people of the Asian steppes
, the Scythians were driven westward in the eighth century BC, some settling in Armenia
and others between the Caspian
seas. Many moved into south Russia
, occupying the lands north of the Black Sea
until they were eliminated by the Sarmatians in the second century AD. Scythian tribes also invaded eastern and southeastern Europe
in the fourth century BC, and their tombs have been found from northern Germany
to the Balkans
An Indo-European people, speaking an Iranian language, the Scythians are known largely from their burials, some of which are well preserved, and from the records of the settled people with whom they came in contact. Evidence from the Near East suggests they were a war-like people. Chinese, Persian, and Greek accounts describe a tribal and hierarchial society of mounted warriors headed by chieftains.
At Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, Scythian tombs were accidentally sealed by a layer of ice shortly after the burials were placed there in the fifth century BC. As a result, all the organic materials that would normally have decayed were frozen and preserved. Among their contents were a complete, though dismantled, wooden wagon; various objects of leather and wood, including equipment for horses and a musical instrument; furs; textiles, notably carpets; embroidered silk and feltwork; and the tattooed bodies of the dead. The silk had come from China, and since this was the period when silk appeared in the Mediterranean and central Europe, it's very possible that the Scythians acted as middlemen in this trade. Certainly, as many burials reveal, the Scythians were very wealthy.
The Scythians developed their own distinctive art style, often portraying highly stylized animals, such as the golden stag which is the centerpiece of a shield found at Kostromskaya in southern Russia. Here, as in other tombs in the region, there were also gold and bronze ornaments made either in the Greek cities of the Black Sea coast, or by Greek craftsmen working directly for Scythian chieftains. One of the most exquisite pieces in the Greek style, a quadruple golden torque, was found in the princely burial of the Tolstaia Mogila kurgan, farther north in the lower Dnieper Valley.
Only in southern Russia, where the sedentary western Scythians lived, are there remains of permanent settlements, such as the large fortified site at Kamenskoye, north of the Black Sea. Such settlements are relatively rare, since these nomadic people, who reared cattle, sheep and horses, and sometimes also hunted, traveled between pastures with the seasons. Their belongings were portable and they journeyed with their homes.
The Scythians were famed horsemen, riding bareback on small swift horses, armed with bows and arrows. The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote a detailed account of the Scythians, described their fierceness in battle and their custom of scalping enemies. They also practiced guerrilla tactics, harassing the enemy and swiftly retreating, burning crops as they withdrew. Both Persians and Greeks employed Scythian calvalry as mercenaries. Modern archaeology has confirmed some of Herodotus's description.