117. The Tattooed Man

Southern Siberia, 5th–3rd century BC
Size: 30 cm high
Bronze and gold

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This is one of the most important surviving relics of the Siberian Scythian culture. Its details match the few known objects of its type, as do its almost full complement of gold earrings, similar in form to those recovered from burial sites. While the Scythian peoples covered a vast area of Central Asia, from Siberia to the Black Sea, this figure belongs to the Pazyryk culture of the High Altai, from between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. This culture was only rediscovered in 1929, and was found to have a number of interesting features: they mummified their dead, tattooed their skin, and inhaled cannabis in steam tents.

The Europid Scythians and Saka were horse-based nomads who appeared in the early Iron Age. They were adept at moving with wagons to find the best pastures, according to the effects of climate change after 1000 BC. In the Minusinsk Basin alone there are 30,000 kurgans (burial mounds), from where many marvellous examples of the ‘Animal Style’ come, already collected in Europe in the 18th century. This style originated in Tuva in the Altai early in the 1st millennium BC and then spread wherever roamed the nomads. A Saka delegation is shown on the Apadana steps at Persepolis, with their pointed caps and short swords, bringing a stallion and heavy armlets as tribute to the Achaemenid king. The inscription at Naqsh-e-Rustam calls them ‘the haoma-worshipping Saka’, referring to their cannabis use.

It may all seem a long way away, a long time ago. But consider this. In AD 175, the Roman Emperor Aurelius sent 5,500 Sarmatian cavalrymen from the tribe of Iazyges to the province of Britannia, to guard Hadrian’s Wall. They left to us the Arthurian legend and Excalibur, which was part of their foundation myth. Another point to consider is why the tattooed skin from Pazyryk in the Hermitage, or images of tattooed Maori warriors, are so fascinating, while tattooed footballers, and those of both sexes who walk our streets, are so off-putting?