The Scythians on horseback, especially in sunlight, must have been a sight.
Twenty-five hundred years ago they were riders of the range, out there in the Wild East, beyond the last Greek harbor, where the arid, treeless grasslands stretched all the way to China, and rustlers took your livestock, and everyone was armed.
Deadly, quick and shining, the Scythians--whose ornaments and weapons are now on exhibition here at the Walters Art Gallery--were the cowboys and the Indians of classical antiquity, both of them combined.
In their hardiness and horsemanship they were like the Sioux, nomads who preferred that life and would not settle down. They were great with bow and arrow. In war they scalped their enemies. When they drank they really drank. When Anacreon, the 6th-century B.C. poet, used the phrase "drunk as a Scythian," everyone in Athens knew what he meant.
The Scythians in some ways were like cowboys, too, for they spent their days on horseback, sang at night to calm their animals and carried costly sidearms in fabulously tooled holsters. No cowboy of our westerns dressed as brightly. The Lone Ranger liked silver, Tom Mix affected rhinestones. The Scythians wore gold.
They wore gold around their necks, and gold around their wrists, and their holsters were covered in it. They didn't bank their wealth, they carried it. It gleamed upon their sword hilts, wrapped around their drinking horns. They dressed in it as well.
Gold makes useless armor; it's too soft to stop projectiles. But the Scythians loved it anyway, and throughout "Gold of the Nomads: Scythian Treasures From Ancient Ukraine" the yellow metal glows.
Because it is so heavy, Scythian goldsmiths would first pound it into foil, and then with soft, small hammers beat it against matrices to produce little bas-reliefs that were light enough to sew to cloth. They jangled like a pair of spurs, and shimmered when one moved. The so-called Golden Man of Issyk, whose tomb was excavated in 1978, wore little golden plaques all over his jacket, hat, belt and boots.
He must have been very rich. The Scythians sold grain, horses, slaves and honey to the Greeks who owned the wooden merchant ships that sailed the Black Sea. They sold protection, too. They were people you didn't mess with. Trembling townsfolk thought them pillagers and rapers and predatory killers. Between the 8th century B.C. (when they suddenly appeared, riding out of Asia) and the 3rd century B.C. (when they just as swiftly vanished), those nomads of the steppes were the fiercest folk around.
In war they were unstoppable. In 612 B.C., with the Medes and Babylonians, they sacked Nineveh. In 605 B.C. they defeated the Assyrians. When Darius the Great invaded the prairies north of the Black Sea in 512 B.C., the Scythians beat him back. Alexander the Great couldn't handle them, either. Zopyrion, the general Alexander commanded to chastise them, lost both his army and his life.
One thing made them dominant. The Scythians had a weapon their opponents couldn't match.
That weapon was a bow, a special kind of bow, that had been centuries in development.
Its secret was glue.
When mounted Scythian archers first began to use it--and for 2,000 years thereafter--the "compound" or "recurved" bow was terrifyingly superior to anything else around.
Because it was so short, only a couple of feet long, it fit into a holster. An archer could carry 200 of its one-ounce dartlike arrows, which penetrated armor at 200 yards. It had a pull of 150 pounds. Cupid carries a compound bow. Unlike the English longbow, which was just a piece of wood bent to take the string, the weapon of the Scythians was a complicated sandwich of glued-together strips of horn, steam-bent wood and tendon. The most delicate conditions of humidity and heat were required for its manufacture. It took a compound bow more than a year to dry.
The Scythians were harbingers. For centuries to come, other ruthless raiders from the steppes of central Asia--Attila the Hun, who got all the way to Italy, and Genghis Khan, who swept through China, and the Golden Horde, which conquered Moscow, and Tamerlane and Suleiman and the Bulgars and the Magyars--would scour the settled lands of Russia, India and China, and Eastern Europe, too.
Not just their bows were composites. So was Scythian art.
It sometimes seems Chinese. It often looks Athenian. It's got suggestions of Siberia, and of the Middle East, and of Egypt, too. Set into one Scythian gold ring at the Walters is a green scarab carved in jasper that's engraved with the cartouche of Pharaoh Thutmose III, who reigned beside the Nile in the 16th century B.C.
Most local museums have paid but slight attention to such old and unfamiliar out-of-the-East art, but that's begun to change. Objects buried in Ur and in ancient China were shown earlier this season at, respectively, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Gallery. The gem-encrusted luxuries of the Ottomans are now at the Corcoran. All these shows are called to mind by the Scythian display.
Like the Chinese, the Egyptians and the citizens of Ur, the Scythians interred their dead with rich provisions for the life to come. Bodies accompanied by sacrificed companions, both animal and human, were buried in graves over which were raised big earthen mounds.
Those man-made hills, called kurhans, dot the plains of Ukraine. Some are 60 feet high and 100 in diameter. They're the sources of this show.
The Scythians, Herodotus writes, were buried with their concubines and grooms and cup-bearers and cooks. Caldrons for their campfires and jewelry and weaponry were supplied as well. They also took horses. At one kurhan near Ul'ska Stanitsia the sacrificed remains of more than 400 horses were discovered around the mound.
Many hints of far-off lands flicker in this show. Images from China--of fierce, fantastic beasts--are seen every now and then. So are sharp-beaked birds, curling snakes and recumbent antlered deer, which often make one think of Viking or Siberian or American Indian carvings. And much Scythian art looks Greek.
Hercules--sometimes wrestling with Cerberus, sometimes taking on the fierce Nemean lion--is pictured on the plaques the Scythians so loved. Poseidon's dolphins, too, appear in the exhibit, as do straight-nosed Olympian goddesses and young athletes unclothed.
Craftsmen from as far away as Italy and Athens--potters, jewelers, goldsmiths--came to the Black Sea to make ornaments for Scythians. As you move through the exhibit you sense a kind of gilded Grecianness settling like a veil on the old material culture of the riders from the east.
The Greeks thought the Scythians barbarians, and must have been viewed in turn as soft-palmed, sissified city folk. But when it came to art the two cultures compromised. Nowhere is that meeting of the Athenian and barbarian seen here more imposingly than in the famous "Cup With Horses," which was found in 1990 at the Bratoliubivs'kyi Kurhan.
The cup is made of gold, of course. The six clearly Grecian horses who race around its rim have the cropped manes and flared nostrils of the horses on the Parthenon. The central gem they circle is a bit of amber from the north. Herodotus reports that victorious Scythian warriors often carried with them the gilded skulls of men they'd killed, skulls they used as drinking cups. The horse cup--which is the size of a skullcap--is just the sort of ornament the proudest Scythian warrior would wear tied to his belt as a kind of a scary-useful trophy-cum-canteen.
The hard people of our own hard frontier also came to value softening life with luxuries, and showing off their wealth--it wasn't very long before the plank towns of the West displayed candlesticks from London, and Persian rugs and red plush brought from Belgium to decorate the music halls where Italian tenors sang. The painted pots and wine jugs the Scythians bought from Greece were too fragile for trail rides. They bought Etruscan seals, too, and Hercules-club pendants, probably from Hungary. There is no gold ore on the steppe. That expensive metal, too, was imported from afar.
The Scythians developed battle tactics of frightening efficiency. At war they were originals. But their aesthetic, or large chunks of it, was taken from their neighbors. They made multicultural art.
'GOLD OF THE NOMADS: SCYTHIAN TREASURES FROM ANCIENT UKRAINE'
"Gold of the Nomads: Scythian Treasures From Ancient Ukraine," now at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, presents jewelry, weaponry and bas-reliefs of swift nomadic horsemen who rode the wild lands north of the Black Sea 2,500 years ago.
Timed and dated tickets required for admission--which range from $12 to $6.50--are available through Ticketmaster and at the museum (410-547-9000).
The touring exhibition, the first that the Ukrainians have sent to the United States since gaining independence in 1991, includes 170 objects from the collections of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine and the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences, both in Kiev, and the State Historical Archaeological Preserve in Pereiaslav-Khmel'nyts'kyi. Co-organized by the Walters and the San Antonio Museum of Art, the exhibit was curated by Gerry Scott III and Ellen Reeder. Its presentation at the Walters has been funded by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., ManTech International Corp., GSE Systems and the museum's Women's Committee. It has also received an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
The Walters, 600 N. Charles St., is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. Saturdays). A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the show, which will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the Grand Palais in Paris after closing in Baltimore on May 28.