Published in Hastings Independent Press Issue 89 10/11/17
If you saw the film ‘Eagle Huntress’, perhaps you wondered, among other things, how nomads manage bathing. There’s one answer in Herodotus, a Greek historian of around 484-425 BCE: a tent of wooden mats supported by poles is set over a pit into which red hot stones are cast. ‘Bathers’ creep beneath the coverings and throw hemp seeds onto the stones which “ sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy..for they never wash their bodies with water.”
The people he called Scythians were the nomadic tribes who inhabited the steppe which stretched from the Black Sea, through Siberia as far as Northern China. Herodotus spent time north of the Black Sea and many of his findings are supported by current archaeology. Excavations ordered by Peter the Great and more recently those at the graves in the Atlai mountains, show much use of hemp seeds as a means of getting a natural high, as well as unimaginable treasures which are beautifully displayed at the current British Museum exhibition.
If you saw the film, you’ll recall that vast, relentlessly harsh landscape. At the exhibition a hugely magnified projection of the watercolour panorama by the official artist for the Trans-Siberian railway ( Pavel Yakovlevich Pyasetsky) creates that space around you, with sounds off – wind, birds, and horses thundering over the terrain. This transports you to a place of intense appreciation for the artistry crafted on the hoof. The permafrost protecting the tombs has unusually preserved clothing, so you can see weaves, gossamer fine; furs; wool; felt appliqué on leather with stitches finer than a machine might make, embroidered boots, felt stockings, knitted covers for pony tails which stood high above the head in wooden casings.
The origins of the tribes vary enormously, only their names, which suggest Iranian dialects, and their artefacts suggest any commonality: the shared drama of the animal lives intrinsic to their own is embedded in their imagery. Big cats are the champions: tigers with rams heads in their mouths, tigers attacking camels, lions attacking boars and deer; or monsters which are conglomerates of more familiar creatures.
Photos of the excavations reveal multiple horse burials, (corroborating Herodotus) and bodies lying on their side – couples spooning in death. A skull retains characteristic red hair, skin shows extensive tattooing. Though the graves were robbed, there’s still plenty of gold: gold torcs and amulets hollowed out for wearability, one with a panther’s head and an eagle’s head on its tail for added potency. Fingernail sized gold boars or felines were punched out in multiples to add bling to heavy garments. Shards of gilding cling to leather appliqués and to the wooden head-dress of a chieftain: a towering pile of carved animal ferocity. There are gold earrings dripping with delicate gold buds, gold belt fixings to carry a quiver, gold vessels, gold sword handles and whole hunting scenes – men pursuing lions, boars and deer – wrought into belt plaques, gold with turquoise inlay.
There’s evidence of connections with India, China, the Persian and Greek empires, whether via trade or conflict. Scythians sprint through many Greek vases, sexily clad in tight leopard-skin onesies and stimulating bizarre stories of one breasted women and exceptional powers. This culture is as exotic now as it was to the Greeks, and it’s extraordinary to think that it’s a way of life which persists, just.