Scythian” can be regarded as a cultural and chronological collection for various groups from North China to East Hungary. In any case, it is not the same as a uniform ethnicity, but rather an indicator of an essentially homogeneous culture and way of life, mostly of the mounted-nomadic, non-written tribes. Because of the similarities that exist in the findings of the Scythian period and not least because of the rare literary testimony of these peoples, a precise separation of e.g. Scythians, Saces or Sauromatians hardly or even not possible.

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It is not easy to differentiate between the terms “Scythians”, “Sarmatians” and “Sauromatians”. First of all, it should be noted that they are used differently, depending on modern, scientific and historical use. Even in modern science there has not been a uniform approach. For example, “Scythians” may refer to a particular nomadic sub-tribe in the Black Sea between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, or may also be used for all nomadic or partly-nomadic tribes in the Eurasian steppe belt, and thus, for example, the early Sarmatians and Sauromats. There is also the problem that many other tribes are handed down to us by ancient writers (for example, Saces, Massagetes, Agathyrians, Scolotoi, etc.) whose social relationship is as unclear as the comparison with archaeologically detectable cultures.

Typical characteristics for the Scythian culture are the animal style, the grave cult for the leadership, the human sacrifices and immolation of animals as part of the burial ritual and a rich endowment of grave sites with real or symbolic possessions. The kurgans (grave mounds) of the upper classes are always monumental and magnificent equipped than that of ordinary people.

In addition to Chinese, Persian (Assyrian) and Roman sources, above all Greek sources about the Scythians are worth mentioning. Most important author is probably Herodotus, to whom today we owe much knowledge about this people. Though his reports appear to be overdated, and often also drift into the mythical, archeology has hitherto been able to support some of his observations. However, the source situation through scripts and finds for the Scythians from the 9th to the 3rd century is unfortunately not very rich and leaves much in the dark, so that reconstruction attempts often rely on findings from neighboring peoples such as Saces, Sarmatians or Thracians.

The archaeologically traceable history of the Scythians begins in the 9th century BC in Tuva, Russia. In the necropolis of Aržan there are numerous large Kurgans, which bear witness to a lively cultural exchange between Tuva, China, Mongolia, the Caucasus and the North Black Sea. From Tuva the Scythian culture spread into the Minusinsk basin and the Altai.

In the Minusinsk basin one can find the so called “Tagar culture”, which is characterized by Kurhaus with corner stones. The numerous bronze pieces which found their way into research as “Minusinsk Bronzes” are also characteristic. Beginning in the 9th and 8th century the Tagar culture ends around 200 BC, when it was replaced the Tes culture. In the Tagar culture one has to assume not only the way of life as a nomad, but also a sedentary lifestyle, as evidencds by weir systems at the Yenisei and petroglyphs showing blockhouses (“Bojarskie pisanty”).

Finally, the Scythian culture continues with the ice kurgans in the mountain Altai (Pazyryk culture, 5th to 3rd cent. BC). In one of the Kurgans from the 4./3. the burial of a mongolid man, who had been scalped, and a European woman, were found. Many richly decorated horses dressed as reindeer / deer had been given into the grave. There were also remnants of hemp seed, which indicates the use of this plant for intoxicating purposes. Numerous carpets and pieces from China confirm the close contacts to the Achaimenid Persia and China. The earliest known carpet come from Pazyryk and can be dated to the 5th century BC.

Probably coming from China, the Scythians crossed the Caucasus in the 8th century BC, after they had expelled the Cimmerians from the North Black Sea. Later, they invaded the Uratian region and from the seventh century BC they were known as a feared mastery of armed archery in the Orient as proofed by writings of the Assyrian king Asahaddon. In the 6th century, they moved back across the Caucasus to the North Pontic Steppe, where they came into contact with the Greek Apoikia (planting towns) of the Black Sea coast in the 5th and 4th centuries. Numerous gold finds and coins with Scythian motifs testify to the richness which the lively trade with Greece gave to the “Galactophages” (Greek “Milkeaters”), as the Greeks used to call these people. The Scythian culture finds its end in the 3rd century BC, when the Saces are displaced and superimposed by the Wusun, and the Scythians in Southern Siberia have to give way to the Xiongnu and the Sarmatians in the North Black Sea. In the 2nd century BC their material culture had almost completely disappeared and was completely assimilated by the Sarmatians.

Literature: Parzinger, Hermann: Die Skythen, Nördlingen 2009