Ancient Siberian bling

Golden vase from Kul Oba in the Crimea, 4th century BCE, with a relief showing group of Scythians.

Golden vase from Kul Oba in the Crimea, 4th century BCE, with a relief showing group of Scythians.

“Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” was a recent exhibition at the British Museum (London). The Scythians were a nomadic people who, during the period of 900 to 200 BCE, dominated the grasslands from southern Siberia to the Black Sea. They were fierce fighters, a fact written about by the Assyrians, the Persians and the ancient Greeks (the latter also admired the Scythians’ drinking prowess). The Scythians were also master craftspeople.

The exhibition showcased stunning examples of Scythian gold work, including elaborate gold belt buckles, earrings, and plaques to decorate clothes, quivers and bow cases, and gear for horses. The larger gold buckles and plaques often have textile impressions on their backs, which is evidence of a specific way of casting.

Detail of the golden vase illustrated above (not the same scene as above). The two Scythians depicted have the characteristic long hair and beard. One of them has a high pointed cap. They both wear trousers and a tunic.

Detail of the golden vase illustrated above (not the same scene as above). The two Scythians depicted have the characteristic long hair and beard. One of them has a high pointed cap. They both wear trousers and a tunic.

There were many examples of beautifully preserved textiles. The Scythians buried high-status individuals in kurgans, or burial chambers built of wood and stone. The organic remains were often frozen, and so preserved for over two thousand years. There were coats of squirrel fur (the fur on the inside) finely sewn with sinew. On one woman’s coat, the stitches were less than 1 mm long. This same coat was trimmed with fur that had been dyed with indigo and madder, and decorated on the outside with intricate, differently coloured, leather appliqués. The appliqués were further decorated with small bronze plaques that had been covered with gold foil. Interestingly, the cuffs of the narrow sleeves had been sewn shut, a feature seen on other such coats.

Both men and women wore woollen trousers (additionally, women wore long woollen skirts). There were several expertly woven wool fragments on display—some dyed with five colours (blue, green, red, orange and yellow). People were also buried with unique, high head gear, made from leather and felt; some burial mounds also contained decorated felt stockings; and woollen rugs or coverlets.

There were two objects on display that I will remember for a long time. One was a beautiful felt swan figure, which dates to the third century BCE. It was found with three other similar swans and may have been sewn to decorate a cart. Stuffed with straw, with a black bill and yellowish-red tail feathers, it is charming. The other object was a red leather woman’s shoe. This dates from the late fourth to the early third centuries BCE. The toe is decorated with thick sinew wrapped with tin foil, to imitate silver. But it’s the sole of the show which shows real bling: edged with dark beads, small cubed pyrite crystals were stitched to form three diamond-shaped patterns. Even sitting on the floor, showing the soles of her shoes, the woman who wore this wanted to be fashionable.

The exhibition is now closed. Hopefully it will be on tour to other museums before it returns to its home in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. If it is, don’t miss it.

Shelley Anderson, Sunday 28th January 2018

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Hogewoerd 164, 2311 HW Leiden. Tel. +31 (0)71 5134144 / +31 (0)6 28830428   info@trc-leiden.nl

Opening times: Monday to Thursday: 10.00-16.00 hrs, other days by appointment.

Bank account number: NL39 INGB 0002 9823 59

Entrance is free, but donations are always welcome !

Current exhibition: For a few sacks more ...., until 28th June

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Donations

The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden. Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
 
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