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Scythia

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Scythia was an area in Eurasia inhabited in ancient times by people probably speaking Indo-Iranian languages, known as the Scythians. The location and extent of Scythia varied over time, from the Altai region where Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan come together to the lower Danube river area and Bulgaria. The Saka were Asian Scythians and were known as Sai to the Chinese.

The Scythians first appear in Assyrian annals as Ishkuzai, who are reported as pouring in from the north some time around 700 BC, settling in Ascania and modern Azerbaijan as far as to the southeast of Lake Urmia.

The most significant Scythian tribes mentioned in mainly Greek sources resided in the steppe between the Dnieper and Don rivers. The subject peoples in the periphery steppes were also commonly referred as "Scythians", but didn't speak Iranian languages as did the Scythians proper. Priscus, the Byzantine emissary to Attila, referred to Attila's followers repeatedly as "Scythians," so some of the Huns may have had Scythian ancestry. However, since their language, Scythian, has been shown to have strong similarities to Eastern Iranian, it is generally held that the Scythians were of Iranian origin.

Etymologically, "Old Iranian Saka, Greek Scythai and Sogdian Sughde (also the very name for the Sogdians), as well as the biblical Hebrew Ashkenaz (via Syrian Askuzai) appear all to derive from *skuza, an ancient Indo-European word for archer, cf. English shoot." (Torday, Mounted Archers). This ancient Indo-European word for archer in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *skeud, 'to shoot, throw.'

Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an  cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near  (, St Petersburg)
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Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near Kerch (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)
Contents

Scythian society

The Scythians formed a network of nomadic tribes of horse-riding conquerors. They invaded many areas in the steppes of Eurasia, including areas in present-day Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and southern Russia. Ruled by small, closely-allied 鬩tes, Scythians had a reputation for their archers, and many gained employment as mercenaries. Scythian elite were buried in kurgans, high barrows heaped over chamber-tombs of larch-wood - a wood that may have had special significance as a tree of life-renewal, since it is a deciduous conifer that stands out starkly in winter against other evergreens, but returns to life every spring. Burials at Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains have included some spectacularly-preserved Scythians of the "Pazyryk culture" - including the "Ice Maiden" of the 5th century BC. (see below)

Scythian warrior-women may have inspired tales of the Amazons in Greek myth.

A Pazyryk burial found in the 1990s seems to confirm at least part of the legend. It contained the skeletons of a man and a woman, each with weapons, arrowheads, and an axe. "The woman was dressed exactly like a man. This shows that certain women, probably young and unmarried, could be warriors, literally Amazons. It didn't offend the principles of nomadic society", according to one of the archaeologists interviewed for the 1998 NOVA documentary "The Ice Mummies".

History

To date, no certain explanation exists to account for the origin of the Scythians, nor details of how they migrated to the Caucasus or Ukraine; but the majority of scholars conjecture that they migrated westward from Central Asia between 800 BC and 600 BC.

Old records actually say that the land where the Scythians originated was called Gerrhos. They would prepare their dead and travel with them long distances to bring them for burial in Gerrhos.

Assyrian records are the first to mention the Iskuzai, from around the end of the 8th century BC. Herodotus even confirms that their king Partatua was allied with Assyria, and recognized by Mannai. In 653 BC, Partatua's son Madius (Madyes), at the request of Ashurbanipal of Assyria, defeated the king of the Medes - Phraortes (Kshathrita), assuming control over the Medes until 625 BC. By the end of his reign, he had led the Scythians, and the Cimmerians, who seem to have been close relatives, on a pillaging spree, overrunning and plundering Assyria, Anatolia, Northern Syria, Phoenicia, Damascus and Palestine. They plundered the Temple of Venus in Ashkelon, and Jeremiah 4:7-13 mentioned them as "a destroyer of nations... [whose] chariots shall be as the whirlwind."

After 625, however, the Scythians left the Mede Empire - whether they did so voluntarily, or were expelled, is debated. At any rate, following the Mede sack of Assur in 614 BC, they were compelled to switch sides and ally themselves with the Medes. They comprised part of the force that sacked Nineveh 612 BC. Some time afterwards, the Scythians returned to the steppes.

In 512 BC, when the Scythians were attacked by king Darius the Great of Persia, they were apparently reached by crossing the Danube. Herodotus relates that, being nomads, they were able to frustrate the designs of the Persian army by letting them march through the entire country without an engagement. If he is to be believed, Darius in this manner reached as far as the Volga river.

During the 5th to 3rd centuries BC the Scythians prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century BC, Greeks distinguished a 'Greater Scythia' that extended a 20-day ride from the Danube River in the west, across the steppes of today's Ukraine to the lower Don basin, from 'Scythia Minor'. The Don, then known as [[Tanais|Tanaﳝ], has been a major trading route ever since. The Scythians apparently obtained their wealth from their control over the slave trade from the north to Greece, through the Greek Black Sea colonial ports. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks, and cheese to Greece.

The Crimean Scythians created a kingdom extending from the lower Dnieper river to the Crimea. Their capital city, Scythian Neapol, existed on the outskirts of modern day Simferopol. It was destroyed much later, in the 5th century CE, by the Goths.

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By far the greatest collection of Scythian gold is preserved at the Hermitage Museum.

In the southeasternmost corner of the plains, north of the woods of Thrace, Philip II of Macedon during the 330s settled Macedonian trading towns along routes as far north as the Danube, a river no previous Greek general had ever reached. (Fox 1973). Greek craftsmen from the colonies north of the Black Sea, made spectacular Scythian gold ornaments (see below), applying Greek realism to depict Scythian motifs of lions, antlered reindeer and griffons. The centerpoint of Hellenic-Scythian contact was focused on the Hellenistic cities and small kingdoms of the Cimmerian Bosporus and the Crimea.

Shortly after 300 BC, the Celts seem to have displaced the Scythians from the Balkans, and in south Russia, they were gradually overwhelmed by the Sarmatians. Although the Scythians had allegedly disappeared in the 1st century BC, Eastern Romans continued to speak conventionally of "Scythians" to designate mounted Eurasian nomadic barbarians in general: in 448 CE the emissary Priscus is led to Attila's encampment in Pannonia by two mounted "Scythians" - distinguished from the Goths and Huns who also followed Attila. Some scholars believe that the Sarmatians, the Alans, and finally the Ossetians descend from them. The latter, the only Iranian people presently resident in Europe, call their country Iron and are mostly Christians. They speak an Eastern Iranian language, Ossetic, called by them Ironig or Ironski (i.e. Iranian), that maintains some remarkable features of Gathic Avestan language. At the same time, it has a number of words remarkably similar to their modern German equivalents, such as THAU (tauen, to thaw, as snow) and GAU (district, region). Legends of the Irish and the indigenous Picts of Scotland, as well as the Hungarians, also include mention of Scythian origins.

The Scythians were not known to have had any writing system, so until recent archaeological developments, most of our information about them came from the Greeks. A treasure of gold and silver metalwork found near the town of Sakiz south of Lake Urmia, dated to between 680 and 625 BC, is apparently Scythian, and one silver dish bears some undeciphered hieroglyphs that may turn out to be a Scythian inscription.

Homer called them "the mare-milkers"; Herodotus described them in detail: their costume consisted of padded and quilted leather trousers tucked into boots, and open tunics. They rode with no stirrups or saddles, just saddlecloths. Herodotus' histories allegedly report that Saka Scythians used marijuana, but the specific reference is unclear. The Scythian philosopher Anacharsis visited Athens in the 6th century BC and became a legendary sage. Scythians were also known for their usage of barbed arrows, a nomadic life centered around horses -- "fed from horse-blood" according to a Roman historian -- and skill in guerilla warfare. The Scythians are thought to have been the first to tame the horse and use it in combat as well.

There is no evidence that all Scythians or Saka people spoke an Iranian language. They may have only had an Iranian speaking elite, and may or may not have been be genetically related to the original Iranians. The mother tongues of the peoples they dominated could have been Proto-Germanic, Proto-Slavic and/or even Tocharian (this might explain the presence of Tocharian in the east). (See Non-Indo-European roots of Germanic languages and Mathematical approaches to comparative linguistics (http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/94/13/6585.pdf).)

Archaeology and artifacts

Archaeological remains of the Scythians include elaborate tombs containing gold, silk, horses and human sacrifices. Mummification techniques and permafrost have aided in the relative preservation of some remains.

"Pazyryk culture"

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Horseman, Pazyryk felt artifact, c.300 BC.
Further information is at Pazyryk.

One of the first Bronze Age Scythian burials documented by a modern archaeologist were the kurgans at Pazyryk, Ulagan district of the Gorno-Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. The name Pazyryk culture was attached to the finds: five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949, one opened in 1947 by Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko. The burial mounds concealed chambers of larch logs covered over by large cairns of boulders and stones.

It flourished between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC in a mountain fastness known to be held by a group of Scythians that may have called themselves Sacae. It was the seat of the larger of two related Scythian groups.

All the things a person might use or need in this life were placed in the tomb as grave goods for use in the next. Among the rich or powerful, horses were sacrificed and buried with them. With the ordinary Pazyryks were only ordinary utensils, but in one was found among other treasures the famous Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving wool pile oriental rug. Rudenko summed up the cultural context at one point:

All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altai, who have left behind them the large cairns, permits us to refer them to the Scythian period, and the Pazyryk group in particular to the fifth century BC. This is supported by radiocarbon dating.

In the Soviet climate of 'science' used as controlled propaganda, Rudenko could not stress the cultural similarities between Pazyryk and the Scythians from the Kuban and lower Dneiper Valley in European Russia. Even in modern times, the blond hair and white skin on the frozen "Ice Maiden" and other burials may be seen, but are not mentioned in the Nova segment devoted to these burials. That the ancient culture he studied was quite likely the ethnic stock ancestral to many nomadic tribes of today, including modern Altaians, Kirgiz, and Kazakhs, has become a source of considerable pride today for the Gorno-Altai Republic.

Scythian Gelonus (Belsk)

Recent digs in Belsk, Ukraine uncovered a vast city believed to be the Scythian capital Gelonus described by Herodotus. The city's commanding ramparts and vast 40 square kilometers exceeded even the outlandish size reported by Herodotus. Its location at the northern edge of Ukraine's steppe would have allowed strategic control of the north-south trade route. Judging by the finds dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BC, craft workshops and Greek pottery abounded, and perhaps, slaves destined for Greece.

The Ryzhanovka kurgan

A kurgan or burial mound near the village of Ryzhanovka in Ukraine, 75 miles south of Kyiv, has revealed one of the few unlooted tombs of a Scythian chieftain, one who was ruling in the forest-steppe area on the western fringe of Scythian lands. There, at a date late in Scythian culture (ca. 250 - 225 BC), a recently nomadic aristocracy was gradually adopting the agricultural lifestyle of their subjects: the tomb contained a mock hearth, the first ever found in a Scythian context, symbolic of the warmth and comfort of a farmhouse.

Ryzhanovka links

"Scythian gold"

Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold adornments that are among the most glamorous prestige artifacts of world museums. Ethnographically extremely useful as well, the gold depicts Scythian men as bearded, long-haired caucasoids (though such images may simply have been the projections of the Greek artisans onto the works they were commissioned for). "Greco-Scythian" works depicting Scythians within a much more Hellenic style date from a much later period, when Scythians had already been greatly mixed with Greeks, clouding the issue of their origins.

Scythians had a taste for elaborate personal jewelry, weapon ornaments and horse trappings. They executed Central Asian animal motifs with Greek realism: winged griffins attacking horses, battling stags, deer, and eagles, combined with everyday motifs like milking ewes.

In 2000 the touring exhibition 'Scythian Gold' introduced North Americans to the objects made for Scythian nomads by Greek craftsmen north of the Black Sea, and buried with their Scythian owners under burial mounds on the flat plains of what is now Ukraine, most of them unearthed after 1980.

In 2001, the discovery of an undisturbed royal Scythian burial barrow illustrated for the first time Scythian animal-style gold that lacks the direct influence of Greek styles. Forty-four pounds of gold weighed down the royal couple in this burial, discovered near Kyzyl, capital of the Siberian republic of Tuva.

Indo-Scythians

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Silver coin of the Indo-Scythian King Azes II (r.c. 35-12 BC).

Main article: Indo-Scythians

The Indo-Scythians were a branch of the Scythians who migrated into Bactria, Sogdiana, Kashmir, Gandhara, and finally, into Arachosia and the northwest Indian subcontinent, from the middle of the 2nd century BC to the 1st century BC.

They were displaced from Central Asia by the migrations in 175-125 BC of the Indo-European Yuezhi tribes, who originally lived in the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang and Kansu areas) before themselves being expelled by the Xiongnu (Huns) tribes.

The Indo-Scythians, led by their king Maues, ultimately settled in modern day Pakistan from around 85 BC, where they replaced the kingdom of the Indo-Greeks by the time of Azes II. They were again overrun by the Yuezhi (this time, federated under the name of Kushan) in the 1st century, but their rule persisted in some areas of Central India until the 5th century.

The genetic argument

Genetic research in modern populations reveals that the same Y chromosome haplogroup (R1a) represents a genetic lineage currently found in central, western and south Asia, and in Slavic populations of Eastern Europe. The simplest explanation of this distribution is that this Y-chromosome mutation will have originated in people of the kurgan-building culture of traditional Scythia (see link).

However Haplogroup H,J2 R1b and L are also found in populations of Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia and India, the idea that R1a1 originates from Kurgan Culture is questionable, since there seem to be a complete absence of haplogroup I and E in India (which is common in Ukraine and Europe). One must await genetic studies of burial remains (which themselves are probably a result of cultural mixing).[1] (http://evolutsioon.ut.ee/publications/Kivisild2003b.pdf) and on Sarmatian (a related Iranian group) trade and ethnic connections[2] (http://www.nbz.or.jp/eng/pdffiles/hallandyablonsky1998.pdf).

The idea of Scythia

Owing to their reputation as promulgated by Greek historians, the Scythians served as the epitome of savagery and barbarism in the early modern period. Specifically, early modern English discourse on Ireland frequently resorted to comparisons with this people in order to confirm that the indigenous population of Ireland were descendants of these ancient "bogeymen", and as barbaric as their alleged ancestors. Edmund Spenser wrote that "the Chiefest [nation that settled in Ireland] I Suppose to be Scithians ... which firste inhabitinge and afterwarde stretchinge themselves forthe into the lande as theire numbers increased named it all of themselues Scuttenlande which more brieflye is Called Scuttlande or Scotlande" (A View of the Present State of Ireland, c. 1596). Among the proofs Spenser cites for this origin are the alleged Irish customs of blood-drinking, nomadic lifestyle, the wearing of mantles and certain haircuts and "Cryes [or wailings] allsoe vsed amongeste the Irishe which savor greatlye of the Scythyan Barbarisme". William Camden, one of Spenser's main sources, comments on this legend of origin that "to derive descent from a Scythian stock, cannot be thought any waies dishonourable, seeing that the Scythians, as they are most ancient, so they have been the Conquerours of most Nations, themselves alwaies invincible, and never subject to the Empire of others" (Britannia, 1586 etc., Engl. transl. 1610).

In the 19th century, the "barbarian" Scyths of literature were transformed into the wild and free, hardy and democratic ancestors of all blond Indo-Europeans. Aside from the findings of modern archaeology and genetics, most of what subesquent generations "knew" of Scythia and Scythians was second hand, a series of literary conventions.

Some modern groups still claim to be descended from the Scythians. The Scythians feature in the national origin legends of the Celts; they are also claimed by some romantic nationalist writers to have figured in the formation of the empire of the Medes and likewise of Caucasian Albania, the precursor in Antiquity of the modern-day Azerbaijan Republic. Most famously of all, the Russians were called Scythians in the 18th-century poetry, as some contemporary scholars sought to demonstrate their descent from ancient warriors described by Herodotus. Alexander Blok drew on this tradition in his last major poem, Yes, We Are the Scyths (1920).

Modern uses of "Scythian" that are mythological— when they stray far from archaeologists' findings— tend to be as a covert euphemism for the currently deprecated "Aryan." Let the skeptical reader judge these uses on a case-by-case basis.

References

  • Torday, Laszlo (1998). Mounted Archers: The Beginnings of Central Asian History. Durham Academic Press. ISBN 1-90-083803-6.
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. 1st Trade printing, 2003. ISBN 0-446-67983-6 (pbk).

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