The vast landscape of the Great Steppe stretches across central Eurasia, encompassing mountains, grasslands, rivers, and lakes. Hidden below its surface are deposits of gold and other valuable minerals that made this region one of the world’s most important centres of ancient metallurgy. Throughout history, the area has been home to a rich variety of cultures, perhaps the most famous of whom are the Scythians: nomadic, horse-mounted warriors who lived across the steppe in the Iron Age. Rather than being a single, uniform society, the Scythians were made up of numerous groups that shared many common features, including artistic traditions. Of these groups, the Saka people of East Kazakhstan were one of the earliest to emerge, around the beginning of the 1st millennium BC. As the Fitzwilliam Museum’s new exhibition, Gold of the Great Steppe, shows, alongside their similarities to other Scythians, the Saka had a culture all of their own.
Evidence of the Saka’s rich material culture and the complex, highly stratified society that created it is often found in the grand tombs of their elite. Burial mounds known as kurgans are scattered in their hundreds across the steppe. Although their precise form varies, most consist of a central burial chamber that was encircled by a mound of earth, turf, and stones, before being sealed beneath a layer of stones. The ensuing edifice – which could be as tall as a three-storey building – was sometimes surrounded by rings of stones or ditches. Such expenditure of time and physical labour to build these monuments is testament to the wealth and power of the individuals for whom they were constructed, as are the thousands of objects made of gold and other precious materials that could be deposited inside. Although these rich pickings led to many kurgans being looted, the recent archaeological work that gave rise to this exhibition presents important new insights into these mortuary assemblages.
At Eleke Sazy, a cemetery containing more than 300 kurgans, Kurgan 4 still contained the remains of a young man no older than 18 years old and a girl aged 13-14, believed to be his sister. Although the girl’s grave contained just a few luxury goods, as it had been looted before the kurgan’s excavation, the male had been concealed by the collapsed wall of the burial chamber. His grave – one of the few intact Saka burials known – was found to include a wealth of golden objects, including a solid gold torc weighing more than 300g and thousands of minute gold beads that would have been painstakingly attached to his shoes. These were joined by other lavish clothing adornments and ornate weaponry. Clearly these youths belonged to a family with the power and means to give them such a hugely elaborate burial.
More important than the material value of the gold items found in burials like Eleke Sazy Kurgan 4 is the time and skill involved in crafting these objects. The Saka had exceptionally skilled metalworkers, capable of creating exquisite, intricately detailed objects from gold and other materials. Tiny golden beads like those from Kurgan 4 have also been discovered in several other burials, including another unlooted burial in the cemetery of Arzhan. This tomb, known as Arzhan 2, contained more than 250,000 beads. These were often smaller than 1mm in diameter, and would have taken many hours to create – even more to be sewn on to clothing.
Saka craftspeople were skilled, too, at combining gold with other materials, such as precious stones like turquoise and lapis lazuli, as seen in the gold deer plaques and other objects from Eleke Sazy Kurgan 4, or other metals like the bronze and iron rings and plates covered with gold foil found in Eleke Sazy Group II Kurgan 7. These objects were cleverly designed to reflect their owner’s wealth while being more durable than solid gold. Wood could also be used in this way, as shown by the wooden deer figurine with gold overlay preserved by permafrost inside Kurgan 5 at the cemetery of Berel. Although objects produced by artisans working with organic materials are relatively scarce, a few examples do survive, such as the woollen saddle cloth from Berel Kurgan 11, which reveals how textiles were being dyed and woven with complex, colourful designs. Reconstructions of funerary outfits, like the one worn by the male youth in Eleke Sazy Kurgan 4, have been made for the exhibition and serve as reminders of the rich, vibrant materials that would have been seen in the Saka world.
Living in the landscape
In addition to shedding light on the social stratification and craftworking skills of the Saka, kurgans act as a physical representation of their connection to the world of the steppe. Cemeteries, sometimes containing hundreds of these monumental mounds, were often placed in prominent locations, acting as highly visible expressions of the Saka’s claims to the territory and reflecting the important role that seasonal movement played in the burial rites of these pastoral nomads. At the same time, the ornately decorated objects found inside the kurgans offer other insights into how the Saka viewed the natural world around them.
A common artistic form that appears in Saka design is the ‘animal style’ found across the Scythian world, in which animals, both real and mythological, are depicted in complex compositions, often with limbs, heads, or torsos twisted into distinctive positions. It has been suggested that the Saka may have believed that the characteristics of the animals depicted on an object could be transferred to its owner, imbuing them with qualities like strength, speed, agility, or ferocity. A bronze bear figurine, thought to have been attached to a horse’s headband, is depicted with prominent paws and long claws, perhaps intended to impart the power and energy concentrated in these parts of the bear’s anatomy to the horse and his rider as they travelled into the afterlife. Mythical animals such as griffins, with the head and wings of a bird of prey and the lower body of a lion or tiger, are commonly seen in Saka ornamentation, perhaps intended to combine desirable qualities from multiple animals and bestow them on the wearer.
Animal-related art often appears to be centred on ideas about balance and opposition in nature, particularly the dynamics between predator and prey. This is apparent in several of the weapons buried with the young male at Eleke Sazy. His dagger, or akinakes, is decorated with feline heads (perhaps snow leopards) on the pommel and the horns of argali (wild mountain sheep) adorn the handle, while its scabbard juxtaposed multiple stylistically depicted deer with another feline predator. This dynamic of ‘hunter versus hunted’ may have been intended to give power to the warrior, as it is a common theme on weaponry and clothing adornments. Ideas about balance between the different realms of the steppe are apparent, too, with the use of animals characterising air, mountains, steppe, and water offering an insight into how the Saka categorised the natural world around them. Clothing plaques recovered from the Kurgan Patsha hoard at Eleke Sazy depict argali sitting on clouds, appearing to float in space, reflecting the high-mountain world that they represented and perhaps offering a clue to their role in Saka mythology.
Many details of these beliefs remain uncertain, but the frequency with which deer are depicted, particularly in heraldic designs, suggests that they were an animal important to the Saka, possibly indicating the presence of a deer cult. The eight deer-shaped plaques that once decorated the young man’s gorytos (a combined quiver and bow-case) in Kurgan 4 support this interpretation, with the decision to depict seven females and one larger male indicating that these beliefs may have been connected to ideas about subjects such as fertility as well.
Horses, as in other Scythian cultures, were central to the Saka way of life. In addition to being famously skilled mounted warriors, the Saka-Scythians used horses for hunting, transport, as beasts of burden, and as sources of milk, meat, leather, and hide. Horses were companions in life and death, and many of the elite individuals buried in kurgans were interred with their equine partners. The horses buried in kurgans were often carefully positioned and dressed in ornate outfits, just like their human masters – or mistresses. Kurgan 2 at Berel contained the remains of a wealthy woman accompanied by seven horses – acting as symbols of the status of the deceased, as well as honouring the horses themselves. In many cases, the horses with the most elaborate funerary gear are the oldest individuals, indicating that they had become highly valued. After all, they lived in a world where developing a close bond between horse and rider could be the difference between life and death, especially in a military or hunting context.
It was not just animals that were an important part of the Saka’s relationship with the natural world. They were also skilled in exploiting both wild and cultivated plants for food, medicine, crafts, and ritual activities, and this is reflected in the burials of their elite. The ‘Urzhar priestess’, who was a skilled herbalist, was buried with a headdress made of grasses and medicinal herbs including cumin, thistle, plantain, campion, and cannabis, as well as a mortar used for grinding these plants: a clear testament to the connection between her extensive knowledge of plants and her high status. Furthermore, flowers and leaves were a key part of Saka visual language, appearing on many objects, such as the pendants depicting fruits, grains, and bunches of grapes from Eleke Sazy Group IV Kurgan 7.
A complex culture
Although the burials of the Saka elite dominate the archaeological record, recent excavation work has also unearthed the remains of several settlement sites, revealing more details about their ways of life. Discoveries at the settlement of Akbauyr include the remnants of stone structures, ceramic vessel fragments, and artefacts related to craft production such as spindle whorls, in addition to quern stones, hand stones, hoes, and other stone tools linked to the cultivation and processing of grains. These finds shed new light on the variety present in the Saka economy, indicating that the population in this region was carrying out agricultural activities and presumably living a more sedentary life than our typical picture of pastoral nomads would suggest.
Ongoing archaeological work is also addressing questions about gender roles among the Saka, combating the traditional narrative of a male-focused warrior culture. Burials such as the ‘Urzhar priestess’ and the young female individual buried in Eleke Sazy Kurgan 4 demonstrate the presence of high-status women among the Saka elites, while – at the other end of the spectrum – the roles that women may have played in agricultural activities such as processing grain are also acknowledged. Although there are limits to our understanding of this aspect of social organisation, the curators of Gold of the Great Steppe are keen to highlight the information that the material record can provide about the roles that women played in Saka society.
The exhibition is filled with beautifully made, precious objects buried with the Saka elite that reflect their status and their relationship with the natural world around them. However, these artefacts do not just tell the story of the high-status individuals with whom they were interred, they also offer a connection to the people at every level of society who were involved in their creation, whether through obtaining raw materials, pouring hours into fashioning intricate details, or even labouring to create the kurgans in which the elite were buried. Gold of the Great Steppe paints a fascinating picture of Saka society and its many complexities, drawing on the incredible discoveries that have been made through recent archaeological work, and showing how much more there is to be uncovered in the future.
Gold of the Great Steppe
Address: Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB
Open: until 30 January 2022
Admission: entry is free, but advance booking is required
ALL PHOTOS: Fitzwilliam Museum/East Kazakhstan Regional Museum of Local unless otherwise stated.