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Funerals in the Frost

When I heard the word for the first time, I had no idea how to spell it: “Scythians”. That’s pronounced “Sith-ians” (the first syllable rhyming with “myth”). They were an ancient tribe of nomads who ruled the land of Scythia, an empire that stretched from the Black Sea through Siberia to the borders of China.

That was more than two thousand years ago. The Chinese are still here, but the Scythians disappeared as a distinct tribe long ago, absorbed into the other peoples who surrounded them. They didn’t build permanent houses, only tents of felt and cloth, and had no written language, so you might think that we’d know little about them today. As a new exhibition in the British Museum shows otherwise. The Scythians did build permanent tombs and they filled those tombs with everything that the buried person might need in the afterlife, from weapons and clothing to food and jewellery.

In fact, you could say that they held funerals in the frost, because the ground in which they dug their tombs is permamently frozen. The cold has held everything in preservation, from the bodies of the dead to the food buried with them. Archaeologists can study what the Scythians looked like and even analyse their diet, which was based on milk, cheese and other products from their herds of cattle. Archaeologists can also study what the Scythians thought like, because despite their lack of a written language, they were skilled craftsmen and created many beautiful pieces of art. The tombs have yielded golden belt-buckles carved with warriors with long hair and flowing robes or wild animals from the region.

They’ve also yielded solid examples of what ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Scythians’ leisure activities. He said that the nomads used braziers set on tripods to heat stones in a felt tent, then threw hemp seeds onto the braziers and breathed in the mind-altering vapour that then filled the air. All of these things – braziers, tripods and stones – can be seen in the exhibition at the British Museum.

So can something else that Herodotus didn’t write about: the tattoos with which the Scythians covered their chests, legs and upper arms. These tattoos were covered by clothing, so outsiders didn’t see them, but the permafrost has preserved bodies so well that their tattoos are clearly visible today, many centuries later. Both men and women bore them and the exhibition includes a tattooed piece of skin from a Scythian warrior. It displays a tiger baring its claws: hunting was obviously an important part of Scythian life and must have been a supreme test of skill, daring and courage, not to mention useful training for the wars that the Scythians continually waged.

They were feared and respected by everyone who came into contact with them, whether fellow nomads or settled peoples like the Greeks. They even get a mention in the Bible, when St Paul is describing how all people are equal in Jesus Christ: not just the Greeks and the Jews, but even the wild and dangerous Scythians. Then the tides of history swept over these proud and fierce nomads, washing away their empire and their distinct identity, so that today only their tombs and a few references in ancient literature bear witness to the greatness that was Scythia.