The Saka Scythians in Kazakhstan

Gold of the Great Steppe

A glimpse into the world of the Saka Scythians through the results of very recent excavations is the topic of the exhibition Gold of the Great Steppe in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The accompanying publication shows the splendor of Scythian gold ornaments in great detail, combined with the challenges and possibilities of ongoing archaeological research in East Kazakhstan.

Scythian gold is world-famous: several previous exhibitions have had visitors marvel at the craft and skill of Scythian artists. This particular exhibition and publication zoom in on the Saka, one of the peoples that we know under the umbrella name of ‘Scythians’, in eastern Kazakhstan. What is remarkable about the publication is that it has been compiled while research is ongoing: some of the finds presented have been excavated as recently as 2020. The archaeological context is presented alongside the gold from which the book gets its title. Gold of the Great Steppe is not just a catchy title to draw your attention: this book is literally crammed with images of stunning gold pieces, many of which are published for the first time here. Earrings, necklaces, headdresses, horse equipment, dress ornaments, weaponry…all executed with the flowing lines, crisp granulation and masterful decoration that the Saka are famous for. But what makes this book stand out, is the presentation within the archaeological context in which they have been retrieved – it’s like following the archaeologists closely, seeing what they are seeing.

That view starts with the large burial mounds, or kurgans, that dot the steppe landscape. As in many civilizations, where people bury their dead is both highly significant as well as a territorial marker that announces the ties of a particular people to their land. After the introductory chapter on the project itself, the second chapter of the book starts out with a brief presentation of Saka culture in the Altai Mountain range (the Kazakh part of the Altai), in which a brief history is outlined along with written sources and the part archaeological research plays in reconstructing this history. On a side note, the written sources, such as Herodotus and Achaemenid texts, are presented and throughout the book cited without discussion of their cultural bias. The presentation of petroglyphs on the other hand is absolutely enriching for our understanding of the visual language of the Saka, as several of the forms in rock art return in the gold ornaments found in the kurgans. I also enjoyed that a few settlements are included, too: much of our knowledge about the Saka stems from their funerary monuments, and so learning more about their settlements further widens our view, however brief these paragraphs are. The chapter then continues with an in-depth discussion of these funerary monuments. Individual kurgans and the finds encountered are presented, along with excavation photographs, drawings and schematics. The gold artefacts shown in this chapter are not only stunning to behold, but gain in meaning because their context is given as well. At the end of the chapter, a culture emerges that combines mythologies and world views from across the continent, attached great value to horses and combined these two values in a strong visual expression.

The next chapter zooms in on a large kurgan and its contents: kurgan 4 in Eleke Sazy. Meticulous research of this burial leads to the assumption that it might be here that the early Saka culture reached its formative stage, forming the starting point for further developments of Saka culture. Due to the careful and methodical excavation, a reconstruction has been made of its occupant: a young archer, dressed in clothing embellished with gold and wearing several pieces of gold weaponry. Here again, the photography and detailed description of the finds provide the reader with a unique viewpoint, looking over the shoulder of Kazakh archaeologists as they work.

The second half of the book zooms out, from the individual finds and their historic context, to thematic subjects: funerary customs, horse-human relations and gold working. The chapter on funerary customs is absolutely fascinating from both an archaeological and ethnographic perspective. Although I personally feel that drawing a direct parallel between living cultures and archaeological finds that are substantially older is hazardous (and as if reading my mind, the author of this chapter starts out by addressing that exact point!), I have learned a great deal about traditional funerary customs, that do provide food for thought on how we might understand the physical remnants encountered in archaeological research. The chapter on horse-human relations examines how horses were buried in the kurgans: not only where and with what equipment, but also which type of horse. Horses, like humans, have been buried with elaborate trappings and with great care. Interestingly, their ears in some cases have been clipped to mimick the undulating forms of mythological animals in Scythian gold ornaments – another benefit of the excellent conservation circumstances of the Kazakh steppe is that organic material is well preserved. How the gold ornaments, that inspired this exhibition, were made, is the central theme of the last chapter. Here, we see traditional methods of observation combined with chemical analyses, identifying where the gold came from and how it was worked into the fabulous adornments illustrated throughout the book.

As this book presents ongoing research, it does come with a few challenges. The finds themselves for example are so recent that a contextual analysis, placing the Saka within the wider Scythian cultural realm, has not yet been made – the Saka are presented within Kazakhstan only. There is a slight imbalance between the descriptive nature of the text and the interpretations given, likely because the authors are specialists in their fields and connect proverbial dots based on their extensive knowledge. For the reader however, it is sometimes not as clear cut on what grounds conclusions pertaining to mythological or ritualistic assumptions have been drawn.

A very strong point of the book is in its illustrations. For starters, the photographs of the gold ornaments are many and beautiful, allowing the reader to admire them in detail. Sweeping views of the landscape help build an understanding of the natural environment of the Saka, while excavation photographs present finds in their original context, and in doing so convey the amount of work needed in conservation and restoration of individual finds. Maps and schematics aid our understanding of what we are looking at, while reconstruction drawings bring the picture of the past full circle.

All in all, this is not just an art historian book about gold jewellery. This book showcases the possibility encapsulated in ornaments to function as historic sources, if they are studied in and together with their original context.  A single ornament, looted and deprived of its context, loses its voice as carrier of information about the past, and the authors of this book have gone through great lengths to illustrate what information can be derived from ornaments. The archaeologists in Kazakhstan battle looting, time constraints and global warming in their everyday work, while also painstakingly studying material culture to increase our insights into the culture of the Saka steppe nomads. Gold of the Great Steppe book offers a wonderful view into Saka culture, the rich heritage of Kazakhstan, and the hard work of its archaeologists.

Gold of the Great Steppe, by Rebecca Roberts (ed). Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021.

170 pp, full-colour, in English. Available with the publisher and online.

Available with the publisher and online.

The book was gifted as review copy by the publisher.