Some time in antiquity - we can’t be sure exactly when, but some time around the eighth-sixth centuries BC - grave robbers broke into a large burial tumulus near its entrance passage, drawn by the riches they knew were surely there. We can’t know the full extent of what they found, but a few left-behind fragments of gold, and what we know of other such tombs, suggest they found what they were after. Their victim in this case was a girl of around 13-14, dead recently enough for her carefully embalmed bones to be at least still partially articulated when they dragged them aside in search of wealth. So far as we know, since the grave goods weren’t returned, they escaped scot-free, and the tomb returned to silence. Within, in the partially collapsed burial chamber, stones still covered and protected the body of a young man a few years older at death than the girl, and from the DNA almost certainly her brother. Unrobbed, his grave survived until fully excavated and is able through archaeologists to tell us its extraordinary story of the wealth of its steppe nomad owners. This is Eleke Sazy Kurgan 4, excavated in 2018, and it’s at the heart of the Gold of the Great Steppe exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.
The exhibition is the result of phenomenal work being done in recent years in Kazakhstan, and the museum has clearly benefited from a generous loans policy which has made it very up-to-date, since it includes finds made during the pandemic. Most of them are drawn from kurgans, the great burial tumuli of the steppe peoples (and also one of your author’s long-standing beefs with the naming policies of the script-writers of the Highlander movie), primarily those of the sites of Eleke Sazy and Berel in east Kazakhstan. These are very noticeable features in the landscape, great earthen mounds over burial chambers, sometimes capped and surrounded by stones and ditches. They’re built to be noticed – one of those at Berel is 33m in diameter; Kurgan 4 at Eleke Sazy, where the girl and her brother were found, is fully 49m to its ditch. As a result, they attract robbers, both ancient ones as at Kurgan 4, and more recent. The latter have prompted some of the modern excavations, to get ahead of the thieves who’d rob us all.
It’s hard to fault the grim logic of greed here. The grave fields, with kurgan after kurgan scattered across them, are evidence of vast human labour being expended. Those who lay within were clearly of high status and wealth, and where such graves are opened unplundered, gold meets sunlight. Steppe graves of this period have been known for their richness since the exploratory archaeological campaigns directed by Tsar Peter the Great. These particular ones were heaped up by the Saka people.
These kurgan fields, with scores of mounds dotting the landscape, and the incredible finds within, have ensured that these Saka lords and ladies are not forgotten. Yet, for most reading this, the Saka people themselves practically have been. Who were they, and why are we, with our focus centred on Mediterranean antiquity, interested in far-off east Kazakhstan?
The Saka were a branch of the great arc of Scythian peoples stretching from the Danube through the Ukraine and across the measureless expanses towards China, which makes them interesting in their own right: we’ve already covered the British Museum’s Scythians exhibition, which touched on some of the same sites. But the Saka are in fact quite well-known to classical and near eastern historians of the Greek and Roman periods as a people lying at the edge of their world, which they alarmed and impressed in equal measure.
The Saka find perhaps their greatest prominence on Achaemenid Persian royal monuments, the Persians having come into conflict with them several times. Saka is indeed their name for them (and the Scythians: a lot of ancient references use the words almost interchangeably), though they divided them into various sub-groups such as the Saka Tigraxauda (‘pointed-cap Saka’) and Saka Haumavarga (usually translated ‘haoma drinking Saka/Scythians’, after the intoxicating haoma plant, though there is less certainty on this than might be expected). We even have a name for a Saka king, Skunkha, one of the ‘liar kings’ defeated by Darius the Great and immortalised as a defeated and bound prisoner on the great royal inscription carved above the mountain pass at Behistun around 519 BC. Saka are also found as tributaries on the reliefs from the Persian royal capital at Persepolis, so we have some idea of what they looked like – much like the rest of the Scythians: trousers, double-breasted overlapping steppe jacket and the lappeted Scythian cap.
But it’s the Greeks who provide more detail. Their early encounters come courtesy of the Persians, but as Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid empire, he came into conflict with the Scythians in central Asia, on the great Oxus river and found them no easy opponent. Alexander’s successor kingdoms in the east likewise found them difficult neighbours. As they came under threat from newer nomad powers from the east, in the Middle Hellenistic period they irrupted into Bactria, Iran and India. It was probably they who extinguished the great Greek city of Aï Khanoum, one of the twentieth century’s great archaeological discoveries. Here their power lasted a little longer, leaving us with the region name of Sistan in east Iran, from Saka-stan. But by the first century, their power was gone and new peoples were in place.
For a student of Greek (or Persian) history, this rare opportunity of being able to encounter them in person is fantastic, though. Not least because any reader of Herodotus, the first surviving great Greek historian, will feel they know a fair bit about Scythians and Sakai (as the Greeks called them) already. He devotes much of his fourth book to the Scythians and their culture. Amid some mythological stuff – Amazons! – there’s a surprising amount that’s confirmed by archaeology. He talks of the building of kurgans to dead lords, the use of intoxicants (possibly the haoma referred to by the Persians, sometimes identified with cannabis, for which equipment has been found by archaeologists) and his general picture of horse-riding warrior nomads, exceptionally skilled in archery, is confirmed over and over again by finds of the kind seen in this excellent exhibition. So let’s return to what it shows.
It certainly opens with a bang. It’s time we met the brother of the girl from Kurgan 4. His grave goods are laid out over a full-size drawing of his bones as recovered (not the bones themselves, though these had much to tell). The effect is powerful. I’m not one to get much excited by ‘golden treasures’, but as archaeology and history, these are more than enough to get the blood pumping. There is glistering gold everywhere.
The eye is first drawn to a long, flat piece of decorated gold, around arm’s length, with a saucer-sized teardrop of embellished gold flaring off it. These are the remains of the Kurgan 4 youth’s gorytos, the combined bow-and-arrow case familiar from Scythian culture (and even from one of the Macedonian royal graves). In another case we have its contents – 40 well-made tanged bilobate arrows - and even part of the leather skin of the container, saved by the excellent environmental conditions.
On the other side of the body is his akinakes, the Scythian-Saka dagger. Though bronze, this more than won its place amid all the gold for me, with its fine combination of form and fearful function, its vaguely Shu Chinese look (to this non-specialist) and the pommel surmounted by feline predators. In life, it slotted into a beautifully worked sheath of gold, decorated with images in granulated gold of the deer that are ever-present in steppe art. This would be enough but it nowhere near exhausts the tale of this tomb. There are eight palm-sized gold deer plaques, led by one crowned with antlers, in flying pose and inlaid with lapis. It’s absolutely mesmerising. Don’t let that distract you from the rest, though. Look to the feet and there’s a spray of infinitesimal gold specks. Fully 1,781 of these were recovered (read that again and imagine excavating them!) and probably decorated the footwear of the Kurgan ‘prince’ (a further 10,358 in a separate location were probably also from shoes). Even this doesn’t exhaust the tomb’s contents; come to the next case and there are the arrows laid out, and more finds – a bronze mirror, gold beads from the trousers, gold discs from his kaftan-jacket, beads of semi-precious stones, an articulated belt attachment for the dagger – are scattered around the exhibition. Gold is absolutely everywhere.
By the third case, you’re already blown away and mentally noting to ring friends to tell them they have to go. It’s not a huge exhibition by comparison with some blockbusters – two large, long rooms – but that’s to its advantage. It’s enough for a good day out, filled with highlights, and without the exhaustion that can sometimes set in with some of the larger headline acts at museums.
And, goodness, the highlights keep coming. One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was the excellent use of very well done full-size reconstructions of those found within Saka kurgans. They’re a supremely effective way of bringing the dead to life. Done as well as this, I’d love to see them in more displays. The first is outfitted as the Kurgan 4 prince.
In the next section, there’s a horse caparisoned like those from the Berel kurgans, with a richly embellished saddle and hanging cloths and horse furniture festooning it with golden plaques, psalia with grimacing beasts and a headdress with enormous curving golden ibex-like horns. More finds from the Berel horse burials appear nearby, and rob you of what breath hadn’t yet been taken away.
The kurgans at Berel are rather later in date than those at Eleke Sazy, belonging to the fourth-third centuries BC – the Hellenistic period. Kurgan 2 alone contained, in a section separate from the human burials, the remains of seven male horses (horse burials are almost always male), all richly outfitted and killed by axe-blows to the head. From preserved skins, we know that Saka horses were usually bay or chestnut, with no white patches. How much of this would have been visible behind the mass of intricate deer antler plaques carved with griffins is another matter!
The other two reconstructions are from very high status female graves, and form a centrepiece of the second half of the exhibition. Both are impressive and visually striking. The woman from Berel Kurgan 5 wears a towering cone-like red hat, again covered with gold plaques (similar real examples from Eleke Sazy appear nearby). She wears a fur-trimmed purple grey jacket that wouldn’t be out of place sold at Carnaby Street or worn at Woodstock.
The ‘Urzhar Princess’ also leaves a mark. Dressed in a red smock, her riches are concentrated on a kheffiyeh-like red headdress. From a gold-decorated circlet rises up an ultramarine gold-tipped cone and a tall gold cut-out decoration that reminded me of the one from the Issyk kurgan. The real Urzhar princess’ headgear included a wig made of grasses and medicinal herbs – anti-inflammatories, digestive aids – and cannabis. It reminds us of Herodotus, and of archaeology’s power to open up areas of ancient culture – not least the lives of women – under-reported in written sources.
There’s more that could easily be talked about: the golden argali sat on clouds from the Patsha Hoard at Eleke Sazy, the huge bronze coffin nails from Berel 5 While the exhibition focusses on elite, the woollen saddle cloth still surviving from Berel 11 or the rather lovely earring from Shilikty Kurgan 4. All beautifully attest the opulence of the Saka horse lords. But the lives of lesser mortals are not entirely forgotten – quernstones and pigment grinders hint at the lives of artisans and the sedentary people in the settlement of Akbauyr. But let’s not be exhaustive: discover these yourselves. You still have around a month to do so.
This is an exhibition well-worth going to, especially if you live within easy reach of Cambridge. It’s free (though you do need to book – easily done online) and runs until the end of January. If you’ve not been before, the Fitzwilliam is somewhere you ought to have on your list. This is a refreshingly different topic for a major exhibition in Britain – we don’t often get to see Scythian or Saka material (if you can’t make the exhibition, console yourself with the Scythian displays at the Ashmolean). Hopefully it’s a sign of more to come: it’s clear Kazakhstan is interested in capitalising on its heritage and the finds from new exhibitions. Given the early Turkic finds also emerging from Eleke Sazy, is it too much to hope for an exhibition on the Turkish qaghanates – great powers in the late antique world - in the near future? Let’s hope so.