British Museum, London
From squirrel fur coats to fake beards, the mysterious, playful culture of the rugged Scythian nomads of iron age Siberia is a revelation
Siberia has never enjoyed a good press. We headline it as emptiness, a place of frigid exile, inhospitable both to the body and to the imagination. One of several wonderful things about this British Museum exhibition is that it gives the lie to that void. Siberia comes to life in dramatic, sometimes breathtaking ways: in fabulous gold and soft fur, in the insistent humanity of sticks of crafted furniture and clothes and food. That this life – leathery and intimate and horse-obsessed – is preserved from two and a half thousand years ago makes it all the more magical.
For most of that time the only real record of the culture of the Scythian people, nomadic tribes who herded cattle and goats on the grassy corridor of the steppe, came in the writings of Herodotus, who pitched up in his travels on the north shore of the Black Sea some time around 440BC. He observed and wrote about the rituals and habits of a rugged and resourceful people who dominated a vast area for 500 years and who would continue to do so for a century or more to come.
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