scythian burial sites. We are shown a painting of the Tsar, plans and sketches of his kunstkamera cabinet of curiosities (Russia’s first museum), archival photographs of archaeological digs, and illustrations of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which opened a further pathway into Siberia and increased Russian interest in the history of the peoples of the region.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, Peter the Great, Tsar and Grand Duke of Muscovy, Oil on canvas, 1698. Royal Collection. c Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2

Peter the Great, Tsar and Grand Duke of Muscovy, Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1698, oil on canvas. Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2017

A section of the exhibition focuses on connections between the Scythians and the wider world. Is it our duty as museum professionals to remind audiences of the many influences and relationships between cultures throughout history, in a contemporary context where we sometimes feel divided?
We are shown examples of the Scythians’ encounters with their neighbours in China, Assyria and Persia, and also beyond, to the Greek colonial empire in the Black Sea region.

-My favourite items in the exhibition:
Bronze mirrors and a foot ornament with comma-shaped forms reminding me of items I have seen in museums in South Korea (Silla Kingdom) , and also in the Afghanistan exhibition here at the BM in 2011 – a reminder of those extensive global trade links.