“Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia”, edited by Svetlana V Pankova and St John Simpson

Detail of golden pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla (Wikimedia Commons) Detail of golden pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla (Wikimedia Commons)

The gold of the Scythians exploded into the world of museum goers when Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum sent these treasures touring to London and New York in 1975. An equally noteworthy exhibition, Masters of the Steppe, took place in 2017 at the British Museum. This copiously-illustrated volume enables readers to revisit that exhibition, and to ponder essays produced by 30 scholars from 12 countries. These essays appear, confusingly, in alphabetical order by author. It is best to start by reading the magistral concluding essay, and then return to the essays in the order they are discussed in the conclusion.

The book summarizes today’s understanding of the Scythians. The Soviets inherited treasures discovered in the time of Peter the Great. The discovery in 1971 of graves in Tolstaya Mogila in southern Ukraine represented the apogee of Soviet archaeology. Those magnificent gold pieces, now in the Kiev Museum, figured prominently in the 1975 show. In post-Soviet times, increasingly sophisticated technology, including drones, DNA analysis, accurate radio-carbon dating and biochemical analysis on the one hand, and the relaxing of ideological filters on the other hand, have shed new light on the Scythians. The Pazyryk site in Siberia yielded up pile carpets, horse tackle and chariots, perfectly preserved in permafrost. Scholars have been able to reconstruct Scythian bows, the very artefact behind the ethnonym “Scythian”, or “archer”. Saddles, metallurgy and jewelry have revealed their secrets of origin. Skeletal remains of humans and animals illustrate the development of horsemanship. Scythian art and its close relationship with Achaemenid Persia, Greece and China of the Warring States has been analyzed.

Scythian-signature artefacts are found from one end of the Eurasian steppe to the other: from the mouth of the Danube to the suburbs of Beijing. We imagine that the Scythians represented the core Indo-europeans who never migrated out of the steppe. While the adoption of the cart and the chariot carried their cousins into South and West Asia as well as Europe, the Scythians stayed on the steppe long enough to master horseback riding and mounted archery. The first horsemen, they entered the world of written history as brigands, mercenaries, traders or conquerors.

 

Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia, Svetlana V Pankova (ed), St John Simpson (ed) (Archaeopress, January 2021)
Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia, Svetlana V Pankova (ed), St John Simpson (ed) (Archaeopress, January 2021)

Yet, in a provocative essay, Taylor, Havlicek and Beckwith explore the question, as to whether the Scythians as such ever existed, or do the artefacts simply reflect a loose cultural complex shared across unrelated tribes? This is an important question since the Eurasian steppe is sometimes seen as a blank slate on which the great civilizations—Greek, Persian, India and China—wrote, but received nothing back.

The Russians would vote in favor of a real Scythia, for it has a special resonance for them. In his essay, Burzine Waghmar describes how Michael Rostovtzeff, finding refuge from the Bolshevik Revolution in the Bodleian Museum, wrote his classic Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. His book gave the Russians a suggestive connection to Classical Antiquity, and all that implies about being part of Western Civilization. At the same time the Eurasian expansiveness of the Scythians prefigures the Russian Empire and even today’s Russian federation, that spans the Eurasian steppe. Waghmar’s summary of the historiography is as fascinating as the new discoveries.

While the Russians are unreservedly accepting of the notion of a Scythian civilization, Chinese scholars are more reticent. Some of this is tied up with current geopolitical concerns, and some of it with a tenacious view that early China was a provider, not a adopter of civilizational elements. Karl Jasper in his essay on the Axial Age even wondered if there was not a “mystical” force at work to account for cultural similarities between China and western Asia, separated as they were by the vast, empty steppe. Of course there was a much simpler explanation for these similarities: the Chinese adopted many Scythian cultural objects and practices, above all the horse. This point is well illustrated by the only Chinese contributor in this book, Raphael Wang of Oxford and Hong Kong.

 

Getting back to Taylor, Havlicek and Beckwith, they conclude that the Scythians were indeed a people with a state organization. Their discussion of the royal burials, the mass deaths that accompanied these, and their interpretation of the sources lend support to the idea that the Scythian state anticipated the later Xiongnu, Turk and Mongol empires.

In such a wide ranging volume, at 803 pages and with almost 600 illustrations, the reader will find dry science, but also bursts of whimsical erudition. Among the latter is the story of the Khotanese language. Aurel Stein discovered manuscripts in an unknown language in Khotan in Xinjiang. These made their way to the British Museum, where Harold Bailey undertook to publish the entire corpus. Bailey mastered Khotanese, which proved to be a medieval form of Scythian, as well as Ossetic, its modern survivor. He spoke Ossetic well enough to lecture in that language when visiting the USSR’s Ossetic Republic, and Khotanese well enough to keep a diary in rhymed couplets of the older language. While one might need the talent of Bailey to read and appreciate every essay in this book, selective readers will find much of it useful and instructive.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)