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Scythia

The location and extent of Scythia, the land of the Scythians, varied over time from Mongolia/China to the Danube river area.

Scythian Society

The Scythians formed a network of nomadic tribes of horse-riding conquerors. They invaded many areas in the steppes of Eurasia and southern Europe, riding across the Caucasus into Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Ruled by small, closely-allied Úlites, Scythians had a reputation for their archers, and many gained employment as mercenaries.

Scythian Language

The Scythians spoke an Iranian language. The various Scythian dialects are not very well known, however, and our knowledge of the language comes largely from words and personal names quoted in classical sources, a few inscriptions, and names of geographical features. The evidence we have clearly shows that the Scythian language group was very close to Gathic Avestan, the earliest Iranian language of which we have clear knowledge. Avestan, a sister language to Old Persian, from which Modern Persian descends, is well-known from a number of extant texts. Modern Ossetic, an Iranian language found in the Caucasus and which is related to Gathic Avestan, is believed to be the only direct modern decendant of the language of the Scythians and the Iranic Sarmatians who followed them.

(A false pan-Turkic theory has recently eminated from Turkey that seeks to find a Turkish origin for the Scythian language, but this does not hold up under serious scholarly consideration, and the vast majority of scholars in the field agree Scythian was an Iranian tongue.)

History

To date no certain explanation exists to account for the origin of the Scythians or how they migrated to the Caucasus and the Ukraine; but the majority of scholars believe that they migrated westward from Central Asia between 800 B.C. and 600 B.C..

The Scythians never had a written language, so until recent archaeological developments most of our information about them came from the Greeks. Homer called them "the mare-milkers"; Herodotus described them in detail. Their costume consisted of padded and quilted leather trousers tucked into boots, and open tunics. They rode with no stirrups or saddles, just saddlecloths. Herodotus' histories allegedly report that Saka Scythians used marijuana. The Scythian Anacharsis visited Athens in the 6th century BCE and became a legendary sage.

During the 5th to 3rd centuries BC the Scythians prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century BC, Greeks distinguished a 'Greater Scythia' that extended a 20-day ride from the Danube River in the west, across the steppes of today's Ukraine to the lower Don basin from 'Scythia Minor'. The Don, then known as Tana´s, has been a major trading route ever since. The Scythians apparently obtained their wealth from their control over the slave trade from the north to Greece through the Greek Black Sea colonial ports. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks and cheese to Greece -- a patronage due to their control of the slave trade.

But the rich Scythian-settled farmlands tempted new waves of nomads from the Central Asian steppes. In the 3rd century BCE the wilder Iranian Sarmatians forced the Scythians into 'Scythia Minor' ('Little Scythia'), the Crimea and the Dobruja south of the Danube delta.

Although the Scythians allegedly disappeared in the 1st century BC, some scholars believe that the Sarmatians, Alans and subsequently the Ossets (Ossetians), the only Iranians who still live in Europe, descend from them. Ossets call their country Iron, and are mostly Christians. They speak an Eastern Iranian language Ossetic, which they call Ironig or Ironski (Iranian). It maintains some remarkable features of Gathic Avestan language. At the same time, it has a number of words remarkably similar to their modern German equivalents, such as THAU (tauen, to thaw, as snow) and GAU (district, region). Celtic legends also include mention of Scythian origins and a few Celtic nations still call themselves 'Cimmeri'.

Archaeology and Artefacts

Recent digs in Belsk, Ukraine uncovered a vast city believed to be the Scythian capital Gelonus described by Herodotus. The city's commanding ramparts and vast 40 square kilometers exceeded even the outlandish size reported by Herodotus. Its location at the northern edge of Ukraine's steppe would have allowed strategic control of the north-south trade. Judging by the finds dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, craft workshops and Greek pottery abounded, and perhaps so did slaves destined for Greece.

Other archaeological remains of the Scythians include elaborate tombs containing gold, silk, horses and human sacrifices. Mummification techniques and permafrost have aided in the relative preservation of some remains.

Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold adornments depicting Scythian men as bearded, long-haired Europeans (though such images may simply have been the projectionss of the Greek artisans onto the works they were commissioned for). Works depicting Scythians also date from a much later period when Scythians had already much mixed with Greeks, clouding the issue of their origins.

Scythians had a taste for elaborate personal jewelry, weapon ornaments and horse trappings. They executed Central Asian animal motifs with Greek realism: winged griffins attacking horses, battling stags, deer and eagles, combined with everyday motifs like milking ewes.

In 2000 the touring exhibition 'Scythian Gold' introduced North Americans to the objects made for Scythian nomads by Greek craftsmen north of the Black Sea, and buried with their Scythian owners under burial mounds on the flat plains of what is now Ukraine, most of which researchers unearthed after 1980.

In 2001 a discovery of an undisturbed royal Scythian burial barrow illustrated for the first time Scythian animal-style gold that lacked the direct influence of Greek styles. Forty-four pounds of gold weighed down the royal couple in this burial, discovered near Kyzyl, capital of the Siberian republic of Tuva.

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