Ayoung archer was buried in the Tarbagatay highlands of eastern Kazakhstan about 2,700 years ago. His bones were discovered in the permafrost in 2018, surrounded by magnificent decorations and weapons: exquisitely carved holders for his bow and arrows and dagger, countless tiny pearls – “and everywhere, the glitter of gold,” as Howard Carter put it of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
It’s not necessary for great archaeological finds to be rich in gold, but it certainly helps. In the Fitzwilliam’s magnificent picture of archaeology in motion, that bright golden metal captures your attention nearly everywhere.
Gold scabbards, gold torques, and gold creatures adorn an exhibit that also contains wonderfully preserved felt and leather, as well as replicas of the ancient inhabitants of Kazakhstan clothed in woollen finery and riding horses made up to resemble legendary monsters.
And it’s all brand new. The majority of the artifacts date from the ninth to sixth centuries BC, although they have just recently been unearthed.
Last year, several things were found. The display was developed in close cooperation with Kazakhstani archaeologists, who labored through lockdowns to prevent tomb robbers and guarantee that these ancient marvels are uncovered before the permafrost that protects organic elements is destroyed by climate warming.
Looking at the gold traces that surround the deceased archer, who was believed to be 17 or 18 at the time he was buried, is emotional. His bones are missing, but his body is defined by his burial mementos.
Archaeology has the ability to allow the dead to communicate to us across distance and time – as Seamus Heaney writes in the voice of a victim in one of his evocative poems about ancient bog graves, “and I rose from the dark.” This exhibition grasps and conveys archaeology’s poetry, providing lots of technical detail while maintaining a clear feeling of contact.
It is only now that the world with which it links us is being appreciated. The people who lived here were nomads and among the earliest horse riders: an interesting discovery from an archer’s tomb is a cleverly hinged attachment that allowed the weapons hung at his side to flex as he rode.
The Scythians were nomadic horseborne warriors whose dominion stretched from the Black Sea to most of Central Asia, according to the ancient Greeks. The Saka are another name for the eastern Scythians found here.
The established, urban civilisations who prefer to write history have depicted central Asia’s nomads as savage and barbarous since the Greek historian Herodotus. But, as their yurts become more popular at book festivals and glampsites, we’re beginning to see their significance in global history.
The nomadic style of life that shines through here would last thousands of years, with Kazakhs, Mongols, and others controlling the middle ground between Persia and China, then brutally uniting east and west in one huge network of cultural interchange in the era of Genghis Khan.
This display demonstrates the fallacy of the notion of uncreative nomads. The Saka-Scythian horsemen of east Kazakhstan produced highly conceived and beautifully crafted art of dazzling gold, rather than just stealing the “civilized.”
They were keenly aware of the creatures around them, much as ice age humans were. A rushing herd of gazelle or antelope would have been indicated by flowing, abstracted heads of horned creatures, presumably worn as spangly ornamentation for a garment.
Dreamlike items depicting curly-horned argali sheep standing mystically on clouds add to the delicate impression. Perhaps this represents views of nimble-footed sheep disappearing in the fog high on mountain ledges.
Wild cat predators are also sculpted, but their large round ears make them seem adorable rather than scary. Perhaps the Saka-Scythians were just unafraid of anything.
However, their inherent observation sense – there are some magnificent sculptures of eagles or falcons – veers into mythical territory. This was a world straight out of a storybook. Golden hippogriffs emerge from the shadows.
The brightness of the gryphons is unmistakable. And the Saka-Scythians deliberately sought to make their horses resemble these legendary creatures, as shown by ornate horse decorations. They seemed to be living in a shamanistic world where people, animals, and the spirit realm entwined seductively.
The Saka-Scythians produced wheat, which means they practiced basic agriculture while being on the road, according to Quern hand-grinding stones, which aren’t as glamorous as gold jewelry. Their enormous burial mounds, on the other hand, were their sole permanent memorials.
These are still visible monuments, and Kazakhstan values the historic riders’ heritage. After Russia colonized the area, the nomadic lifestyle persisted: photographs in the collection depict Kazakhs in their yurts throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
After it, there was the Soviet period. The Kazakhs were among the first victims of Stalin’s genocidal agricultural policy, since they were forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle before being collectivized.
Approximately 40% of Kazakhs perished as a consequence of the ensuing famine.
This fascinating display shows that the nomads of the Steppe were not simply marauding maniacs or victims of modernity. They were creators of beauty and historians.
Their lives and legacies are just now beginning to find their rightful place in the human narrative.