Jewelers of the Steppe: Scythians and Scythian Art

scythian art

The Scythians were a nomadic society that emerged in the 8th century BC in the Pontic steppes, when the Cimmerians lost their influence. They have been instrumental in the ethnogenesis of many communities in the region, as they dominated both Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Due to the geography they have spread, they have interacted with many civilizations both culturally and socioeconomically. However, the fact that some ancient historians refer to all communities living beyond the Caspian as Scythians, has caused confusion about the ethnic origins of many communities living in Southern Siberia and Central Asia.1

Who were the Scythians?

Most of our knowledge about the Scythians is based on archaeological data and the writings of neighboring states, as they did not leave written work behind. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus conveyed a lot of information about the Scythians, who emerged with the loss of the influence of the Cimmerians in the Pontus steppes, which is considered to be the origin of the Proto-Indo-Europeans according to the Kurgan hypothesis. Although it is known that some of the information he conveyed is contradictory, Herodotus pointed to Inner Asia regarding the homeland of the Scythians before the Pontus steppes, as is still thought today.

History professor Gavin Hambly described the Scythians as the first empire in Central Asia. According to current findings, the Scythians, known to have lived in Inner Asia in the 9th century BC, migrated to the west in the following years and spread to the Pontus steppes. In the 8th century BC, they organized many expeditions to the Caucasus, Eastern Anatolia and the north of the Black Sea.2

The Blood Oath Rites of the Scythians and Huns

Some of the Scythian subgroups, which mainly led a nomadic life, moved to a semi-nomadic / semi-sedentary life after migrating to the west. Although patriarchy was dominant in Scythians, women took an active role in social life and learned to use weapons, as in many nomadic communities.3

What did the Scythians Look Like?

Scythians, like other steppe nomads, usually wore comfortable clothes that did not restrict their mobility. Pants were common in both men and women. Men used to grow their hair and beard and wear one earring.4

Gold, silver, and bronze jewelry were common among both men and women. The material used in the making of the jewelry varied according to the social status of the wearer. Animal figures were usually included in the jewelry.

İskitler ve İskit Sanatı
Scythian Warriors

Early Scythian Culture and the Roots of Scythian Art

Scythian culture, one of the Iron Age cultures in Eastern Europe, has its roots in Inner Asia. Its emergence in the Pontus steppes is around the 7th century BC. The earliest archaeological finds in the region, which belong to the strictly Scythian culture, are burial sites, as nomadism was common.

The Scythians, known from the Urartian inscriptions to have organized many expeditions to Eastern Anatolia, left some movable artifacts in Amasya and Elazığ, the provinces of Turkey. Some materials belonging to the Early Scythian culture were found in İmirler village of Amasya and Norşuntepe of Elazığ. The influences of the classical steppe nomadic style are clearly seen in these works.5

Nomadic Animal Style

The decorative style associated with early Eurasian nomads and transhumance communities and characterized by animal symbolism is called nomadic animal style or simply animal style. Animal symbolism played an important role in the art of the Scythians, as did many communities in Central Asia.

The animal style evident in early Scythian art is a continuation of the Tagar and Pazyryk cultures of Southern Siberia.

İskitler ve İskit Sanatı
Pazyryk Saddlecloth

Tagar Culture: A Bronze Age culture that developed around Khakasia and Southern Krasnoyarsk between the 8th century BC and the 2nd century BC.

Pazyryk Culture: The Iron Age culture that developed around Altai between the 6th century BC and the 3rd century BC.

Classical Scythian Art

The classical period of Scythian art covers the 6th to 3rd centuries BC. The Scythians, who developed their commercial relations with the Greek colonies, both influenced the Greeks and were influenced by the Greeks artistically. Since some works from the Scythian period contain scenes specific to Greek art, it is thought that they were imported from the Greeks or produced by Greek masters living in the Scythian country.6

Jewelers of the Steppe: Scythians and Scythian Art
Scythian golden deer. (7th or 6th century BC)
Derzsi Elekes Andor ©️CC BY-SA 3.0

As can be understood from the archaeological remains, the Scythians, a highly advanced society in metallurgy, are also known as the jewelers of the steppe because of the gold objects they left behind, such as diadems, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings and buckles.

The number of gold works in Scythians, which got richer day by day thanks to international trade, increased over time and gold became one of the most popular metals used in artworks in the Scythian country, along with bronze.

Jewelers of the Steppe: Scythians and Scythian Art
Battle scene on the Scythian golden comb.
(Late 5th century BC)

Many of the Scythian gold objects were found during archaeological excavations in kurgans. According to archaeologist Aarne Michaёl Tallgren, Scythian kurgans spread across the Eurasian Steppes from Europe to almost the border with China. This proves that the Scythians spread over a very wide geography.

Objects found in Scythian kurgans are not only ornaments. Clothes decorated with precious metals, horse harnesses, and many war tools have been found all over the Scythian land. Although the Scythians usually used arrows, war tools such as daggers, swords, axes and maces were also found in Scythian kurgans. Many of these tools are decorated with zoomorphic figures and geometric patterns.

İskitler ve İskit Sanatı
Scythian gold necklace.
(4th century BC)

Although Scythian art was born with a unique style, it has been under the influence of many different cultures over time. Scythian art, which takes its roots from the classical Eurasian steppe style, has transformed into an eclectic style over time, influenced by Greek, Persian and Chinese cultures, as art history professor İbrahim Çeşmeli states.7

  1. Europe Before History“, Kristian KRISTIANSEN, European Journal of Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN: 0521552273[]
  2. “Empires of the Silk Road”, Christopher I. BECKWITH, Princeton University Press, 2009, ISBN: 9781400829941[]
  3. “The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia” Anna MELYUKOVA, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 9780521243049[]
  4. The Scyths“, T. SULIMIRSKI, The Cambridge History of Iran, Cambridge University Press, 1985[]
  5. Bazı Bulgular Işığında Anadolu’da Kimmer ve İskit Varlığı Üzerine Gözlemler“, Yrd. Doç. Dr. Oya SAN, Dicle Üniversitesi, Belleten, Türk Tarih Kurumu, Nisan 2000, Cilt 64, Sayı 239[]
  6. The Art of the Scythians“, Esther JACOBSON, 1995, ISBN: 9789004098565[]
  7. “İskitler Hunlar ve Göktürkler de Din ve Sanat”, İbrahim ÇEŞMELİ, Cinius, 2017, ISBN: 9786053238683[]