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Masters of Gold On Assignment

Masters of Gold On Assignment

Masters of Gold
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Land of the Scythians

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By Mike Edwards   Photographs by Sisse Brimberg

Artless barbarians? Hardly. The Scythian horsemen of the ancient Siberian steppe had a golden touch.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

From a pit twelve feet (three meters) deep, Pavel Leus looked up at the three archaeologists standing on the rim. "Guys," he declared, "we've got a problem. We need the police."

Digging beneath a kurgan, or burial mound, in the Republic of Tuva, a little-known precinct of Siberia, Leus had just squinted into a log-walled vault. He saw two skeletons and the dim glow of gold. Lots of gold.

"First," he later recalled, "I saw a gold gorytus [a combination quiver and bow case]. Then I looked another way and saw more gold." There was a massive gold pectoral, or chest ornament (later weighed at 3.3 pounds [1.4 kilograms]); a smaller pectoral; two carved gold headdress pins, each about a foot (30 centimeters) long; gold-inlaid daggers; and a virtual carpet of other lustering metal.

A seasoned archaeologist—he had spent a dozen summers on Russian excavation teams—Leus had just become the first person in 2,700 years to look into this chamber, a royal tomb of the shadowy people we call Scythians. Nomads and fierce warriors, they lived in Central Asia as early as the ninth century B.C., and their culture spread westward to southern Russia and Ukraine, and even into Germany, before gradually disappearing early in the Christian era.

With Leus's terse announcement, the expedition leader, Konstantin Chugunov of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, dropped into the pit to have his own astonished squint between the logs of the chamber's roof. He was quickly followed by his expedition partners, Hermann Parzinger and Anatoli Nagler of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. "My God!" Nagler exclaimed as he peered down. "You're right. We need the police!"

In the Tuva Republic, a sparsely settled enclave of grasslands and snow-mantled peaks four time zones east of Moscow, the most common crime is cattle theft. Nevertheless, the archaeologists feared that anything might happen when word got out that a fabulous treasure lay in an open pit in an empty sweep of countryside. Chugunov hurried off to the town of Turan, ten miles (20 kilometers) distant, to summon his friend Nikolai Bondarenko to guard the trove with a hunting rifle until round-the-clock police protection could be arranged.

During the next three weeks, while guards' rifles bristled overhead, 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of gold was removed from the grave—far more than any archaeologist had ever found in a Siberian tomb.

A Scythian necropolis, the valley that holds this kurgan billows with scores of other burial mounds. Local people call it the Valley of the Tsars, as if all the mounds harbored kings. Some surely did.

Nearly all the kurgans are simple piles of earth, sometimes with a stone veneer. But four stand out because they are made entirely of stone. Chugunov, Parzinger, and Nagler chose as their target one of these, which they dubbed Arzhan-2 (Arzhan is the name of a nearby village). Hundreds if not thousands of Scythians had labored to build it, quarrying sandstone slabs at the edge of the valley, hauling them several miles, and stacking them in a circle. Seven feet (two meters) high and 90 yards (80 meters) across, it was a crown of thousands of tons of rock.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Herodotus, the Greek sojourner commonly called the father of history, left the best written records on the Scythians, steppe-dwelling nomadic peoples whose culture spread over a vast area of Central Asia and eastern Europe between the ninth century B.C. and the second century A.D. The words of Herodotus stitch together the patchwork of cultural clues we have from graves that archaeologists have uncovered from the Black Sea to Siberia.  Herodotus likely met Scythians in the Black Sea region near Ukraine, where they traded grain, furs, and cattle with Greek merchants for wine, textiles, and works of art.

Though not an agricultural society, Scythians benefited from crops the fertile plains offered. Among them: hemp.  Herodotus, in The Histories, details one use:

On a framework of three sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woolen cloth, taking care to get the joint as perfect as they can, and inside this little tent they put a dish with red-hot stones in it.  Then they take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on to the hot stones.  At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour-bath one could find in Greece.  The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure.  This is their substitute for an ordinary bath in water, which they never use.
Women, on the other hand, according to Herodotus
...grind up cypress, cedar, and frankincense on a rough stone, mix the powder into a thick paste with a little water, and plaster it all over their bodies and faces. They leave it on for a day, and then, when they remove it, their skin is clean, glossy, and fragrant.
Barbara W. McConnell

Did You Know?

Related Links
This site maintained by the International Museum of the Horse gives background on cultures known for their equestrian prowess.

State Hermitage Museum
Explore the website for the famous museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where many Scythian artifacts are housed.

Scythian Finds
Enjoy this State Hermitage Museum link to news about the archaeological treasures found at Arzhan-2.


Minns, Ellis H. Scythians and Greeks  (Parts One and Two). Biblo and Tannen, 1965.

Rolle, Renate. The World of the Scythians. B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1980.

Rudenko, Sergei. Frozen Tombs of Siberia. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1970.

Trippet, Frank. The First Horsemen. Time-Life Books, 1974.


NGS Resources
"Tomb Yields Clues to Scythian Home Life," National Geographic (March 1997), Geographica.

"Siberian Nomads Hew to Past, Eye Future," National Geographic (September 1995), Geographica.


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