A unique exhibit, Golden Scythia, was unveiled last Friday at the Yavornytsky National Museum in Dnipropetrovsk. It displays about 2,000 items – mostly golden objects found in burial mounds on the territory of Ukraine. First of all, it is the superb monuments of Scythian applied art, which are kept in the repositories of the Archeology Institute of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. The exhibit is unique in that an exposition of this scale, in terms of both the quantity and the importance of objects, has never been presented in Ukraine before. Scythian gold was mainly shown abroad – in Europe, Japan, Canada, and the US. All the items were found during the excavations of Scythian kings’ burial mounds in what is now Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts. In ancient times, this was the habitat of the “royal Scythians” who dominated among the Scythian tribes. Most of the archeological objects date to the 4th-early 3rd centuries BC and belong to the period of a state known as Greater Scythia, The Steppe Dniproside Territory was the main body of the state described by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus.
Dnipropetrovsk museum people did their best to surprise visitors of the Golden Scythia exhibit. Most of the items – jewelry, ritual vessels, and parade weapons – are being displayed to the general public for the first time. Among the hundreds of applied art items are genuine masterpieces, such as a golden phiale excavated in the Bratoliubivsky mound in Kherson, the top of which bears a high-relief image of horse heads, the so-called “cult roofing” which was perhaps used for keeping scalps; phalerae (round-shaped brass plates of the horse harness) that depict the young Hercules (the Babyn Mohyla mound excavated by B. Mozolevsky); etc. Another interesting particularity of the exhibit is a large number of reconstructed household items, clothes, headgears and footwear of Scythians. The opening of Golden Scythia was preceded by a roundtable, where historians from Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and foreign countries exchanged opinions on the importance of the Scythian heritage.
“No matter how many books and pictures you read and see, it is not the same thing as to see something ‘live,’” says Prof. Serhii Skory, head of the Early Iron Age Department of the Ukrainian Institute of History. “So it was a historical injustice that most of our compatriots have never seen Scythian antiquities.” The explanation is that most of the Ukrainian museums are unable, for financial and technical reasons, to ensure a proper level of security. According to the Scythia researcher, systematic excavations of Scythian tumuli on the territory of Ukraine began as long ago as in the 19th century, but in the Russian Empire times all the troves were carried to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. It was not until the postwar period that Scythian gold began to be left in Ukraine, including the world-famous Golden Pectoral (neckpiece) found in the Tovsta Mohyla tumulus. Artifacts like this harbor a lot of puzzles. For example, archeologists are still unable to explain the purpose of a certain item found in a burial mound. To be able to understand this, one must go on studying Scythian history and culture. “Unfortunately, the situation looks rather sad,” Prof. Skory notes, “due to poor funding on the part of our state. I have not been going on an expedition or taking part in excavations together with foreigners for about 10 years. There is a strong belief, for some reason, that archeological monuments are eternal. Meanwhile, a lot of things have been looted in the past decade – you can believe me. A free sale of metal detectors has begotten a new occupation – ‘black archeology’ – although I would advise avoiding this term. Archeologist is a profession, an education, and years of study, and what these people are doing has nothing to do with archeology. The items they find may be valuable as collection, but they are out of the historical context. We cannot fathom their true importance in this case – all we have is ruination of historical monuments and enormous harm.”
“Gold was of sacral importance for Scythians,” says Oleksandr Staryk, head of the Dnipropetrovsk Historical Museum’s archeology section. “It symbolized the sun and royal power. This is the way noble Scythians used to adorn themselves with golden stripes, decorations, and weapons from head to toe.” Archeologists believe that Scythian culture made a considerable imprint on the steppe area. For example, the famous “beastly style,” in which Scythian decorations were made, was inherited to a large extent by our Slav ancestors, and its figures transformed into the heroes of bylinas (oral epic poems) and fairy tales. On the very first day of the Golden Scythia exhibit, one could only buy a ticket well in advance. The only comfort for distressed people is that the exposition of Scythian gold will be open for two and a half months until the end of May. Tight security measures have been taken at the museum because the exhibit is Ukraine’s national heritage.