“Alexander the Great … did not attack the Pontic steppe Scythians, but preferred to campaign against the Scythian peoples in Central Asia, may be due to his respect for the old treaty.”
WHAT: “Barry Cunliffe here marshals this vast array of evidence – both archaeological and textual – in a masterful reconstruction of the lost world of the Scythians, allowing them to emerge in all their considerable vigour and splendour for the first time in over two millennia.”
WHO: “Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe CBE FBA FSA (born 10 December 1939), known as Barry Cunliffe, is a British archaeologist and academic. He was Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford from 1972 to 2007. Since 2007, he has been an Emeritus Professor.”
Why the Scythians?
The Greeks considered the Scythians to be one of the four great peoples of the world (equal to the Celts). They were right and yet, in the West we hardly hear about them and they rarely feature in general books. They led a very distinctive lifestyle focussed on mobility, which contrasts to the sedentary existence of most European societies, reminding us that pastoralism is a valid economic strategy and worth of consideration alongside agriculture. More to the point they had a significant impact on China, India, the Near East and Europe – they were world players.
Did the Scythians leave a lasting legacy?
There greatest contribution was their skill as horsemen. The Scythians developed the idea and practice of cavalry which became so important in European warfare. Their animal art was another major contribution. In Europe, it influenced Celtic art and from there ideas penetrated Scandinavia and reappear in medieval Irish art.
How have Scythian studies fared since the end of the Cold War?
Archaeologists have always found it easy to work together across political boundaries but the end of the Cold War meant that collaborative fieldwork and excavations have become much easier with Germans, Italians and British working with Russian collaborators. A good example of working together was the brilliant exhibition, Scythians warriors of ancient Siberia, held in the British Museum in 2017 and all the seminars and informal meetings around it.
The Scythians left no written record, but do examples of their oral culture remain? Are there words or even phrases we could learn in the hope of engaging a time-travelling Scythian in conversation?
Scythians have left practically no trace of their oral culture except in one instance. Out of the melee of nomadic horsemen existing on the steppe, deriving from the Scythians, were the Alans, some of whom settled in the central Caucasus. They were still recognised as Alans as late as the 13th century. Their descendants are the Ossetians who have a wonderful oral tradition reflecting their past glories and whose language still has echoes of Scytho-Sarmatian.
What advice do you have for modern travellers wishing to trace the physical reminders of the Scythians – where should they go, how should they travel, who should they try and meet?
As a largely nomadic people, the Scythians have left no monuments other than their burial mounds (kurgan) which can be seen in Ukraine, southern Russia and the Altai Mountains. By far the best museum collections are housed in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kiev, Ukraine. In the UK we have very little but a small collection from burials in the Crimea is housed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
If you could own one item described in the book which would it be and why?
I am a firm believer that rare artefacts should be in public collections where they can be enjoyed by everyone. My favourite piece is the gold beaker from Kul’-Oba, in the Crimea (now in the Hermitage Museum). It was probably made in a Greek workshop somewhere on the Black Sea coast for a Scythian client, and shows a number of Scythian warriors, possibly blood brothers, relating to each other. Its a reminder of comradeship.
What do we know about the Scythian princess buried alongside Philip of Macedon? Does her presence help explain why Alexander the Great didn’t go to war with Scythians?
The Scythian princess buried alongside Philip II of Macedon in Vergina, is a reminder of diplomacy in the Ancient world. She died at about 30 and was cremated. Her bones show that she had seriously fractured her left leg, possibly in a riding accident. Her greaves (leg armour) were modified to fit her crippled leg. It is quite possible that she was the daughter of the Scythian king who ruled the western part of the Pontic steppe and was given to Philip to ensure friendship between the two leaders. That said, Alexander the Great, Philip’s successor, did not attack the Pontic steppe Scythians, but preferred to campaign against the Scythian peoples in Central Asia, may be due to his respect for the old treaty.
What’s the most important thing we don’t know about the Scythians?
What don’t we know? Lots! One fascinating area is the meaning of Scythian animal art involving jumping stags and predators. The images are so prevalent that they must have been of great importance to Scythian belief systems. We can speculate but it is no substitute to hearing a Scythian explaining his world view.
You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?
Oh – that’s so difficult. I’m no fan of house parties so Hadrian is at the bottom of the list. Caesar, I find fascinating particularly his brilliant grasp of the geography of Gaul- the landscape across which he was fighting. I would love to hear him explain his proposed lines of advice to his officers. But that said, no way could I resist a day in the Library of Alexandria. I would go straight to the book, ‘On the Ocean‘, written by Pytheas, the Greek who explored the Atlantic and circumnavigated Britain. The book no longer survives and all we have of it are a few quotes in later works. It gave a first-hand account of western Gaul and the British Isles in about 320 BC and he may even have got to Iceland.
A month in the saddle with a Scythian band or a long weekend at Fishbourne Roman Palace?
No competition – a month in the saddle with the Scythians is a must. I spent a memorable afternoon riding across the Mongolian steppe a few years ago -nothing but the grey-green grass and the blue sky. Complete peace and calm and time to put life in perspective. All I would ask is for a more comfortable saddle!
What are you currently working on?
My new book ‘Bretons and Britons: The Search for Identity‘ is now in proof and will be out next year. I’m currently writing about the Sahara and how the communities around it periphery communicated across the sea of sand.