the scythians at the british museum

interesting to think about the contrast between the rich, immersive environment created by the exhibition’s curators and the paucity of hard evidence of how the scythians actually lived their lives – so many conclusions are based on guesswork from knowledge of the geographical and climatic constraints on their lives, and from ethnographic analogues

visitors were made, as far as possible in a modern museum suite, to imagine that they were there in the steppe – projected vistas of grassy plains (sometimes with animated mounted warriors), audio loops of human shouts and equine snortings, the whole set of rooms in dark browns, olives and greens

gold belt buckles featured prominently – large, splendid, with designs usually containing a predator and its prey – a wide range of species – lion, tiger, panther, vulture, deer (particularly elk), dragons, and some humans – this was what was really worth seeing
barry cunliffe’s hour could only give an outline, but his literary-festivally warm audience went away with some context – the steppe is a latitude-limited corridor from china to hungary, allowing – even encouraging, through the ‘grass is greener’ gradient, movements from the drier east to the wetter, greener, west – the scythians were one of the many peoples who rode this corridor, identified by their greek contemporaries homer and herodotus

questions arise: what are the relationships between material culture, a people, and a name? is a change in the archaeological record (for example in the style of graves or pots), evidence of a new ‘people’ coming onto the scene, or (just) of the same people changing the way they buried their dead or stored their food? should we apply to ancient peoples, without caveat, names from classical authors? how far beyond those authors’ limited geographical experience should we extend the territory to which those names apply? and, wider questions about exhibitions – to what extent is the creation of a ‘what it was like’ environment no more, inevitably, than a misleading trick?

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