These Horse-Riding Ancient Nomads Made Astonishing Golden Art

An exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge displays ornate Saka treasures discovered in Kazakhstan

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Saka artisans crafted ornaments using gold and inlaid precious stones. The Fitzwilliam Museum

An upcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, will introduce visitors to the nomadic Saka people, who lived in Central Asia and Western Europe some 2,500 years ago. Titled “Gold of the Great Steppe,” the show features more than 300 artifacts, including intricately constructed gold jewelry and ornaments for horse harnesses.

Archaeologists discovered the objects while excavating burial mounds in eastern Kazakhstan over the past three years, reports Ben Quinn for the Guardian. In addition to the artifacts, the show includes a reconstruction of a burial found at the site.

The grave’s occupant, a male archer aged 18 or younger, was interred with golden objects at Eleke Sazy. Per a statement, he was likely accorded a high-status burial due to his family ties. The teenager shared the burial chamber with a younger female relative, aged 13 or 14. While the girl’s remains, and many other burials in the area, were looted centuries before archaeologists reached them, fallen rocks shielded the young man from view.

The exhibition is the product of a partnership between the Fitzwilliam and the East Kazakhstan Regional Museum of Local History, reports BBC News. Among the items on loan from Kazakhstan are gold animal forms inlaid with precious stones and gold applique used to decorate clothes. The museum notes that the ornaments reflect an understanding of, and respect for, animals of the Steppe (a 5,000-mile expanse of grassland stretching from Hungary to Manchuria), as well as great technical skill.

“It has been proven that the Saka created truly unique jewelry masterpieces, using technological processes that were advanced for their time, constructed grandiose and exceptionally complex religious, funerary and memorial monuments,” says Danial Akhmetov, governor of the east Kazakhstan region of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in the statement.

These Horse-Riding Ancient Nomads Made Astonishing Golden Art
The Saka were known as skilled warriors and horse riders. The Fitzwilliam Museum

Akhmetov adds that the “exceptional state of preservation” of the recent finds offers new opportunities for scientists to study the group’s religious views and funerary traditions.

PA Media’s Sam Russell reports that the teenager’s grave was only the second intact Saka burial ever discovered in Kazakhstan. The first, known as the “Golden Man” due to his gold-decorated armor and complex ceremonial clothing, was found at the Issyk burial mound in the southern part of the country in 1969.

The Saka, also known as the Scythians, originated in Iran as early as the ninth century B.C.E., according to Encyclopedia Britannica. They built an empire centered in what’s now Crimea, thriving for hundreds of years before falling to the Sarmatians between the fourth century B.C.E. and the second century C.E. At the civilization’s height, its territory stretched from Persia to the border of Egypt and into what’s now Russia.

Prior to the 20th century, most information about the Saka came from ancient Greek accounts, which noted their horsemanship and skill at war. Beyond being among the first people to master horseback riding, they had a complex, hierarchical culture, with wealthy aristocrats served by skilled artisans. The Saka buried their favorite horses with great care; some were laid to rest with masks, decorations for their manes and tails, and saddle pendants and harnesses.

In the statement, the Fitzwilliam says that the “astounding” ornaments featured in the show demonstrate that the Saka people were far from the “barbaric ‘other’ described by ancient Persian and Greek sources.”

Gold of the Great Steppe” opens at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, on September 28 and will be on view through January 30, 2022.