Ancient Scythians were a nomadic population who originally lived in modern South Siberia, but later extended their influence all over Central Asia between the 7th Century BC and the 2nd century BC. Scythians did not produce any written testimony of their culture. Almost everything we know about these nomadic warriors comes from a collection of accounts written by Ancient Greeks, Assyrian and Persians. The picture that emerges is of a warlike nomadic people, riding the steppes and controlling regional trade to finance their love of the rich gold ornamentation that is so often found in their burials. The Greek historian Herodotus devoted almost an entire book of his Histories describing the Scythians and their culture.
The most interesting aspect of Scythian culture is their skills in casting metal, especially gold. They worked gold, bronze and iron, using a combination of techniques like casting, forging and inlaying with other materials. Some objects are incredibly elaborate pieces of jewellery, many of which are now in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. The use of gold was not exclusively reserved for masterpieces, however, and there are a variety of smaller, everyday objects made of fine gold, from combs and appliques, to pins for clothes.
One of the main characteristics of Scythian artistic production is the so called “animal style”. Animals, such as stags, felines and birds became prominent aspects of Scythian art. Such animals are represented isolated, juxtaposed and with compartmentation of body parts. Sometimes a specific animal is represented transforming itself in an another creature, creating interesting zoomorphic characters. The principle of movement is also another key aspect of Scythian art, deeply linked with representations of flying birds and running stags.
The Ziwiye Treasure
One of the most important hoards aiding our understanding of Scythian culture and artistic production is the Ziwiye treasure. The Ziwiye Treasure (from an archaeological site in modern Iran) is currently used in the art market to specify a precise hoard, discovered in 1947, and now widely dispersed. The hoard comprises artefacts (from gold jewellery to everyday use bronze items) coming from different cultures. The identification of the art styles of the treasure is a complex task since the items show Assyrian, Urartian, Scythian and even proto-Achaemenid influence. Even the precise dating of the hoard is still under discussion: the most accredited dating from scholars and archaeologists is the 9th century BC.