Martha must be at the British Museum–where she wrongly went yesterday when her ticket was for today. Lots of security and lots of people today. Went in with many, many others on my 11:10 timed entry. Don’t know about them, but I exited around 1:30. That should suggest to you how good it was.
The Scythians turned up around 200 BC, dominating at one time the steppes from China to the Black Sea. Nomads, because the land was no good for agriculture, they moved around with their livestock–sheep, camels, horses, goats–becoming expert warriors and horsemen. Everybody was afraid of them as they developed superior weapons, especially bows, and horsemanship. They were tremendously resourceful, and they loved their gold which decorated person, animal and burial.
They had disappeared from the face of the earth until the 1720s when Peter the Great sent people out to search for minerals and trade routes. A burial filled with golden riches came to light and Peter declared that any discoveries should come to him. He put them in his private collection, but he did order a library and museum to be built to house his books and treasures so that others could see them. His Kunstkamera, housing some 11,000 volumes and thousands of ”curiosities” broke ground in 1718. Sadly, Peter died in 1725 without seeing construction to completion. However, he had amassed some 250 Scythian objects, along with analytical drawings and watercolors of them. All these, plus the drawings, explained in four languages, are on show in the exhibition.
In the steppes burial was possible only in the summer, so bodies were mummified. Filled with horsehair, pine needles and larch cones, they waited for good weather. A deep hole was dug before lining with felt or birch bark. Then a little log cabin was built for the body which need all sorts of things to sustain it in the afterlife. Yes, pots and weapons, but also concubines, horses, grooms, a cook, etc. All these things, including the bodies, were preserved by the permafrost so we have the world’s oldest carpet (2,300 years) and other ”world’s oldests.”
Some interesting facts: 1. Both men and women were heavily tattooed. They used soot because it was sterile and easily sourced. All parts of the body were decorated–except the face and thighs. 2. Women shaved their heads except for one patch which grew very long. This was threaded through a decorative funnel heading upward. 3. They built small tents to concentrate the smoke of hemp seeds which they burned on stones. Herodotus says that they ”howled in pleasure” during the practice. 4. They decorated the bottoms of their shoes because they sat on carpets, thus displaying the bottoms of their feet. Vanity goes where indicated I guess. 5. Their arrows were three-bladed, many with a small hook at the base, thus making extraction nearly impossible.
The overwhelming surprise was their artistry and advanced practices in such a hostile environment.