Sunday, October 4, 2020

The evolution of Scythian art

Early Scythian art was characterized by its use of animal motifs and appeared in eastern Europe in the 8th century BCE. Some scholars suggest the art style developed under Near Eastern influence during the military campaigns of the 7th century BCE, but the more common theory is that it developed on the eastern part of the Eurasian Steppe under Chinese influence. Others have sought to reconcile the two theories, suggesting that the animal style of the west and eastern parts of the steppe developed independently of each other, under Near Eastern and Chinese influences respectively. Regardless, the animal style art of the Scythians was distinctive and differed considerably from the cultures around it.

Scythian animal style works are typically divided into birds, ungulates and beasts of prey. This probably reflects the tripartite division of the Scythian cosmos, with birds belonging to the upper level, ungulates to the middle level and beasts of prey in the lower level. Images of mythological creatures such a griffins are not uncommon in Scythian animal style, but these are probably the result of Near Eastern influences. By the late 6th century BCE, as Scythian activity in the Near East was reduced, depictions of mythological creatures largely disappears from Scythian art.

With the increased influence of the Greeks and Persians in the 5th century BCE, the depictions of animals became more realistic and are depicted fighting each other rather than as individual subjects. Warriors on kurgan stelae, earlier depicted with almond-shaped eyes and mustaches, are shown in the 5th century BCE with rounder eyes and full beards.

By the 4th century BCE, scholars think much of the Scythian artwork found in royal burials is being made by Greek craftsmen.  Depictions of human beings is much more prevalent, mythological creatures are reintroduced, and themes are thought to be illustrations of Scythian legends, some with religious significance. 

Ongoing Hellenization in the 3rd century BCE, however, results in the disappearance of original Scythian art forms all together. The Scythians eventually settled in the Crimea and along the Lower Dnieper River and engaged in stockbreeding and agriculture. Their capital at Scythian Neapolis served as an important trading center until the 2nd century CE even though its royal palace was destroyed by Diophantus,  a general of the Pontic king Mithridates VI, at the end of the 2nd century BCE, and was not rebuilt. It is thought the Scythians were eventually assimilated by the Sarmatians.

Gold dress ornament depicting two Scythian archers standing back to back as they shoot their compound bows from the tomb of a Scythian king, and his consort 400-350 BCE made at Pantikapaion on the north coast of the Black Sea that I photographed at the British Museum in 2016.

A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand, 2nd century BCE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Scythian comb from Solokha, early 4th century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Closeup of the reverse side of a Scythian comb from Solokha, early 4th century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Gold pectoral, or neckpiece, from a royal kurgan in Tolstaya Mogila, Pokrov, Ukraine, dated to the second half of the 4th century BCE, of Greek workmanship. The central lower tier shows three horses, each being torn apart by two griffins. Scythian art was especially focused on animal figures. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Д.Колосов.

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