Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Heaps and Heaps of Gold

About 300 years ago, the British government was coping with the first Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, while away to the east, Peter the Great of Russia was receiving a fantastic treasure of gold objects of a completely unknown type. About 300 years later I was mesmerised in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg by the exquisite amazing artistic pieces of that hoard.

This gold treasure was found in Siberian and Ukrainian kurgans.

What is a kurgan? A burial mound. It looks like a replica of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, but it is very different in its contents. Kurgans contained heaps - literally heaps - of treasure.

And sometimes, the remains of wives and servants - strangled and buried alongside their master.

What kind of treasure? One kurgan revealed the skeleton of a woman, buried 2,400 years ago. Round her neck: a gold torque. Her veil held by gold bands. Her shroud glittered with 200 squares of beaten gold. Not to mention all the gold rings and bracelets.

And who left all this gold treasure? The Scythians - mounted nomads of the Russian steppes - for centuries Europe’s chief guard against Mongol hordes of the East.

Scythians were a byword for ferocity and daring.  But, in the end, they seemed to disappear from history. They left no written records.

Herodotus, the “father of history”, wrote about them – accounts subsequently confirmed by archaeology. But these people, who left such exquisite amazing gold artistic pieces, were also particularly brutal and barbaric in their customs and rituals.

Slaves’ eyes were destroyed to make escape difficult. Enemy prisoners were beheaded and skinned, then coats, capes and cushions made from these skins. Skulls of victims were sawn through above the eyebrows, cleaned, gilded on the inside and used as drinking cups.

Scythians were mysterious and paradoxical. Rough, warlike, cruel, but sensitive to artistic beauty.

When a king died, the corpse was prepared. It was slit open, cleaned out,  filled with aromatic substances, then completely covered in wax.

The body was carried in a wagon from tribe to tribe, then at the burial place, a great square pit was dug.  The corpse was laid down, surrounded by members of the king’s household:  a concubine, his butler, cook, groom,  steward, and chamberlain – all strangled. Gold cups and other treasures were also buried. On top of all, a mound of earth 50 or 60 feet high.

At the end of a year, another ceremony.  50 of the best of the king’s remaining servants, plus 50 of his finest horses,  were strangled, bodies gutted and stuffed, then buried.

In 1898, in another kurgan, 8 oxen and more than 360 horses were found buried, but no people.

But these same people produced exquisite gold articles such as a model of a bareback rider, less than 2 inches high, the end-piece of a torque (a collar made of twisted gold) fashioned in the 4th century BC.

Another item was a buckle, shaped like a stag, dated about the 7th century BC, found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus.

Another model was part of a gold pectoral (breastplate) showing two men sewing a sheepskin to make a tunic.

Some carved models were so small you had to look at them through a magnifying glass.

The Scythians left no written records. Did they disappear from history? Some say they migrated westward and landed in Spain, Ireland, and Scotland. What do you think?


Фрагменты Пекторали
Gold Scythian pectoral, or neckpiece, from a royal kurgan in Towsta Mohila, Pokrov, dated to the 2nd half of the 4th century BC. The central lower tier shows three horses, each being torn apart by two griffins.Photograph: Д.КолосовCopyleft FAL 1.3

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