THE SCYTHIANS ROAMED around the steppes of Central Asia from about 800 BC to about 300 BC. I write “about” because very little is known for certain about this group of people, also known as the Saka-Scythians or Saka. My interest in the Scythians, who were dependant on horse riding for their not inconsiderable exploits including ruling most of Central Asia, was aroused by discovering that they used the double-headed eagle, a symbol that fascinates me, in their handiwork. So, it was with great excitement that I visited the special exhibition of Scythian gold at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The show, “Gold of the Great Steppe”, is on until the 30th of January 2022.
The exhibition is well worth seeing. The gold and other items found in Scythian grave mounds in Kazakhstan are superb examples of sophisticated technology and fine craftsmanship and they are displayed beautifully. The labelling is clear and easy to read. However, what is very clear from what is written on these labels is that almost nothing concrete is known about the people who created the exhibits. The curators make numerous reasonable-sounding suggestions about the possible ways of life that the items suggest, but these seem to me to be mainly intelligent guesswork. The Scythians left no written records. What we know about them depends mainly on metallurgical and genetic findings, as well as a few linguistic studies. Various Ancient Greek writers have written about them, but their opinions were often biased against them. So, it is not surprising that visitors to the exhibition are left little wiser about the people who created the magnificent artefacts on display. Interspersed amongst the items found in the graves in Kazakhstan there are modern recreations of how the Scythians and their horses might have looked in life. I felt that these mock-ups were rather too speculative for my taste. That said, I was pleased to have seen the show.