Scythian Art History - Central Asian Art
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Scythian Art History

small figure of a deer
Scythian deer from about 700-500 B.C.
It is made out of gold,
and it's now in St. Petersburg.

October 2016 - The Scythians were horse-riding nomads, who traveled around the western part of Central Asia taking care of their big herds of cattle and hunting wild animals like this deer. Scythian art was mostly small, so people could carry it around conveniently. Scythian artists made a lot of gold ornaments, harness decorations, quiver decorations, belt buckles, and jewelry.

bronze horse figurine hanging from a chain
Scythian horse, ca. 900 BC(?)

Scythian artists began to produce these gold ornaments in the 600s BC. This may be because Scythian men were working as mercenary soldiers for West Asians to their south, and the West Asians were paying them in gold. Their payment, and their need to find useful ways to spend their gold, may have been related to the development of coinage about this time.

bronze deer figurine
Scythian deer (600s BC)
kneeling man milks sheep; gold
Scythian milking a sheep
(Tolstaja Mogila kurgan, Ukraine, 400 BC)

Because they were more hunters and herders than farmers, Scythians knew a lot about animals, and their art shows animals in natural but interesting poses. Their style, and their poses, closely resemble the figurines that Greek artists were producing about the same time, during the Greek Dark Ages and the Archaic period.

three men sit under a tree holding their horses' reins
Kazakhstan, ca. 400 BC

By 400 BC, the Scythians, like their Greek neighbors, were experimenting with different poses and more interesting compositions, like this man milking a sheep.

two men with bows
Two hunters with bows (Kerch,
on the Black Sea, ca. 400 BC)

In the west, Central Asian art more closely resembled Greek art, but as you went further east, the art gradually looked more Indian. Here the tree and the cross-legged people look Indian, though the horses show the Central Asian origin. The flatter composition is also more Indian. And are these hunters, with their curved bows, the model for this Chinese scene?

Learn by doing: make a small figurine out of clay
More about Central Asian art

Bibliography and further reading about Scythian art:

The Golden Deer of Eurasia, by Joan Aruz of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000). Exhibit catalogue, along with a sophisticated discussion about the relationship between nomads and settled people in Central Asia, and the effect of trade between them on their art.

Scythian Gold, by Ellen Reeder (1999). Catalogue of an great exhibit of Scythian material from Ukrainian museums, which was shown at the Met in New York, among other places.

More about Central Asian art

More about the Scythians
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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