Gold of the Great Steppe review – breathtaking exhibition reveals lives of history’s ‘barbarians’

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
From their astounding burial mounds to their dazzling horses dressed up as mythical beasts, this exhibition about Kazakhstan’s ancient nomads shows the power of archaeology to revive the dead

A young archer was buried around 2,700 years ago in the foothills of the Tarbagatay mountains of eastern Kazakhstan. In 2018, his bones were found preserved in the permafrost, surrounded by exquisite ornaments and weapons: beautifully observed figures of deer, finely crafted holders for his bow and arrows and dagger, myriad tiny beads – “and everywhere”, as Howard Carter said of Tutankhamun’s tomb, “the glitter of gold”.

Great archaeological discoveries don’t have to be full of gold, but it helps. That warm yellow metal catches your eye almost wherever you look in the Fitzwilliam’s stunning snapshot of archaeology in action. Gold scabbards, gold torques, gold animals – they all light up a display that also includes miraculously preserved felt and leather, as well as reconstructions of the ancient people of Kazakhstan in their woollen finery, on horses dressed up to resemble mythical beasts.

Eleke Sazy valley.
Home of the Saka … Kazakhstan’s Eleke Sazy valley. Photograph: R. Sala, Laboratory of Geoarchaeology

And it is all new. Well, newly on show – most of the objects date from the eighth to sixth centuries BC, but they are freshly excavated. Many items were discovered just last year. The exhibition has been created in close collaboration with Kazakhstan’s archaeologists as they worked through lockdowns to head off tomb-raiders and ensure these ancient wonders are unearthed before global warming destroys the permafrost that preserves organic materials.

It is moving to look on the gold traces that surround the dead archer, thought to have been 17 or 18 when he was buried. His bones are not here but his body is outlined by his funeral possessions. Archaeology has this power to let the dead speak to us across space and time – “and I rose from the dark”, as Seamus Heaney says in the voice of a victim in one of his vivid poems about ancient bog burials. This exhibition grasps and communicates the poetry of archaeology, giving plenty of scientific fact but preserving a lucid sense of encounter.

The world with which it connects us is only just starting to be valued. The people revealed here were nomads and among the very first horse riders: an important find from the archer’s grave is a cunningly hinged attachment that enabled the weapons slung at his side to flex while he rode. The ancient Greeks called these nomadic horseborne warriors the Scythians: their domain extended from the Black Sea to much of central Asia. The eastern Scythians seen here are also known as the Saka.

Still treasured … a funeral mound.
Still treasured … a funeral mound. Photograph: Yevgeniy Domshev

Ever since the Greek historian Herodotus, the settled, urban civilisations who tend to write history have portrayed central Asia’s nomads as wild and barbaric. But nowadays, as their yurts are imitated at book festivals and glampsites, we’re starting to recognise their central role in world history. The nomadic way of life that shines out here would continue for thousands of years, with Kazakhs, Mongols and others dominating the middle ground between Persia and China, then in the age of Genghis Khan violently connecting east and west in one mighty network of cultural exchange.

This exhibition hints at how ignorant the stereotype of uncreative nomads is. Far from just robbing the “civilised”, the Saka-Scythian riders of east Kazakhstan created intensely imagined and delicately wrought art of glowing gold. Like ice age people, they were acutely aware of the animals around them. Flowing, abstracted heads of horned animals, apparently worn as spangly decoration for a garment, would have suggested a running herd of gazelle or antelope. This subtle effect is matched by dreamlike objects that portray curly-horned argali sheep standing mystically on clouds. Maybe this reflects glimpses of nimble-footed sheep high on mountain ledges, vanishing in the mists.

Adornments … an earring made from beads and gold.
Adornments … an earring made from beads and gold. Photograph: Amy Jugg/© Fitzwilliam Museum

There are sculptures of wild cat predators too, but their big round ears make them look cute rather than frightening. Maybe the Saka-Scythians just weren’t scared of anything. But their instinct for natural observation – there are some superb figurines of eagles or falcons – strays into a mythological realm. This was a fairytale world. Golden hippogriffs float out of the darkness. Gryphons glare. And elaborate horse ornaments show the Saka-Scythians actively tried to make their animals resemble these mythic creatures. It seems they lived in a shamanistic dimension where humans, animals and the spirit realm seductively interwove.

Quern hand-grinding stones may not be as sexy as gold jewellery but they prove the Saka-Scythians made flour, meaning they practised simple agriculture despite living on the move. Their only permanent monuments, however, were their towering burial mounds. These are still landmarks, and the legacy of the ancient riders is treasured by modern Kazakhstan. The nomadic lifestyle continued in this region after it was colonised by Russia: photos in the catalogue show Kazakhs in their yurts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then came the Soviet era. The Kazakhs were among the first victims of Stalin’s murderous agricultural policies – they were forced to give up their nomadic culture before being collectivised. About 40% of the Kazakhs died in the resulting famine.

The nomads of the Steppe, this dazzling exhibition demonstrates, were not just marauding maniacs or modernity’s victims. They were makers of beauty and shapers of history. Their lives and their legacy are only just starting to get their proper place in the human story.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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