Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Until 3rd May 2020, the people of Britain have a final chance to see the glittering world heritage artefacts that were discovered in a tomb belonging to King Tutankhamun before they return to Egypt forever. With a new museum being built specifically for the treasures in Egypt, 150 of the total 5366 objects are gradually making their way around the world on their final tour. Following successes in Los Angeles and Paris, it is London’s turn to hold the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the wonder and mystery of the boy king.

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Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled at the end of the 18th dynasty (c. 1334 – 1325 BC). He took the throne at the tender age of nine after his father, Akhenaten (originally named Amenhotep IV) passed away. During Akhenaten’s reign, he had established an Aten cult, an ancient religion that deified the sun, dismissing other Egyptian gods. For this reason, the pharaoh renamed himself Akhenaten, meaning “effective for Aten.” He and his wife, known as “The Younger Lady”, named their son Tutankhaten, meaning “living image of Aten”. After Akhenaten’s death, the “boy king” dissolved the Aten cult and reinstated the cult of Amun, changing his name to Tutankhamun – “living image of Amun”. Amun is a major ancient Egyptian deity who may also be the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus.

When Tutankhamun became king, he married his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, who subsequently changed her name to Ankhesenamun. Two mummified foetuses found in the same tomb as Tutankhamun suggests they had a couple of daughters, neither of whom survived. Data collected from the bodies reveals one was born prematurely at around 6 months of pregnancy, and the other was full term, however, suffered from Spina Bifidia, scoliosis and Sprengel’s deformity. Therefore, Tutankhamun, who died after a short reign of ten years, had no living heir.

Tutankhamun’s cause of death remains a mystery to this very day. His skeleton reveals he was physically disabled with a deformity in his left foot, which, judging by the number of walking sticks in the tomb, meant he needed assistance walking. He had other health issues including a cleft palate, scoliosis and several strains of malaria, however, it is not thought that any of these problems killed him. Xrays revealed Tutankhamun had a compound left leg fracture, which given the lack of modern medicine and technology, could have left Tutankhamun dead within a week. How the Pharoah received this wound can only be speculated.

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As items in the tomb reveal, Tutankhamun was also known by his throne name Nebkheperure. During his reign, he commissioned new statues of deities that had been destroyed whilst his father was on the throne and began to restore the old Egyptian order. This involved renouncing the god Aten, changing his and his wife’s name and reinstating Egypt’s polytheistic religion.

Given his age, Tutankhamun presumably did not rule alone and would have had advisers, such as Ay (a possible great uncle), who became Pharaoh after the boy king’s death. Nonetheless, Tutankhamun was praised for his successes, as evidenced by the gifts from other countries found in his tomb.

Tutankhamun’s history may be brief and open to speculation, however, none of this would have been known at all if his tomb had not been discovered almost 100 years ago. Ay died after a short reign of four years and was replaced by Horemheb, who had been promised the throne if Tutankhamun had no children. For reasons unbeknownst, Horemheb ordered Tutankhamun’s name be hacked out of all monuments, often replacing it with his name. Tutankhamun was literally written out of history and his name forgotten. It is thanks to an Englishman by the name of Howard Carter that Tutankhamun is the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs.

Howard Carter was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who rose to worldwide fame after discovering the intact tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter was born in Kensington, London on 9th May 1874 and received artistic training from his father Samuel John Carter (1835–92). Howard was the youngest of eleven children and spent much of his childhood with his relatives in Norfolk. Whilst there, Howard frequently visited Didlington Hall, which contained a large collection of Egyptian antiques. Seeing that he had a keen interest in the subject, one of the hall’s owners sent 17-year-old Carter to Beni Hasan in Egypt with the Egypt Exploration Fund to help excavate the tombs in the area.

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Lord Carnarvon

During the 1890s, Carter helped to record the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut, the second historically-confirmed female ruler (1479-58 BC). At the end of the decade, he was appointed Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and supervised several excavations at the ancient city of Thebes. He resigned from his position in 1905 due to arguments between Egyptian guards and French tourists. Fortunately, three years later, Carter met George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866 – 1923) who employed him to supervise the excavation of tombs opposite the city of Thebes.

In 1914, Lord Carnarvon got permission to dig in the Valley of Kings, where Egyptian pharaohs were buried between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. By then, knowledge of Tutankhamun’s existence had been unearthed in tombs of those who had died before him, i.e. in places Horemheb could not access to remove his name. Although World War One hindered the excavation work, Carter returned to the site in 1917, however, by 1922, Lord Carnarvon was dissatisfied with the lack of results.

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Hussein Abdel-Rassoul

Carter convinced Lord Carnarvon to let him carry on working in the Valley of Kings for one more year. He instructed his workers to clear some ancient huts and the surrounding rock debris, however, when he arrived on the site on 4th November 1922, no one was working. Earlier that day, the team’s water boy Hussein Abdel-Rassoul had discovered a stone that turned out to be the first step of a flight of stairs. Having waited for Carter’s arrival, they assisted him to dig out the rest of the steps until reaching a mud-plastered doorway stamped with hieroglyphics. Wanting his employer to be there when the tomb was opened, Carter refilled the earth they had dug and sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon who eventually arrived on 23rd November.

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”
– Howard Carter

Using a chisel he had been given by his grandmother when he was 17, with Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert (1901-80) in tow, Carter made a small hole in the top left-hand corner of the doorway through which he could peer with the aid of a candle. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon asked. To which Carter responded with the famous words, “Yes, wonderful things!” Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, later designated with the serial number KV62 (King’s Valley 62).

For the next few months, Carter painstakingly catalogued the items in the antechamber of the tomb, eventually making his way through another door that led to the burial chamber. In there, he unearthed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun and, therefore, the remains of the pharaoh’s body. Work was suspended for a month in 1923 due to arguments about who owned the discovered items: Carnarvon, who paid for the expedition, or the Egyptian authorities. After a month, Carter resumed work but Lord Carnarvon soon became fatally ill.

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Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning from an infected insect bite on his cheek. As a result, he passed away in Cairo on 5th April 1923. Newspapers throughout the world were quick to pick up on the fact that Carnarvon’s facial infection resembled a wound on the cheek of Tutankhamun’s body – later confirmed to be caused by the excavation – and rumours of a curse surrounding the pharaoh’s cave spread like wildfire. Later deaths and mishaps involving some of the people who worked on the excavation were also linked to this fictitious curse. Even today, some Egyptologists feel the effects of the “curse” despite logic debunking the rumour.

Howard Carter, on the other hand, appeared immune to the supposed curse and continued to excavate and catalogue the items in the tomb. As well as the objects discovered in the passageway, there were four chambers full of “wonderful things”: the Antechamber, Burial Chamber, Treasury and Annex. Amongst the 5336 objects were items made from gold, silver, semiprecious stones, wood, ivory, linen and leather.

Despite being world-famous, Carter did not receive much recognition in his own country, however, in 1926 he received the Order of the Nile from King Fuad I of Egypt (1868-1936). Later, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Yale University and honorary membership in the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid.

Carter retired from archaeology after finishing with the tomb and began working as an agent for collectors and museums. He also published several books on Egyptology and delivered a series of lectures in Europe and America. Unfortunately, Carter developed Hodgkin’s Disease and passed away on 2nd March 1939 at the age of 64. Despite being world-famous for his discovery, very few people attended his funeral.

The majority of Carter’s finds are still in Egypt, however, the 150 items – at least 60 of which had never left Egypt before – currently in the Saatchi Gallery give a flavour of the type of objects found in the tomb. As can be expected, many of the items depict the boy king, celebrating his reign, such as a gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun throwing a harpoon. Standing upon a papyrus raft, the pharoah appears ready to throw the weapon, presumably at a hippopotamus, which were widely hunted at the time. Hippos were a danger to human life and destroyed agricultural fields by flattening them with their heavy bodies. In Egyptian mythology, Seth, the god of chaos, often took the form of a hippo in the hopes of killing his brother Horus, however, he never succeeded.

A wooden statuette of Tutankhamun riding a leopard was placed in the tomb to aid him in the afterlife as he travelled to the next world. The netherworld was believed to be a dangerous place and the black leopard, associated with rebirth, was to guide and guard Tutankhamun on his journey. The statuette wears a tall white crown and holds a long staff, which symbolises authority, however, some people do not think the figure was originally intended to represent Tutankhamun. The statuette contains a few feminine qualities, including breasts, which suggests it was intended for a female king, for instance, Nefertiti. Dying so young, there had not been many preparations for Tutankhamun’s tomb, which may explain the appropriation of this object.

Other statues of the pharaoh depict him with a walking stick, alluding to his deformed foot. The number of walking sticks found in the tomb suggests Tutankhamun was reliant upon them to move around. Despite this disability, Tutankhamun was always depicted as an important, respect-worthy king. Even the damaged colossal quartzite statue that closes the exhibition demonstrates his importance. This dramatic statue was not found inside the tomb but may have once stood at Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple. This is one of the objects destroyed by Horemheb, who carved his name across the belt where Tutankhamun’s name would once have been.

Hidden amongst the treasures were objects that Tutankhamun may have used in his lifetime, as well as the walking sticks. Over seventy bows and four hundred arrows were buried with the king, some of which had been used and others that were just for show. The bow was a key weapon in Egyptian times and there were always expert archers in their armed forces. The varying sizes of the bows suggest Tutankhamun was taught to shoot from a very young age. There were also early forms of the boomerang, which were thrown at birds to knock them out of the sky.

The more elaborate bows were made from gilded wood and inlaid with coloured glass and calcite. Gold wire and sheet gold also ornamented the weapons and Tutankhamun’s throne name, Nebkheperure was inscribed in a band of gold on a few of the bows.

Some objects, such as a gilded wooden fan, contained carved images depicting Tutankhamun’s great achievements, albeit fictional ones. Being as disabled as his skeleton suggests, it is unlikely Tutankhamun shot arrows at ostriches from his fast-moving carriage. This scene is shown on one side of the fan, which was once fitted with the ostrich feathers from the animal the king had killed. On the other side, the image shows the king returning with the dead ostriches. It may be true that he shot them himself, but whether the event was as energetic as the artist suggests is uncertain.

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A ceremonial shield was discovered in the Annex of the tomb, which portrayed Tutankhamun as a sphinx: a human-headed lion. Due to the elaborate design, this shield would not have been suitable in battle but would have been present at ceremonial or ritual occasions. The Egyptian sphinx was a benevolent being with ferocious strength, which is how Egypt wished to view its kings. On the shield, the sphinx/Tutankhamun tramples on a couple of Nubians, an ethnolinguistic group of Africans, as an expression of the Egyptian view that the world belonged to the pharaoh.

Other elements on the shield include a fan, similar to the ostrich fan, which emphasises Tutankhamun’s royal title; a winged sun disk that protectively stretches over the king; and a falcon, representing Montu, the god of war.

The Egyptian gods were an important aspect of both life and death, therefore, it was unsurprising that Carter found many references to them in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There were over 2000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon, some whose names are still recognised today: Isis, Osiris, Horus, Ra, Hathor, Thoth and so on. Some gods were only worshipped in particular areas, however, others were worshipped throughout Egypt. Horus was one of these and appeared in Tutankhamun’s tomb in several different forms.

In one figure, Horus was depicted as a hawk with a sun disc on its head. In another, he was the half-bird half-human Herwer (Horus the Elder). Horus was a powerful sun god, sometimes referred to as Horakhty (Horus of the Two Horizons) and Horemakhet (Horus in the Horizon). He was the son of Isis and Osiris, therefore also called Harsiesis (Horus, Son of Isis) and Harpocrates (Horus the Child). Egyptian mythology states Osiris, the heir to the throne, was murdered by his brother Seth but was briefly resurrected by Isis during which time they conceived a son. Osiris eventually travelled to the netherworld to reign as king of the dead, whilst Isis endeavoured to keep their son Horus out of his uncle’s clutches. When Horus grew up, he battled against Seth and emerged victorious, taking his rightful place on the throne. Due to this story, Horus was sometimes used as a symbol of the king, which explains why he was prominent in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In total, the tomb contained hundreds of figurines, many of them intended to help Tutankhamun in the afterlife. The netherworld resembled the living world, including fields, farms and towns, therefore, the dead were buried with shabtis (servant figures) that would activate in the afterlife and accomplish any unpleasant task the deceased faced. Buried with Tutankhamun was an enormous workforce that provided a servant for every day of the year as well as an overseer for every ten workers and a supervisor for every three overseers.

Each shabti was unique, for example, one was painted to resemble the king, whereas another looked more like the Nubian mercenaries that served in the Egyptian army. The costumes were rather elaborate for servants but it identified them as belonging to Tutankhamun. Some of the wooden figures wore painted gold clothing, complete with royal symbols and hieroglyphs.

Many of the items left in the tomb were to assist Tutankhamun in the afterlife. Boxes full of food, including meat and fruit were left with the body so that the dead would not starve on their journey. Some of the comestibles, such as herbs and seeds, may have been some form of medication, insinuating Tutankhamun had been a rather sickly person. It appears not even death would cure the king of his ailments.

The foodstuffs were preserved in nondescript boxes, however, Carter also discovered many decorated ones. On the floor of the Treasury was a wooden cartouche box decorated with ivory and ebony symbols. Rather than writing Tutankhamun’s birth name, the craftsman has used symbols to represent the Pharoah. For example, two loaves of bread and a quail chick spell out Tut, and a reed leaf, a game board and a water sign represent Amun, the god who Tutankhamun revered.

Not all the boxes were specifically made to place in a tomb, for example, the semi-circular box found in the Antechamber. Wear and tear suggest the box may have been used during Tutankhamun’s lifetime, for example, to transport written papyrus documents from place to place. Not only was it not intended for the tomb, but it also was not made for Tutankhamun either. Although Tutankhamun’s name has been added to the box, the original inscription gave the names of his predecessor Ankhkheperure and his half-sister Meritaten.

Tutankhamun’s wealth and status were clear from the amount of gold, silver and jewels discovered in his tomb. Hundreds of jewellery items were found in boxes in the Treasury, many which may have been gifted, worn by the pharaoh, or left in the tomb for protection in the afterlife. Every piece of jewellery was symbolic in some way, for instance, a lapis lazuli beetle, which represented the sun god.

A vulture represented the deity Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt where Tutankhamun reigned. The pendant is ornately decorated with gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise and coloured glass befitting of a king. In each of the bird’s claws is a tiny necklace containing the king’s throne name, proving it was made specifically for Tutankhamun.

Another bird used in jewellery was a falcon with upswept wings. Typically, bird pendants have their heads turned to one side, but in one version the bird faces forward as though looking at the viewer. A carnelian round sun upon the falcon’s head suggests it is representative of Horus and the bird also carried two pendants in its talons, also indicative of the sun.

“A man dies twice — once when the last breath leaves his body, and again when his name is spoken for the last time.” (Paraphrased)

When Horemheb became pharaoh and tried to write Tutankhamun out of history, he was also trying to cause Tutankhamun’s second death. The ancient Egyptian’s believed a man died when his soul left his body but was still considered alive as long as his name was spoken. Due to Howard Carter’s discovery of the missing tomb, Horemheb’s plan was thwarted. Tutankhamun is now the most famous of all the pharaohs and, if the size of the crowds queueing to see the exhibition is anything to go by, his name will never be forgotten. Thanks to Carter and the world’s continued interest, Tutankhamun has been made immortal.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh attracted over 1.4 million visitors when it was displayed in France. The London exhibition is expected to reach similar records, which is no surprise considering Tutankhamun’s fame and the fact that this is the final opportunity to see the artefacts outside of Egypt. As well as seeing 150 objects, visitors can opt to take part in a Virtual Reality experience in which they dive into a computer-generated version of Tutankhamun’s tomb and have a look around.

Adult tickets are priced between £24.50 and £28.50 and are selling fast, so do not delay booking your timed entry. Due to popularity, the gallery is operating on a timed entry system and it may take up to thirty minutes to get through security. The average length of stay is 90 minutes.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian horseman with a spear in his right hand; Gold; late fifth to early fourth century BC; Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Supported by BP, the British Museum’s major exhibition explores the lives of a barbaric tribe known as the Scythians. These Eurasian nomads inhabited the majority of the western and central Eurasian steppes for hundreds of years with evidence dating as far back as 900BC. Since 300BC, the Scythians gradually disappeared leaving very little proof of their existence.

For centuries, historians have had to rely on Greek historians and Assyrian inscriptions for information about these primitive humans, in particular, Herodotus, “the father of history”, a fifth century BC Greek historian, with his magnum opus The Histories.

“For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea.” – Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric

Ancient manuscripts, whilst useful, are not always the most reliable of sources, therefore, a lot of Herodotus’ description is not to be completely trusted. Fortunately, within the past couple of centuries, the discoveries of graves and burial mounds in the areas the Scythians occupied have revealed a wealth of information about these ancient Indo-Europeans.

Objects excavated from Scythian tombs have been carefully stored at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia and are temporarily on loan to the British Museum where they can be viewed in this outstanding exhibition. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia contains objects that are over 2,000 years old, astonishingly preserved in the permafrost of the cold landscape. Glass cases of gold and bronze jewellery, clothing, weapons and everyday items relates the story of a rich civilisation of formidable warriors.

Set in a darkened gallery, highlighting the exhibits with lit cabinets, the curators have created an atmospheric display complete with soundscapes that set the scene of the temperate grasslands, beginning with the resonance of a strong wind and moving on to the clamour of galloping horses. Wall-size digital panoramas present a computer-generated landscape complete with horsemen dressed in what it is believed the Scythian’s wore. Although the remains of items found during excavations provide enough information to understand the lives and culture of this society, these creative extras help to paint a fuller picture.

 

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Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A full-length portrait of Tsar Peter I (the Great) (1672-1725) introduces visitors to the man responsible for the first excavation of a Scythian burial site. For scientific purposes, Peter the Great sent men on an expedition to Siberia to study the land, not realising that he would receive more than he bargained for.

 

After accidentally discovering an ancient burial mound full of armour, sophisticated jewellery, belt buckles and weapons, the Tsar decreed that all findings should be brought back to St Petersburg to be documented. He also instructed that detailed drawings be produced of each object. Some of these are on display positioned next to the original item.

At least 250 Scythian gold artefacts found themselves in Peter the Great’s inventory, which prompted him to commission the building of the first Russian museum, Kunstkamera (cabinet of curiosities). Unfortunately, the Tsar was not to see the opening of his enterprise since he died earlier that year.

From these initial findings, and the many that have since occurred, a lot has been deduced about the lives of the Scythians. With the ancient texts by historians such as Herodotus to help place them in context, each object tells modern researchers about the Scythian’s beliefs, lifestyle and abilities. It is assumed that it was a funerary custom to be buried with important possessions, and most graves contained someone form of armour and weapon – even the females.

Although it cannot be proved, the burial mounds suggest the Scythians believed in some sort of religion, perhaps one where they believed they would need certain items in the afterlife, for instance, arrows. Herodotus notes, “Ares, the God of War, was the only deity whom the Scythians worshipped and to whom they built altars.” However, how the historian came to this conclusion is unknown and could be an assumption based on the Scythian’s fighting abilities. Further examination of the recently discovered decorative metalworks implies the warriors may have believed in other divinities too.

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Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC.

The first example of the Scythian’s careful metalwork is on display at the entrance to the exhibition. Labelled a gold belt plaque, it is understood that this made up one half of a belt buckle. Although many of the artefacts presented at the British Museum are made of gold, it is likely that these would have belonged to nobility or royalty, thus implying something about the Scythian social structure.

Rather than being a plain, functional buckle, the goldsmith carved a detailed scene involving the death of a warrior. The deceased is lying on the ground in the arms of a female deity wearing a high ponytail – this goes to disprove Herodotus’ theory that the Scythian’s only worshipped the Greek god of war. On the left is a tree of life from which a quiver hangs from a branch, presumably belonging to the fallen man. On the right are a pair of horses, which emphasises the importance of the animal to the Scythians.

Scythians were not just formidable fighters, they were capable of defeating their enemies on horseback. Evidence suggests that they took great care of their horses and relied on them for many things including transport, milk and meat. Skeletons of horses have been found in many graves next to their owner, implying they were sacrificed in honour of the warrior’s death. Studies of the bones suggest that the horses were given a death blow to the forehead, potentially with an axe.

It was not only belt buckles that Scythians produced in lavish designs, the display cases contain jewellery, ornaments and appliqués for clothing and weaponry. Many of these have been made with gold, but bronze was also a popular material. Although highly detailed, these accessories were smaller than they seem in photographs, which was necessary in order for the Scythians to be able to wear or transport them. The above belt buckle was one of the middle-sized plaques at 16.1 centimetres wide and weighing 465.04 grams.

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Deer-shaped gold plaque. Barrow 1, Kostromskaya, Kuban region. The second half of the 7th century BC.

An example of a larger plaque is this deer-shaped ornament that probably adorned a case for a set of bow and arrows. It is approximately 30 centimetres long and is made from a thick sheet of gold. The animal is typical of what has become known as “Scythian animal style art”. The ornamental antlers indicate that this was made by a very skilled artisan and, due to the material, belonged to a member of the Scythian royals.

As the journey through the exhibition continues, the displays go from impressive ornaments to the more mundane, everyday life objects expected of an ancient civilisation. The weather conditions in the Altai mountains where the majority of Scythian burial sites have been found meant the ground was often frozen. It is because of this that so many items have been preserved. Clothes and fabrics, which would easily decay under normal circumstances, are still recognisable and show the workmanship and effort that went into making them. They are not the primitive garments many have envisaged people wearing thousands of years ago, they are well designed and suitable for the harsh weathers to which they would have been subjected.

 

Similarly to their belt buckles, Scythian clothing was not only a matter of function, they were richly decorated too. Before reaching the examples of clothing, the British Museum has laid out some of the gold appliqués that would have been sewn onto important figures’ clothing in intricate patterns, but this was not their only method of embellishment.

An example of a woman’s shoe has been found in extremely good condition. Made from leather, delicate patterns have been sewn across the toe and ankle in a material that imitates silver – presumably, this would have belonged to someone of high ranking. Interestingly, the sole is enriched in pyrite crystals, which, although may have made a sturdier bottom, was probably a method of showing status. Scythians spent a lot of time on horseback, therefore the soles of their feet would be visible to those on the ground.

From the clothing found in the graves and the accounts of ancient historians, artists have been able to determine what the Scythian’s outfits may have looked like. Both men and women wore trousers to make riding horses easier, however, women may also have worn skirt-like garments. Women also wore “high caps tapering to a point and stiffly upright” (Herodotus) but the purpose of this remains unknown.

The belts that may have been ornamented with golden plaques, would have been less about keeping one’s trousers up, instead used as a method of storing weapons. Evidence of a wide variety of tools and weaponry has been unearthed, including double- and single-edged swords, daggers and spears. The Scythian’s weapon of choice, however, was the bow and arrow.

The Scythians were the finest bowmen of their time and were capable of shooting at a considerable range. Their bows were crafted in a way which made them capable of accuracy, an important aspect when relying on them whilst on horseback. The arrows themselves were sharp and deadly, and if the shot was not fatal, removing the shaft may have proven to be. Ancient texts suggest that the Scythians may also have covered the tips in poison; no one could escape with their lives.

“None who attacks them can escape … ” – Herodotus

These ancient Siberian warriors, with their power and strength, were also human, and therefore, needed items similar to those still used today. Wooden bowls and cups made from pottery were also found in burial sites, however, these were probably used for something more significant than the average meal.

In comparison to their jewellery and clothing, their forms of crockery were fairly basic. In this instance, the item’s function was probably more important than what it looked like. Nevertheless, a lot can be learnt about the Scythians from these simple objects.

Backing up the claims of Herodotus, excavators have come across a hemp-smoking set, which insinuates the Scythians occasionally smoked to get intoxicated by the fumes, either for pleasure or part of a religious ceremony.

“Let us not again this evening
With our shouts and noisy uproar
Get ourselves as drunk as Scythians,
Let’s get moderately tipsy
And our best songs sing with fervour.”
– Anacreon (c.582-485BC), Greek poet

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Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC.

The exhibition ends with a closer look at the notable burial tombs that kept these amazing object safe for two or three thousand years. The graves were dug deep into the ground – another reason they have been so well preserved – with a wooden structure at the bottom. These were, apparently, similar to log cabins carpeted with felt. Within this chamber, a coffin, made from a tree trunk, was placed with body and important possessions inside. The graves that contained horses revealed the animal’s skeleton outside of the coffin but within the walls of the cabin. According to the British Museum’s blog, the horses were always positioned facing east – something to do with religion, perhaps?

The wooden coffin in the exhibition shows how well protected its contents were, with its thick walls and sturdy roof. It also conveys the impression that the Scythians took death seriously and were, perhaps, not as savage as past historians have made them out to be.

The Scythians would not have known how well preserved their deceased and possessions would be, but thanks to the diligence of their burial processes, they will be forever remembered as a formidable civilisation rather than the stuff of legend. Archaeologists are even able to determine their physical appearance due to the survival of mummified heads and bodies. Warning: the head and tattooed skin of a Scythian is on display for those with strong stomachs to marvel over!

The British Museum has excelled itself with this exhibition of such a fierce but sophisticated culture. It takes visitors on a journey through the lives of a nomadic tribe that, until recently, has only existed in myths and legends. Being able to see the objects up close (and the body parts) brings the stories to life and reveals how advanced the human race was in terms of survival as far back as the early Iron Age.

Only a week remains before Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia closes to the public. The items will be returned to the State Hermitage Museum so, unless you are planning a trip to Russia, this is your final opportunity to see this amazing proof of a rich, ancient civilisation.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum until 14 January 2018. Tickets are £16.50, Members/under 16s free.