Scythian

Collecting Dissertation Data, Museum Style!

As we all know, many archaeologists spend their summers in the middle of nowhere, digging square holes in archaeological sites with (usually) amazing scenery. I haven’t had that pleasure in a while. You see, my dissertation research focuses on people who lived in north central Eurasia in the first millennium BC, commonly known as the Iron Age. These people are known as Scythians, Saka, Xiongnu, depending on which historic source you are referencing, such as Herodotus or Sima Qian. I am employing a variety of methods to try and identify their religious beliefs, and the ways that these beliefs may have impacted the way they lived their everyday lives. Most of my dissertation data is being collected and gleaned from: (1) museum exhibits, such as the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and State Historical Museum in Moscow, Russia; (2) published museum catalogs which always include great pictures; (3) site reports that list what was discovered; (4) and this summer, a trip to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology!

This museum is famous for a variety of reasons. For example, they participated in and therefore have a large collection from the grave of Queen Puabi at Ur. Aside from that famous site, they also have this neat little statue of a ram, looking through a tree(?).

Ram Caught in Thicket, 2550-2450 BC, Ur, Iraq

Ram Caught in Thicket, 2550-2450 BC, Ur, Iraq

They have been excavating in Egypt for a very long time, and have a large exhibit and extensive research collection, including a sphinx!

Shinx from the sacred enclosure of the temple of the god Ptah, 1293-1185 BC, Memphis, Egypt

Shinx from the sacred enclosure of the temple of the god Ptah, 1293-1185 BC, Memphis, Egypt

But, they also have a large collection, spread across many sections, of artifacts that are either Scythian, Saka, or Xiongnu, or very closely affiliated. I have spent my summer analyzing these materials.

In the Mediterranean section, I got to analyze gold objects for the first time with the so-called Maikop treasure from the north Caucasus region. Here is a picture of my favorite set!!! The gold plaques, depicting geometric designs and animals (the griffin animal is probably a composite of a feline and raptor) typically associated with Scythians, especially in this pairing with a domesticated ungulate, or non-predator, were probably affixed to a tunic with silver threads woven into the linen. It would have been a princely article of clothing!

Griffin plaque from the Maikop treasure, 499-400 BC, Kuban region, Caucasus

Griffin, deer with birds, and geometric plaque from the Maikop treasure, 499-400 BC, Kuban region, Caucasus

In the Near Eastern section, I was reminded of the whimsical side of these horse riding people, with this little bangle, in the form of a horse! It hang from something- possibly a saddle ornament of some kind.

Horse figurine ornament, 5th century BC, Russia

Horse figurine ornament, 5th century BC(?), Russia

In the Asian section, I had the pleasure of analyzing a large collection of artifacts from the Ordos region, probably in the vicinity of Inner Mongolia. Here, we have a variety of bronze pieces, some exhibiting signs of inlay and enamelling which will warrant closer study in the near future. More importantly, however, we have a plaque depicting cute lion cubs at play, and another large plaque, possibly a belt buckle, showing a common theme of a carnivore juxtaposed with prey.

Plaque with two feline cubs playing, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

Plaque with two feline cubs playing, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

Bronze belt buckle with a striped feline carrying a ram, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

Bronze belt buckle with a striped feline carrying a ram, 3rd century BC(?), Ordos, Inner Mongolia

In all, I have analyzed 811 artifacts this summer! I’m now ready to integrate these data into the database I discussed in last year’s Day of Archaeology post, for spatial analysis of particular attributes in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These attributes (e.g., decorations, context of the decorations, function of the decoration, material it is made of, technology used to make it), will illuminate structured usage of these variables in specific locations throughout their landscape. I’ll be running test models in the next month or so. As you can see, there is no need, yet, to excavate more sites until we have a good handle on everything that is currently available to study. Once I have assembled known artifacts associated with these people into a single database for analysis, we’ll know more about how they utilized landscape, which will help me identify good places to look for habitation areas and places where they were mining and processing the metals used to make the artifacts I showed you in this post. Then comes the fun part, survey and excavation!