Friday, July 1, 2011

Renata Rolle, The World of the Scythians

The Scythians, lords of the Black Sea steppes from the 9th to the 1st Century BC, hold a deep fascination for many people, including me. The main contributors to their fame in the modern world are the amazing objects that have been found in Scythian noble tombs over the past 150 years. Many of these golden treasures were actually made by Greek artisans working in cities around the Black Sea, but they were made to Scythian tastes and they give glimpses of the Scythian world. We also have a few written sources, both Greek and Persian, especially the delightful account of Scythian ways in Herodotus' Histories. So the Scythians have long been well known. Less well known is all the progress Soviet archaeologists made in understanding the Scythian world, starting in the 1930s and continuing until the fall of the USSR. The work continues in Russia and Ukraine, although there have been major difficulties with funding the relevant scholarly bodies.

A good introduction to this Soviet-era archaeology is Renata Rolle's The World of the Scythians. This was originally published in German in 1980, and the English translation by Gayna Walls in 1989. It was written as a popular book with many illustrations, but despite all the glossing up the text still reads like something by a German professor. So I can't say it is a fun read. But it does summarize a lot of information from Russian publications in an accessible, well-illustrated format, so it is worth a look.
What I really like about it is all the detailed archaeological drawings, but then half the reason I became an archaeologist is because of my great love for detailed drawings and plans.
There is also a lot of information on things like arms and armor, wagons, horse training (Scythians trained their horses to kneel down to make it easier for them to mount -- this was before the invention of stirrups), female "amazon" warriors, the equipment for breathing hemp fumes, blood brotherhood, and so on. I also learned a lot about how the tombs were built and how they were excavated -- often Soviet archaeologists entered the tombs by following the horizontal grave tunnels, shoring them up like mines, so the excavation of the grave chambers was done entirely underground. The World of the Scythians is far from perfect, but I learned much from it, and it contains many wonderful things.

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