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At the Museums: All that Glitters is Scythian Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by Kristin M. Romey

The richly provisioned burials of the Scythians, a tribe that originated in Central Asia in the first millennium B.C. and migrated into present-day Ukraine in the seventh century B.C., have preserved one of the most complete material records of any nomadic people. Gold of the Nomads, the first exhibition to come to the U.S. from independent Ukraine, features more than 170 Scythian artifacts--many never before shown outside the country--from the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, the Institute of Archaeology in Kyiv (Kiev), and the State Historical Archaeological Preserve at Pereiaslav-Khmel'nyts'kyi. Objects include bronze weapons and sculptures, silver and bone ornaments, Scythian and Greek ceramics, massive stone sculptures, and, of course, gold.

Until the eighteenth century, most of our knowledge of Scythian culture came from the fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus, who--in characteristically Greek fashion--focused on the more barbaric habits of the Scythians: their practice of consuming the blood of the first man they killed in battle; accoutrements fashioned from the skins of their enemies; their fondness for cannabis and unwatered wine drunk from gilded skulls. The Greeks, however, were beholden to the Scythians, who controlled and grew rich on the trade of grain from the steppe that fed the urban centers of the Mediterranean.

The reputation of the Scythians began to change from bloodthirsty barbarians to sophisticated art patrons during the reign of Catherine the Great (A.D. 1729-1796). The Russian empress was so impressed with the exquisite artifacts being unearthed from the enormous Scythian burial mounds, or kurgans, that pepper the steppe of southern Russia and Ukraine that she ordered their systematic study. Since then, archaeologists and the public alike have been captivated by the vibrant dynamism and innate grace and delicacy of the Scythian creative vision.

* Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

Kristin M. Romey is an assistant editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America