For more then seven centuries, the ancient Saka horsemen and horsewomen, semi-nomads, galloped over the Eurasian steppes from the Black Sea to Siberia and even Mongolia. Accompanied by dogs and armed with ornamental daggers, composite bows and skilfully sharpened arrows, they hunted beasts great and small under the arching skyscapes of this vast terrain.
They took with them their herds of goats and sheep and raided other tribes’ livestock and stores. They gathered a large repertoire of leaves, seeds and grasses to use in their cooking and medicine, including an anaesthetic herb mentioned in ancient sources which is likely to have been cannabis.
Their richer families buried their dead within funeral mounds (kurgans), after dressing their corpses in gorgeous clothing and lovingly arranging priceless grave goods around them. Above all, as this beautifully curated exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge reveals, they created exquisite objects out of wool, wood, leather, lapis lazuli and different types of gold. These were no barbarians, as the ancient Greeks and Persians alleged, but sophisticated people with a sense of beauty and oneness with their natural environment.
It is to the credit of the government of East Kazakhstan that they have funded a large-scale archaeological investigation into their mysterious ancestors, who were akin to the much better known and documented Scythians, in order to forestall further damage inflicted by the systematic looting of Saka burial sites.
There have been spectacular new finds over the last three years, notably an intact kurgan at Eleke Sazy in which an archer (a youth of about 18), and a teenaged girl a few years younger, were interred along with dazzling artefacts. This exhibition represents the first time that these finds have been brought to an international audience, through the Fitzwilliam’s collaboration with the Department of Culture of East Kazakhstan, notably the combined work of the curator, Dr Rebecca Roberts and Saltanat Amir, a Kazakh postgraduate student specialising in goldsmithing technologies.