A piece of tattooed skin from the upper torso of a warrior who died about 2,400 years ago will be one of the more unusual items on display as part of a British Museum exhibition which opens in September.
The exhibition will shine a light on the Scythians – fierce nomadic horsemen who ruled an empire stretching from the Black Sea across Siberia to the borders of China for 1,000 years. Little known in the west, they are regarded as part of the ancestry of all Russians.
The skin will be among hundreds of objects on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Many are leaving Russia for the first time, including some excavated only in the last few years. The extraordinary preservation of wood, skin, bone, textiles and even food – such as a leather bag found still containing two pieces of cheese – was because the Scythians dug their tombs deep into the Siberian permafrost. Rescue excavations are now underway at many sites as climate change thaws the frozen ground, risking the destruction of treasures from a still mysterious civilisation.
Curator St John Simpson said: “Mostly in this museum we are familiar with peoples who built cities, lived in a built environment, and wrote their own histories … The Scythians had no written language and so left no accounts of themselves, and as nomadic herders they built nothing permanent except their tombs, which fortunately for us they filled with everything they owned in life. The tombs are their monuments.”
The museum has maintained warm relations with the Hermitage throughout the recent cooling of diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia, and sparked controversy in 2014 when it loaned the St Petersburg institution one of the bitterly contested Parthenon marbles, the first time it had left the UK since Lord Elgin brought them back from Athens in the 19th…