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Book Reviews Home > Acta Via Serica > Book Reviews
Title The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Stepp
Reviewer Tamer Balcı
Date 2020-07-01 14:45:50Hit : 1128
Attached file [1593582350_202007011.jpg] 

Cunliffe, Barry (Author) 
Oxford University Press. (December 1, 2019)

The Scythians are the forgotten people of history. Almost every expert, including Cunliffe, mentions how little we know about them. It has been decades since a new academic work on the Scythians emerged. The ancient Greeks coined the term Scythia to refer the vast stretch of land from the Danube River in the west to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia in the east. Since Scythians left behind neither a major city nor a significant written record, historians and archeologists must gather scattered information about the Scythians either from archaeological findings or from the records of Scythian neighbors, the Greeks, Persians, and Chinese. Turning the fragments of information on Scythians into a coherent work is certainly a daunting task and Barry Cunliffe did a great job to put the pieces of this puzzle together in light of the latest archaeological discoveries. 
The book starts with a brief preface, where Cunliffe acknowledges how little the Scythians were known to our world. The first chapter delves into a history of Scythian archeology covering the first known discoveries in the seventeenth century of ancient Scythian kurgans or graves. The exquisite details of the gold ornaments and their advanced craftsmanship surprised its first observers. Archeological expeditions into Crimea, Siberia, and deeper into the steppes unearthed more kurgans and more artefacts. Discovery of frozen and pristine kurgans with intact tattooed bodies, horses, and artefacts further east in today’s Kazakhstan indicated that the Scythian culture emerged from the Altai-Sayan region and spread to the west (p.24). 
Cunliffe examines the Scythians through the lens of their neighbors in his second chapter; essentially how the Greeks, the Persians, and the Mesopotamians viewed them. The Greeks traded with the Scythians through their trade colonies in Crimea. Several Greek historians wrote about them, but Herodotus has provided more details about the Scythian world than any other ancient writer. According to Herodotus, not all Scythians were nomadic; some were settled agriculturalists, some were pastoralists and there was clearly a ruling military class, the Royal Scythians. The Scythian raids into Anatolia, Assyria, and Palestine turned them into the scourge of God in the eyes of ancient Israelites (p.34). They were sometimes the enemy of the Persians, who called them Saka, and sometimes their allies. The Greeks often traded with them and employed them as archer police. Like one of their later incarnations, the Tartars, whose enslavement expeditions were called the “harvest of the steppes”, the Scythians regularly raided the steppes to acquire slaves to be sold on the markets of Olbia (p.52). 
In the third chapter Cunliffe brilliantly establishes a connection between climate and geography to better understand the movement of Scythians across the steppes. He states that the western winds from the Atlantic Ocean toward the east create a relatively warmer and agriculturally more suitable environment as far east as the Volga River. The harsh environment east of the Volga forced the dwellers of this region to move south toward India or China or west toward Eastern Europe and the Near East. The domestication of horses in the region eased these migrations.
The fourth chapter “Enter the Predatory Nomads” examines the weapons of Scythians through the findings of the kurgans. The pictures and depictions of daggers, arrow tips and axes provide the reader with a visual perspective to better understand the life of Scythian warriors, while the images of kurgans in Arzhan 1 and 2 show how these warriors were valued and honored after death. In light of information supplied by Herodotus and other archeological findings, Cunliffe anticipates that as early as 2800 BCE, an earlier group known as the “Yamnaya Culture” moved west toward Hungary, followed by another movement around 800-700 BCE and the emergence of the Scythians around 600-500 BCE, who were followed by the Huns and the Mongolians (p. 109). Cunliffe stated on a few occasions that the identity of these groups was as fluid as their name. Their neighbors and adversaries called them different names. The Greeks called them Scythians, they were known by the Persians as Saka and as Xiongnu by the Chinese. 
Because of close proximity and trade relations with the Greeks and the Romans, the Scythians of the Pontic Steppe became the Scythian’s window to the world. The fifth chapter covers the Pontic Scythians living on the northern shores and forest steppes of the Black Sea. Considering archeological evidence, Cunliffe regards the ninth century BCE Kimmerian excursion to the west as an early expedition, followed by waves of Scythians toward northern Caucasus, Asia Minor, and Crimea in the seventh century BCE. The inhabitants of the region from the Don River to the Ural Mountains were sometimes called Sarmatians and Sauromatians by historians. Cunliffe argues that Scythian incursions created a hybrid culture of Sarmatians (p.123). The Scythian arrival in the west brought other intercultural mixtures through intermarriages of Greeks and Scythians. The Bosporan Kingdom of Crimea became a meeting point where the two cultures learned from each other; some Scythian elite settled in lavish residences abandoning their tents. 
In the sixth chapter, Cunliffe covers the Scythian advances to the west of the Carpathian Mountains, which separates Eastern Europe from the Hungarian Plain and acts as a natural, but not permanent block to Scythian raids. Cunliffe traces the path of the nomadic Yamnaya culture, a precursor to the Scythians, past the Carpathians around 2800 BCE. Others moved in, either through northern or southern passages, and introduced steppe horses to the region. A map showing the findings of Scythian style artefacts and weapons indicates that the Scythian cultural influence through trade or raids spread farther west and north into Europe (p.154). Cunliffe indicates that up until 800 BCE, cremations were the most common way to depose of deceased bodies in the Bronze age Hallstatt culture. Around 600-700 BCE, the Hallstatt elite adopted a burial style with humans, horses, and horse carts, strikingly similar to the Scythian burial style (p.159). The movement of Celtic groups from the west into the Hungarian plains brought them into contact with the Scythians and the cultural results of this contact are visible in Celtic art, which Cunliffe exhibits with several figures (p.162). 
In the seventh chapter, Cunliffe examines the Scythians in their original homeland, Central Asia. The maps, artefacts, and carpets unearthed from the Pazyryk 1 and 2 and Issyk kurgans show that the Scythians were not monolithic nomadic warriors; some were involved in agriculture, some in trade and crafts and some in animal husbandry. The discovery of the first known Scythian inscriptions on a silver bowl and a golden dress of a Scythian prince in the Issyk kurgan are perhaps the two most important findings in the Scythian world. Undeciphered inscriptions are the first evidence of a Scythian writing system. Despite the existence of writing, it appears that much of the culture was oral. 
Cunliffe carries on his detailed narrative in chapter eight by analyzing the Scythian clothes, accessories and tattooed bodies from Pazyryk kurgan 2. Permafrost had enabled some of the unearthed bodies and their tattoos from the kurgans to remain intact. The organic materials provided scholars with more materials to study; they were able to determine the cause of their death (p.201). Scythian baggy trousers, pointed hats, leggings, shoes, and bright colored female dresses are among the finds. With the help of Greek sources, Cunliffe examines the Scythian social structure and states that like many of their contemporaries, the Scythians possessed a royalty, landed class, and craftsmen, along with slaves and concubines. 
Female amazon warriors are often connected to the Scythians through legends. Citing Hippocratic texts, Cunliffe adds that Scythian girls were not allowed to marry until they killed an enemy in a battle (p.219). Findings of female warrior burials support the texts and Cunliffe reminds readers of the Scythian queen, Tomyris, who defeated and killed Cyrus the Great of Persia, indicating that females could not only be warriors but also rulers. Cunliffe further explains the ways of milking mares and converting the milk to koumiss, a fermented delicacy still enjoyed in Central Asia, along with gold images depicting sheep milking found in a kurgan (p.222). While the Greeks depicted them as drunken Scythians, Cunliffe states that koumiss contained less alcohol than wine, so this stereotype was not common for all Scythians. 
Cunliffe delves into the details of Scythian archery in chapter nine, “Bending the Bow”. The Scythians were well-known for their archery skills. Their regular lifestyle consisted of horse riding and hunting with bow and arrow and the Scythian archers policed Athens. According to Cunliffe, they were selective in their choice of horses and preferred castrated pure brown horses. Evidence also indicates they might have been the first inventors of saddles (p.232). Images of saddles recovered from kurgans exhibit the detailed labor invested to produce them from wood, leather, felt, and wool (p.234). The Scythian riders used small bows on horseback and longer crescent-shaped bows on foot. The images of hooked arrow tips exhibit how tips were designed to extend the agony of their enemies when an arrow was pulled out; their poisoned arrows were deadlier (p.240). They utilized whips as an effective weapon and used a variety of armor and helmets, some of which are shown in pictures (p.246-50). The mistreatment of the enemy did not end after death. According to Herodotus, they decapitated their slain enemies to receive a portion of war booty; sometimes taking a scalp as a lighter alternative (p.260). 
The tenth chapter covers the Scythian’s belief system. Without written Scythian records, Cunliffe turns to Greek sources but finds little beyond myth. He narrates five different myths of origin for Scythians, two of which were reported by Herodotus. According to Herodotus, Scythian polytheism functioned without major temples, but with designated spots for worship and sacrifice, which sometimes included prisoners of war along with animals. The priests or shamans wore unique outfits to distinguish themselves and adopted a transgender behavior, which was believed to strengthen their spiritual power.
The eleventh chapter covers the Scythian approach to death. The Scythians built neither palaces nor cities but left behind colossal burial grounds or kurgans, indicating that they valued the afterlife more than the life they lived in nomadic tents. The images and illustrations of elaborate kurgan structures and archeological findings from nearly five thousand kurgans give scholars more direct information about the Scythian funeral rites than their lifestyle. The Scythian burial procession took forty days: the Scythians believed that the soul was close to the body for forty days and regarded these forty-days as a transition period between life and death. The body was then buried. The forty-day mourning period allowed time to prepare a kurgan. The body of the deceased had to be preserved to prevent bad odor and decomposition; the guts were removed, and honey, salt or wax were applied to delay decay. The horse of a dead person accompanied him or her to the grave. Scythian kings took their wives to their graves as well. 
In the last chapter Cunliffe provides a summary of his overall findings along with some new information. The warmer and moister weather in the west triggered the east to west movement of various groups predating the Scythians. The cultural and material similarities of Kimmerians, Scythians, and the Pontiac Scythians indicated cultural continuity. The mobility provided by horse riding also facilitated cultural fluidity across the steppes. Cunliffe details the tribal movements in the post-Scythian world; the push from the east brought groups of Scythians to India and southern Iran, Sakastan. East to west movement carried on through the Huns and Mongols until the thirteenth century CE. As the Scythians mixed with other groups and tribes in the west in the north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, new names emerged such as the Aorsi, Siraces, Roxolani, Lazyges, and Alani. Cunliffe’s narrative makes it clear that identities were fluid and changed over time and that these groups acted according to self-interest, sometimes allying with the Romans, and turning against them in others. The Gallery of Objects Cunliffe included at the end of the book provides the readers with glimpses of Scythian artefacts. 
One puzzling part of historical periodization is the lack of common practice among archeologists, historians, and linguists. Archeologists sometimes name a period to honor an archeologist who discovered a site, or by the location of an archeological site and base the period on broad cultural similarities; historians often use the name of a political entity, and linguists can create a civilization out of a single word, such as Aryan or Torcharian, with no trace of archeological or historical data. Cunliffe adopts archeological periodization schemes, such as Andronovo period or Karasuk period (p.77). Cunliffe could have made the timeline provided at the end of the book more useful for novice readers by incorporating these archeological periods. The book’s annotated bibliography is useful for future students of the topic. Perhaps the book’s only mishap is the mention of Indo-European people in the last chapter. The idea of an Indo-European speaking people was crafted in the early nineteenth century including political considerations based on the belief that God created earth around 4,000 BCE.3 The dates and details Cunliffe provided throughout the book contradict that Mosaic periodization. 
 Burials similar to those of the Scythians are visible throughout the world, from tumulus burials in Western Europe and Qing royal burials across China from Beijing to Guangzhou to the burial mounds of North America. The Scythian armor covered in chapter nine is also strikingly similar to the armor worn by the famous Terra Cotta soldiers of Xian; considering the similarity between the wagon found in the Payryk kurgan and the one in Xian, Cunliffe suggests that the Pzyryk wagon might have been made in China, although the Pzyryk kurgan outdates the Xian burials. More probable is that they were the products of a similar culture that later divided into different groups. 
French scholar Joseph de Guignes (1721-1800), the first Western scholar using Chinese sources to write the history of Huns posited that Teoman, the first known ruler of Huns originated from the Xia dynasty in China (2070-1600 BCE); de Guignes viewed the Scythians and the Huns as the same group; the Chinese called them Xiongnu or Hongnu, the Greeks called them the Scythians. The end of Hun rule in 200 BCE in the east coincided with the end of Scythian rule in the west. Cunliffe, relying on Chinese chronicles, mentions that a Scythian king could take the wife of his father “at least in theory” (p.217); de Guignes had earlier mentioned that this was not a mere theory but was practiced by the Huns. There are clearly more jewels to be discovered in study of the Scythians, Saka or Xiongnu, whatever we would like to call them.
Overall, Cunliffe’s amazing achievement establishes the Scythian connections to the west and paves a road for other scholars to build on by showing how Scythian connections to the east shaped the culture there. More studies, employing the Chinese sources will help to better elucidate Scythian cultural and political connections to the east.