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Nomads in the Steppe


Scythians were a nomadic people who occupied vast territories in what is now southern Ukraine in the eighth or seventh centuries BCE. The Scythians had left behind amazing gold artifacts and large mounds in the Ukrainian steppe those barrows were Scythian burial sites.

This article is based on an essay by Natalya MYKHAILOVA, an archeologist.


There are thousands of mounds in the Ukrainian steppes which are thought to be the burial sites of nomads who used to roam across the territory of the present-day Ukraine hundreds of years ago. About three thousand of these kurhany have been probed into by archeologists and they proved to be the burial sites. But only a handful of them rendered rich archeological finds, the rest have been robbed in ancient and more recent times. In 19961998, one of such kurhans was explored by an expedition of Ukrainian and Polish archeologists. This burial mound, the Velyky Ryzhanivsky Kurhan (burial mound), is located 75 miles south of Kyiv, not far from the village of Ryzhanivka in the Land of Chernihivshchyna. These archeologists had excavated dozens of such barrows before and made impressive discoveries, and thus they seemed to be prepared to any pleasant or unpleasant surprises, but what they unearthed in that kurhan dazed even them.

The kurgan has revealed one of the very few unlooted tombs of a Scythian chieftain.

The archeologists discovered a burial chamber in the depths of the barrow which apparently contained the remains of a Scythian chieftain. The chamber was divided into two parts by a clay partition, in one of which there stood a sort of a wooden dais. He was clad in what must have been a sort of a white caftan and red trousers. Around his neck he had a silver ornament with images of lions on it. The deceased warrior had a bow, three quivers full of arrows, a sword with the richly decorated hilt, placed by his side. Also, there was an object, apparently a censer, to burn incense.

At the feet of the chieftains remains sat a piece of headdress, strangely enough of the kind that rich Scythian women, rather than men, must have worn on special occasions. The headdress had 140 little gold plaques sewn onto it, but there was no female to whom this piece of headgear could have belonged. The secret of why it had been placed near the chieftains corpse has remained unsolved.

Further digging produced another discovery a cache that contained silver vessels, probably for some ritual purposes, decorated with the images of griffin. There were signs of food having been placed there too, and amphorae with wine.

Near the entrance to the burial chamber horse and human bones were discovered evidently, the decapitated horse and a human were sacrificed and placed at the chieftains burial chamber. The chieftain was to be accompanied in the otherworld by his horse and slaves.

Later archeological excavations revealed another grave in the kurhan which contained the remains of a Scythian woman whose headdress resembled the one found in the chieftains burial chamber. So far no plausible theories to explain the presence of a female headdress in the chieftains grave and the presence of another grave with the remains of a woman have been put forward.

Some history

Much of what is known of the history of the Scythians comes from the account of them by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who is known to have visited the country, now Ukraine, where they lived. In modern times our knowledge about the Scythians has been expanded chiefly by the work of archeologists and anthropologists.

The Scythians were feared and admired for their prowess in war and, in particular, for their horsemanship. They are believed to have been among the earliest people to master the art of riding.

The Scythians were remarkable not only for their fighting ability but also for the civilization they produced. They developed a class of wealthy aristocrats who left elaborate graves filled with richly worked articles of gold and other precious materials. This class of chieftains, known as the Royal Scyths, established themselves as rulers of the territories that are now Ukraine. It is there that the richest and most numerous relics of Scythian civilization have been found.

From what is known about the Scythians from such sources as Herodotus or Strabo, and from archeological excavations, we can say that there were at least two large Scythian tribal confederations one in Western Scythia and the other one in Eastern Scythia.

In a broader sense, the name Scythian was also used to refer to various peoples regarded as similar to the Scythians, or who lived anywhere in the area known as Scythia.

The term Scythian was used to refer to a variety of ethnic groups who moved in the vast lands from the Black Sea to southern Siberia and central Asia.

The greatest test the Scythians were ever put to occurred in 512 BC, when King Darius the Great of Persia, crossing the Danube, led his huge army into their lands. Herodotus relates that the nomad Scythians let the Persian army to march through their country without offering a major engagement, but harassing the Persian with lightning attacks on the swift horse. Their arrows, shot from a considerable distance, killed and wounded many Persians. Exhausted and never able to catch up with their illusive enemies, the Persians beat an ignominious retreat.

It was during the fifth to third centuries BCE that the Scythians evidently prospered.

The ancient Greek geographer Strabo (circa 63 BCE 24 CE) reports that King Ateas united under his power several Scythian tribes and began a westward expansion. It brought him in conflict with the King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who reigned in 359 to 336 BCE. Phillip took a vigorous military action against the Scythians, defeating them. Ateas died in battle, and his empire disintegrated. Philips son, Alexander the Great, also came into conflict with the Scythians and at the Battle of Jaxartes in 329 BCE in Sogdiana defeated the Scythian army that sought to take revenge for the death of Ateas.

By the time of Strabos account in the first decades of the first millennium CE, the Crimean Scythians had created a new kingdom extending from the lower Dnipro to the Crimea. The kings Skilurus and Palakus waged wars with Mithridates the Great, who reigned in 12063 BCE. Their capital city, Scythian Neapolis, must have stood on the outskirts of modern Simferopol. The invading Goths destroyed the city in the mid-3rd century AD. After the next wave of the nomads from the depth of Asia, the Huns, that rolled through the formerly Scythian lands, they disappeared from history.

The Scythians left behind burial mounds some of which contained weapons, horse-harness, Scythian-style art, gold, silk, and animal sacrifices. In some places, it is suspected that the Scythians practiced human sacrifices.

Dress, art and habits

Greek craftsmen from the Greek colonies, mostly located along the southern shores of the Crimea, made spectacular Scythian-style gold ornaments, applying Greek realism to depict images of lions, deer, winged horses, griffin, eagles and other mythical creatures.

Some of these gold ornaments are of an amazingly sophisticated craftsmanship and of stunning beauty. So the Scythians, in spite of their lacking such forms of civilized life as script or schools, were not devoid of developed esthetic tastes.

Scythians definitely had a taste for elaborate personal jewelry, weapon-ornaments and horse-trappings.

Graves of armed females have been found in southern Ukraine and it is probable that Scythian culture may have given rise to the Greek stories about Amazons.

Scythians lived in tribes, forming voluntary associations. They regulated pastures and organized a common defense against enemies. They lived basically nomadic life, moving from place to place, but in later times some of the Scythians are known to have settled down and even built cities and fortifications.

According to Herodotus, the Scythian costume usually consisted of padded and quilted leather trousers tucked into boots, and open tunics. They rode with no stirrups or saddles, using only saddle-cloths. Herodotus mentions that Scythians used cannabis, both to make their clothing and to cleanse themselves in its smoke, and archaeology has confirmed the use of cannabis in funeral rituals.

Scythian women dressed in much the same fashion as men, but women wore headdresses which were different from mens headgear. Some of the womens headdresses were conical in shape, others were like flattened cylinders, adorned with metal, sometimes golden plaques.

Both men and warrior women wore tunics which were often embroidered and adorned with felt applique work, or metal or golden plaques.

There is evidence that at least some of the Scythians worshipped gods, but it seems that shamanism was their main religion.




The armor the rider wears is made of metal plates of unique design (reconstruction drawing by M. Horelyk). Such armor is believed to have been of the most sophisticated kind at that time. The bow, shown in the picture, is of a kind that could shoot arrows long distances.


This gold decoration of the 4th century BCE, which was found by the prominent archeologist Borys Mozolevsky in the Tovsta Mohyla burial mound in 1971, is a perfect sample of Scythian decorative art.


This figurine is believed to represent the Scythian god Tapay; in all likelihood, it was fixed to the top of a ceremonial button.


Scythian idols of this kind used to dot the steppes of Ukraine. It is not known what or who they symbolized.


The remains of a wooden coffin which was found in a Scythian barrow in the Land of Dnipropetrovshchyna. The coffin was painted with figures of warriors. (Photo by O. Fialko from the book Amazonen. Geheimnisvolle kriegerinnen, Munich, 2010).


Lions and mythical griffons on a ritual object discovered in the Bratolyubivsky burial mound in the Land of Khersonshchyna.


Ancient Greeks could have been prompted to invent their stories about Amazons, warrior women, by the habits and behavior of Scythian women. This burial contains the remains of a Scythian woman and pieces of Greek ceramics, decorations, weapons and other artifacts. (Photo from the book Amazonen. Geheimnisvolle kriegerinnen, Munich, 2010).


The reconstruction of a headdress of a noble Scythian woman. The gold decorations of the headdress were found in a Scythian barrow, Tetyanyna Mohyla, in the Land of Dnipropetrovshchyna.






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