Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The location and extent of Scythia, the land of the Scythians, varied over time from the Altai region where Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan come together to the lower Danube river area and Bulgaria. The most significant Scythian tribes mentioned in antique sources resided in the steppe between Dnepr and Don rivers and its neighbourhood, and those areas have for a long time been inhabitated by Iranian groups. But the peoples in the periphery of the steppe are doubtly non-Iranians. To the best of our knowledge, the Scythians were a culture with no writing system. Most knowledge of the Scythians derives from antique Greek texts.

Table of contents
1 Scythian society
2 Scythian language
3 History
4 Archaeology and artifacts
5 "Scythian gold"
6 External links and notes

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 elite were buried in kurgans, high barrows heaped over chamber-tombs of larch-wood, which may have had special significance as a tree of life-renewal, since it is a deciduous conifer that stands out starkly in winter against other evergreens, but returns to life every spring. Burials at Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains have included some spectacularly-preserved Scythians of the "Pazyryk culture" including the "Ice Maiden" of the 5th century BC.

Scythian warrior-women may have inspired tales of the Amazonss in Greek myth. A Pazyryk burial found in the 1990s seems to confirm at least part of the legend. It contained the skeletons of a man and a woman, each with weapons, arrowheads, and an axe. "The woman was dressed exactly like a man. This shows that certain women, probably young and unmarried, could be warriors, literally Amazons. It didn't offend the principles of nomadic society", according to one of the archaeologists interviewed for the 1998 NOVA documentary "The Ice Mummies".

Scythian language

The Scythians spoke an Indo-European language, believed to have been related to Iranian languages. 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, a Iranian language found in the Caucasus and which is related to Gathic Avestan, is believed to be the only direct modern descendant of the language of the Scythians and the Iranic Sarmatians who followed them.

A pan-Turkic theory has recently eminated from Turkey that seeks to find a Turkish origin for the Scythian language. The vast majority of scholars in the field disagree with such theories, and have concluded Scythian was an Iranian language.


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

The Scythians never had a writing system, 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 BC 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.

Philip II of Macedon delivered a setback in 339 BC.

But the rich Scythian-settled farmlands tempted new waves of nomads from the Central Asian steppes. In the 3rd century BC 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 artifacts

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.

"Pazyryk culture"

One of the first Bronze Age Scythian burials documented by a modern archaeologist were the kurgans at Pazyryk, Ulagan district of the Gorno-Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk. The name "Pazyryk Culture" was attached to the finds, five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949 opened in 1947 by a Russian archeologist, Sergei Rudenko; Pazyryk is in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. The burial mounds concealed chambers of larch logs covered over by large cairns of boulders and stones.

It flourished between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC mountain fastness of a group of Scythians that may have called themselves Sacae. It was the seat of the larger of two related Scythian groups.

All the things a person might use or need in this life were placed in the tomb as grave goods for use in the next. Among the rich or powerful, horses were sacrificed and buried with them. With the ordinary Pazyryks were only ordinary utensils, but in one was found among other treasures the famous Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving wool pile oriental rug. Rudenko summed up the cultural context at one point:

All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altai, who have left behind them the large cairns, permits us to refer them to the Scythian period, and the Pazyryk group in particular to the fifth century BC. This is supported by radiocarbon dating.

In the Soviet culture, Rudenko could not stress the cultural similarities between Pazyryk and Scythians from the Kuban and lower Dneiper Valley in European Russia. Even in more modern times the blond hair and white skin and the fozen "Ice Maiden" and other burials may be seen, but are not mentioned in the Nova segment devoted to these burials. That the ancient culture he studied has become the basis of nomadic tribes of today including modern Altaians, Kirgiz, and Kazakhs is now a source of considerable pride for the Gorno-Altai Republic.

Scythian Gelonus (Belsk)

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 BC, craft workshops and Greek pottery abounded, and perhaps so did slaves destined for Greece.

The Ryzhanovka kurgan

A kurgan or burial mound near the village of Ryzhanovka in Ukraine, 75 miles south of Kyiv, has revealed one of the only unlooted tombs of a Scythian chieftain, who was ruling in the forest-steppe area of the western fringe of Scythian lands. There at a late date in Scythian culture (ca. 250 - 225 BC), a recently nomadic aristocratic class was gradually adopting the agricultural life-style of their subjects: the tomb contained a mock hearth, the first ever found in a Scythian context, symbolic of the warmth and comfort of a farmhouse.

Ryzhanovka links

"Scythian gold"

Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold adornments that are among the most glamorous prestige artifacts of world museums. Ethnographically extremely useful also, the gold depicts 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). "Greco-Scythian" works depicting Scythians within a much more Hellenic style 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.

External links and notes