Elegant works of a nomadic wild bunch

March 05, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

They were the Hell's Angels of the central Asian steppes.

Beginning sometime in the eighth century B.C., they swept out of the east to conquer the region of present-day Ukraine and control the fertile grasslands along the northern shore of the Black Sea.

Known as the Scythians, this nomadic tribe of fierce warrior-horsemen was renowned for its skill in battle and for the ruthlessness with which it dispatched its enemies. For the next 400 years, the Scythians were the roughest, toughest guys on the block.

Writing in the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus reported that a Scythian warrior was accustomed to drink "the blood of the first man he kills." He also stowed his iron-tipped arrows in a quiver made from his adversaries' skins. And when he wasn't out killing, raping and pillaging, he got rip-roaring drunk or mellowed out in a tent filled with hemp fumes.

One might think such a wild bunch would have little appreciation for the finer things in life. But as a landmark new exhibition at the Walters Art Gallery shows, these invincible warriors were in fact among the ancient world's greatest patrons of the arts.

"Scythian Gold: Treasures from Ancient Ukraine," which opens Tuesday, is the largest, most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled of Scythian gold jewelry, weapons, ceremonial objects and other artifacts. About 170 objects make up the core of this show, all of them excavated from huge funerary mounds known as "kurhans," under which Scythian notables were buried along with their treasure, including their horses and sometimes even their slaves.

Thousands of such burial mounds dot the landscape of present-day Ukraine, and many of them remain unexplored. The excavated ones have yielded a trove of information about this ancient warrior race. Unlike the later Huns and Mongols, who left behind only their reputations for fierceness, the Scythians bequeathed a priceless material record of their culture.

On the evidence of that record, Scythian culture formed an important link between the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean world and the still little-known cultures of Central Asia.

The Scythians traced their origins across 2,000 miles of Asian steppe to the rugged foothills of the Altai Mountains, where Russia, Kazakstan and Mongolia meet. From this unforgiving environment, they brought the memory of a harsh yet beautiful land whose most distinctive fauna -- the eagle, the stag and the leopard -- they adopted as emblems of their own strength and ferocity.

Scythian art is a result of the interplay between the central Asian heritage they brought with them and the Mediterranean people whom they encountered at the northern edge of the Greek world. Between the seventh and third centuries B.C., when they were at the height of their power, the Scythians controlled a hugely lucrative grain trade between the Ukrainian interior and the Greek colonies scattered along the northern coast of the Black Sea.

The profits from this trade made the Scythians rich, and they used their wealth to commission artworks from Greek and other craftsmen that would proclaim their greatness as a people and their prowess as warriors. The stunning array of weapons, jewelry and ceremonial and decorative objects that resulted from this collaboration make up this intriguing show.

One of the most dramatic pieces is a gold ceremonial bowl bearing a relief pattern of horses' heads that is clearly descended from the equine figures on the frieze in Athens' Parthenon. The pattern has a whirling, insistent rhythm that beautifully expresses Scythian aesthetic values as well as reflects their lifestyle of constant movement.

As a nomadic people who eschewed the settled life of the city and farm, the Scythians' possessions were limited mostly to what they could carry or wear. The objects they coveted most were items signifying personal prestige, such as gold rings, pendants, necklaces, armbands and brooches sewn onto their garments.

Scythians also delighted in decorating their horses' bridles with gold and silver ornaments, and in bedecking themselves with gold plaques, helmets, drinking horns, sword scabbards and bow-and-arrow quivers cunningly emblazoned with mythical beasts or scenes of battle.

The Scythians bought or made many domestic objects for everyday use, including pottery, silver and bronzeware and vessels of all sorts. Like the horse-headed ceremonial bowl, many of these objects are clearly derived from Greek models. Yet they also bear stylistic elements that recall the Scythians' central Asian origins and the peoples they encountered during their long trek across the steppes.

The Walters has done a creditable job in presenting this material with enough historical context to allow even the casual viewer to trace the cultural crosscurrents at work. Most of the objects are relatively small -- as befits items intended to be easily transportable -- but the generously proportioned glass display cases set them off handsomely. The only problem is very low lighting levels in parts of the gallery, which sometimes make it difficult to read the wall texts and labels. But such minor complaints aside, this is a show that offers much to delight the eye and stimulate the mind.

All that glitter

What: "Scythian Gold: Treasures from Ancient Ukraine"

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: March 7 through May 28

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $5 Adults; $3 seniors and students; $1 children under 18.

Call: 410-547-9000

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