Greco-Scythian metalworking

1. The Greek-Scythian metalworking

The lasting artistic value of Scythian antiquities is due to the great variety of superb works of decorative and applied art which belong to different trends and schools. Of special interest are the masterpieces of ancient relief metalwork with Scythian motifs and objects in the Graeco-­Barbarian style manufactured in the Greek colonies on the shores of the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea). Note­worthy are the extremely rare works of art brought by the Scythians from Greece and Asia Minor, as well as some artefacts executed in the mixed Urartian-Scythian style or in the Oriental-Hellenic manner.

2. Scythian society and art

The distinctive features of the art and culture of the Scythians were determined by their nomadic way of life. The Scythians demonstrated particularly remarkable craftsmanship in the minor arts, producing fine bone carvings, bronzes cast by the cire perdue (lost wax) method and repoussé technique works in gold and silver.1

The emergence of these decorative arts was connected with the class differentiation in Scythian society, a process which began in the 7th c. B.C. As nomads frequently engaged in mili­tary clashes, the Scythian ruling class best achieved these aims through gold and silver ornaments worn on ceremonial and ritual garments, richly ornamented weapons, horse attire, toilet articles, and ritual utensils. The objects were decorated with animal figures or scenes of fighting beasts rendered in a distinctive vivid manner usually called “the Scythian animal style”.2

Scythian art, like Scythian culture in its entirety, may be divided into three periods: early Scythian or archaic (7th and 6th c. B.C.), middle Scythian (5th and 4th c. B.C.) and late Scythian (late 4th - early 3rd c. B.C.). Each period had its own peculiar features in style and subjects.

3.1. Early Scythian or Archaic period (7th - 6th c. B.C.)

In the archaic period the animal style seemed to be a natural blend of the unique Scythian artistic tra­dition and certain borrowed forms, mostly of ancient Oriental origin. The most favoured subjects were heads of beasts, felines, ibexes, birds, rams, flying rams with the beak of a bird of prey, griffins, and horses. One of the most representative specimens of the animal style is a golden plaque chased in high relief found in the Kostromskaya barrow, showing a recumbent stag with its legs drawn up under its body, used evidently as a shield emblem by a Scythian chieftain. The themes presented in the artefacts of the late 7th and early 6th c. B.C. Melgunov (or Litoi) and Kelermes barrows are also representative of the early Scythian period.3 A fusion of Scythian, Oriental and Greek-Oriental styles is predominant. The gold panther plaque, the two nesting bowls, a battle-axe and a sword show both a traditional Scythian style in an interesting adoptation of the Assyro-Urartian style and the new influence of the Graeco-Oriental style. The Graeco-Oriental school of metalwork is clearly visible in the artistic treatment of a round silver mirror with ornamental and figurative motifs around a winged female figure, Cybele, the Great Goddess of Asia Minor and the Mistress of Animals. The influence of Greek culture on the Scythian world was especially pronounced after the nomads’ expedi­tions into Asia Minor and particularly shortly before and after the foundation of the first Greek (Ionian) colonies in the Kerch Strait and along the Black Sea coast in the first half of the 6th c. B.C.4

Trade contacts with Greek merchants prior to the establishment of their colonies on the Black Sea coast are clearly illustrated by the material from the Temir-Gora barrow near the modern town of Kerch which shows the traditional Scythian animal style on the head of a bird of prey, and a painted Rhodian-Ionian terracotta vessel (oenochoe).

After the foundation of the colonies on the coastal area of the Black Sea in the 6th c. B.C., metal or clay items were exported to the remote areas of Scythia by ship, via the rivers Dniester, Dnieper, Bug, Don and Kuban and their tributaries. Greek merchants also used the land routes which ran from Olbia across the vast territory of Scythia to the East. It is likely that the unique masterpieces of antique toreutics from the Martonoshy and Annovka barrows in Ukraine reached the Scythian terri­tory via the Greek colony of Olbia.5

In the second half of the 6th c. B.C. a large number of workshops catering to the tastes and demands of the barbarian aristocracy emerged in Olbia, Panticapaeum and other coastal Greek towns.

3.2. Middle and Late Scythian periods (5th - early 3rd c. B.C.)

The 5th century B.C. (Middle Scythian period) saw substantial changes in Scythian art. These were reflected both in the choice of animal motifs and in the manner of their execution. The emergence of new forms occurred under the steadily increasing impact of Greek art and the simultaneously declining influence of West Asian and particularly Assyrian-Urartian art as reflected in the Zhurovka and Ak-Mechet barrows. The introduction of the so-called ‘zoomorphic transformations’ led to the disappearance of subjects like horses, ibexes, rams and ram-birds and the introduction of new motifs, both local and borrowed like lions, wolves, wild boars and hares alongside with fantastic creatures such as griffins', eagles’ or lions’ heads.6

From the mid-5th c. B.C. onwards, the influence of classical Hellenic art on the Scythian animal style increased substantially owing to the more extensive use of Greek wares by the Scythian nobility, especially those who lived in the vicinity of the Bosporan cities. This is confirmed by the exca­vations of the famous Seven Brothers barrows on the Taman peninsula and the Scythian barrows of the ancient necropolis of Nymphaeum, near Kerch. The finds include richly decorated weapons, torques and bronze adornments of Scythian horse harnesses as well as various objects, some of high artistic value, imported to the Bosporan centres from Greece, Etruria, Asia Minor and other areas. Vessels made of pre­cious metals, silver and gold rhytons with finials in the form of sculptured half-figures or heads of animals were obviously imported from Achaemenid Persia. Very rare silver-gilted Attic bowls and kylikes with exquisite engravings based on Greek mythological or literary subjects (e.g. the story of Odysseus and Penelope) were also found. The barrows yielded wonder­ful bronze artifacts from the Greek centres in Italy (Magna Graecia). A red-figure vessel, a skyphos, depicting a standing woman clad in a tunic and mantle was undoubtedly painted by a skilful Athenian craftsman around mid 5th c. B.C.

One of the workshops of Magna Graecia, most likely in the town of Locri, a renowned metalworking centre, produced the marvellous figurine of an athlete designed to crown a bronze candelabrum in the form of tripod. The depiction of triumphant athletes, winners in sports competitions, was a leading theme in Greek art of the 5th c. B.C. The miniature from Nymphaeum is an outstanding specimen of the so-called ‘austere style’; it imitates a statue of the great Greek sculptor Polykleitos. A well-preserved Panathenaic amphora was found in the grave of a Maeotian chieftain in the Yelizavetin­skaya barrow. Vessels of this type were given as awards to the winners of athletic events held in Athens once every four years in honour of Pallas Athena, patron goddess of the city.7

All these artefacts testify to the great wealth of the Sindo-Maeotian and Scythian chieftains and to their extensive trade and cultural contacts with the Greek centres on the coastal areas of the Black Sea in the 5th and 4th c. B.C. It explains the steadily growing influence of classical art on the local tradition and, in particular, on the development of the Scythian animal style in the 5th c. B.C.

In the 4th c. B.C. the Scythian kingdom reached its prime and its contacts with the Greek colonies along the northern coastal area of the Black Sea greatly intensified. The centre of Scythian art then shifted to the Bosporan kingdom and especially to its capital Panticapaeum. As the import of Bosporan works of art attained mass scale, the Graeco-Scythian style, which had been remarkable in the previous epoch, acquired a completely new tinge.

The 4th c. B.C. royal barrows and the sepulchres of the Hellenized Scythian upper classes (Kul-Oba, Solokha, Chertomlyk, Tolstaya Mogila, Talayev, Bolshaya Bliznitsa, Karagodeuashkh, Anapkur­gan)8 have yielded a great number of artefacts dating from this golden age of Scythian art. Among these countless objects one can see items of different origin: articles of Scythian workmanship are found side by side with purely Hellenic works as well as with objects made by Greek craftsmen in accordance with Scythian tradition. These artifacts of the mixed Grae­co-Barbarian style are usually exceptionally ingenious. Executed in the classical forms of Greek realism, they were fully compliant to the tastes and demands of the Scythian nobility.

The long-lasting contacts of the Scythians with the Bosporan Greeks brought about one more phenomenon in art, the famous metalwork of the northern Pontic Greeks, articles which depict the Scythians, their life, clothing, weapons and horse harnesses. The subject matter of these works reflects the daily life of the Scythians, their battles, rituals and customs, and events from their heroic epics.9

1. Pogrebova, M. N., “On the Origin of Masterpieces of Scythian Metalwork from Scythian Barrows”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 17 (1953) p. 285-294 (in Russian); Piotrovsky, B. B., “Scythians and the Ancient Orient”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia  19 (1954) p. 141-158; Artamοnov, M. I., “On the Origin of Scythian Art”, in: Omagiu lui George Oprescu, (Bucharest 1962)(in Russian); Piotrovsky, B. B., The Art of Urartu, (Mosow 1962) (in Russian); Artamοnov, M. I., Art Treasures of the Scythian Barrows (Prague, Leningrad, 1966) (in Russian); Smirnov, A. P., The Scythians (Moscow 1966) (in Russian); Artamοnov, M. I., “The Origin of Scythian Art”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 4 (1968) (in Russian); Rayevsky, D. S., “Scytho-Avestan Mythological Parallels and Some Subjects of Scythian Art”, in: Art and Archaeology of Iran (Moscow 1971) (in Russian); Rayevsky, D. S., “On the Meaning of One Subject in Scythian Art”, in: New Tendencies in Archaeology (Collection of articles in commemoration of the 70th birthday of A.V. Artsikhovsky (Moscow 1972) (in Russian)

2. Pogrebova, M. N., “On the Scythian Animal Style”, Proceedings of the Institute of Material Culture 34 (1960) (in Russian); Artamonov, M. I., “Anthropomorphic Deities in Scythian Religion", Archaeological Bulletin of the State Hermitage 2 (1961) (in Russian); Viazmitina, M. I., “Early Relics of the Scythian Animal Style”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 2 (1963) p. 158-170 (in Russian); Ilyinskaia, V. A., “Some Motifs of the Early Scythian Animal Style”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia,1 (1965) p. 86-107 (in Russian); Grakov, B. N., Scythians (Moscow 1971) (in Russian); Artamonov, M. I., “Skifskoe tsarstvo”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 3 (1972) p. 56-76; Khazanov, A.M., Social History of the Scythians (Moscow 1975) (in Russian); Kuzmina, E. E., “Scythian Art as a Reflection of the Wood Outlook of the Indo-Iranian Tribes”, in: Scytho-Siberian Animal Style in the Art of the Euroasian Peoples (Moscow 1976)(in Russian); Shramko, B. A, “New Finds on the Belsk Site and Some Problems of the Formation and Meaning of the Animal Style Imagery”, in: Skytho-Siberian Animal Style in the Art of the Eurasian Peoples (Moscow 1976) (in Russian); Kuzmina, E. E. “The Horse in the Art and Religion of the Scythian and Saki Tribes", in: Scythians and Sarmatians (Kiev 1977) (in Russian); Brashinsky, I. B., Treasures of Scythian Kings (Moscow 1979) (in Russian); Ilyinskaya, V.A., Terenozhkin, A. I., Scythia in the 7th and 6th centuries B. C. (Kiev 1983).

3. Pridik, E..M., “The Melgunov Treasure”, Materials on the Archaeology of Russia, 31 (St.Petersburg 1911) (in Russian); Maximova, M. I., “A Silver Mirror from the Kelermes Barrow”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 21 (1954) p. 281-305 (in Russian); Ilyinskaya, V. A., “The Feline in Early Scythian Art”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 2 (1971) p. 64-86 (in Russian); Onaiko, N. A, “Anthropomorphic Images in Scytho-Maeotian Metalwork”, in: Artistic Culture and Archaeology of the Antique World (Moscow 1976) (in Russian); Petrenko, Y. G., “Scythian Ornaments of the 7th to the 3rd Century B.C.”, Collection of Archaeological Sources 4-5 (1978) (in Russian).

4. Skudnova, V. M., “Scythian Mirrors from; the Archaeological Necropolis at Olbia”, I. Papers of the State Hermitage, 7 (1962) (in Russian); Onaiko, N. A, “Importation of Antiquities into the Areas along the Dnieper and Bug Rivers in the 7th to 5th Century B.C.”, Collection of Archaeological Sources no. 27 (1966) (in Russian); Shkurko, A. I., “About the Image of a Coiled-up Beast in the Art of the Forest steppe Region of Scythia”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 11 (1969) p. 31-39 (in Russian); Khazanov, A.M., Scythian Goldwork (Moscow 1975) (in Russian); Rayevsky, D. S., “Hellenic Deities in Scythia: A Study in the Semantic Characterization of Graeco-Scythian Art”, Bulletin of Ancient History 11 (1980) (in Russian); Ilyinskaya, V. A., “Images of Scythians from the Period of Their Raids into West Asia”, in: Antiquities of the Scythia of the Steppes (Kiev 1982) (in Russian).

5. Prushevskaya, E. O., “A Rhodian Vase and Bronze Objects from a Grave on the Taman Peninsula”, Bulletin of the Archaeological Commission, 63 (1917) (in Russian); Kopeikina, L.V, “A Painted Rhodian-Ionian Oenochoe from the Temir-Gora Barrow", Bulletin of Ancient History 1 (1972) (in Russian); Yakovenko, E.Y., “The Temir-Gora Barrow”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 3 (1972) p. 259-268 (in Russian); Galanina, L. K., “Scythian Antiquities from the Dnieper Basin”, (The N.E. Brandenburg Collection in the Hermitage) Collection of Archaeological Sources, no. 33 (Leningrad 1977) (in Russian); Leskov, A. M., Burial Mounds: Finds and Problems (Leningrad 1981) (in Russian).

6. Onaiko, N. A, “On Centres for the Production of Gold Overlays for Scabbards and Hilts of the Early Scythian Swords Found in the Area along the Dnieper River”, in: Culture of the AntiqueWorld (Moscow 1966) (in Russian); Shramko, B. A., “On the Manufacture of Gold Ornaments by Scythian Craftsmen”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 2 (1970) p. 217-221 (in Russian) Galanina, L. K., The Kurdjip Barrow (Leningrad 1980) (in Russian); Chernenko, E. V., Scythian Archers (Kiev 1981) (in Russian).

7. Grakov, B. N., “The Ancient Town of Kamenskoye Gorodishche on the Dnieper”, Archaeology of the USSR: Materials and Studies no. 36 (Moscow 1954) (in Russian); Silanteva, L. F. “Necropolis at Nymphaeum”, Archaeology in the USSR: Materials and Studies 69 (1959) (in Russian); Petrenko, Y. G., “Scythian Ornaments of the 7th to the 3rd Century B.C.”, Collection of Archaeological Sources 4-5 (1978) (in Russian); Maximova, M. I., The Artiukhov Barrow (Leningrad 1979) (in Russian).

8. Lappo-Danilevsky, A., Malmberg, V., “The Karagodeuashkh Barrow”, Materials on the Archaeology of Russia, no. 13 (1894) (in Russian); Rostovtsev, M. I., “On the Problem of Dating the Burials of Kul-Oba, Chertomlyk and Solokha”, Bulletin of the Archaeological Commission 60 (1916) (in Russian); Mantsevich, A. P., “A Comb and a Phiale from the Solokha Barrow”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 13 (1950) p. 217-238 (in Russian); Mantsevich, A. P., A Gold Comb from the Solokha Barrow (Leningrad 1962) (in Russian); Artamonov, M. I., "The Kul-Oba Stag ", in: Antique History and Culture of the Mediterranean and Black Sea Area (Leningrad 1968) (in Russian); Mantsevich, A. P., “A Plaque from the Karagodeuashkh Barrow”, Archaeological Bulletin of The State Hermitage no. 6 (1964) (in Russian); Tsvetayeva, G. A., Treasures from the Barrows of the Black Sea Coast, (Moscow 1968); Rayevsky, D. S., “Scythian Mythological Subjects in the Art and Ideology of the Kingdom of Atheas”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 3 (1970) p. 90-101 (in Russian); Mozolevsky, R. N., The Tolstaya Mogila (Great Grave) Barrow near Ordjonikidze, in Ukraine Sovetskaia Arkheologia 3 (1972) p. 268-309 (in Russian); Kuzmina, E. E., “On the Meaning of the Images on the Chertomlyk Vase”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia, 3 (1976) (in Russian); Rayevsky, D. S., “The Kul-Oba Archers”, Sovetskaia Arkheologia 3 (1981) (in Russian).

9. Rostovtsev, M. I., Scythia and the Bosporus, (Leningrad 1925) (in Russian); Rostovtsev, M. I., Hellenic and Iranian Influence in' the South of Russia (Petrograd 1918) (in Russian); Vysotskaya, T. N., Neapolis, the Capital of the Late Scythian State (Kiev 1979) (in Russian).