The department of prehistoric culture was created in 1931 upon the basis of the vast amount of material collected by Soviet archaeologists, supplemented by groups of relics of the past (the Siberian collection, the Scythian antiquities, etc.) preserved in the Hermitage before the October Revolution.

Arranged in rooms 11-33 on the ground floor of the Winter Palace, the exhibition entitled “Relics of Prehistoric Culture on the Territory of the Soviet Union” provides an excellent means of estimating the successive development of prehistoric society, from the ancient Stone Age up to the Iron Age, from the first appearance of man until the breaking up of the primitive communal system and the formation of states.

Room 11. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Relics, 500,000-7,000 B.C. In cases 1 and 2 the most ancient exhibits are displayed: stone implements five hundred thousand to three hundred and fifty thousand years old. They are heavy chisels unearthed by a Soviet archaeological expedition on the Satani-Dar hill in Armenia, oval, triangular and almond-shaped, produced by means of a double-sided whetting of stone by stone. The Satani-Dar chisels, unlike the frequently found flint implements, are made of obsidian.

The first artistic creations appeared during the Palaeolithic Age – statuettes carved out of stone, mammoth ivory and reindeer antlers, and also drawings on the walls of ancient caves. Primitive man depicted various wild animals; another popular subject was the hunt; most important was the theme of the woman as the ancestress of the tribe, and the protectress of hunters.

Twenty female statuettes called the “Venuses of the Stone Age” were discovered during excavations on the site of a hunting camp near the village of Malta in the vicinity of Irkutsk (case 10). These sculptures are between twenty-five and thirty thousand years old. Of approximately the same age is a unique relic of Palaeolithic art, a picture of a mammoth carved on an ivory tablet unearthed at Malta (case 10). Primitive man reproduced the gigantic animal, his most dreaded enemy yet most welcome quarry, with amazing accuracy and vividness. Similar representations were closely connected with magical rites ensuring, according to the naive notions of these ancient people, a successful hunt. The nature of Palaeolithic burials – for example the grave of a child whose corpse was sprinkled with red pigment (ochre, symbol of fire and life) and supplied with ornaments and implements of work – affirms the existence in that distant age of primitive notions of life beyond the grave (case 9).

Rooms 12 and 13. Relics of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of forest regions (5,000-500 B.C.). and the steppes in the south of the U.S.S.R. (3,000-700 B.C.) Exhibited in room 12 are numerous items, discovered during excavation work on the sites of the Neolithic settlements of hunters and fishermen in Karelia, Siberia, the Urals and in the central forest regions, which show that the New Stone Age man made great progress, possessing various methods of working in stone such as boring and grinding, and that he widely used wood and bone (see the stone axes, with wooden and bone handles, sinkers for fishing nets, fishing hooks, arrow-heads and wooden fragments of boats, skis and sledges). An important event in the life of Neolithic man was the invention of earthenware, which was decorated with simple designs in the form of hollows and oblique notches.

The Hermitage possesses excellent examples of Neolithic art, among them drawings on stone representing hunting scenes. Discovered on the cliffs of the north (Devil’s Nose Cape on the eastern coast of Lake Onega, and the lower reaches of the river Vyg which flows into the White Sea), the drawings came into the museum in 1935. Amongst these impressive designs, drawn on the surface of granite by means of stone tools in the second millennium B.C. (the tribes of the north were not familiar with metal at that time), we can recognize, in spite of the schematized outlines, boats with oarsmen and the figures of animals (elks and deer) and birds (swans and ducks). One genuine masterpiece of Neolithic sculpture is the head of she-elk, made of horn, found in the province of Sverdlovsk during work in a peat-bog. There are also some stone carvings of fish, from the area of Lake Baikal, used as fishing bait (cases 8 and 27)

Room 13. At the time when the tribes of the forest regions were still engaged in hunting and fishing, agriculture was already being practised in the southern parts of the country as early as the Neolithic Age. Ceramics excavated in the village of Tripolye near Kiev are characteristic relics of the so-called Tripolye culture (3,000- 1,000 B.C.), the oldest agrarian culture in the lands now belonging to the Soviet Union. There are some beautifully shaped clay vessels for keeping water, oil and grain, decorated with either intricate carving or a painted design. Some figurines of a female deity and animals, and small models of dwellings are also made of clay (case 11). During the second millennium B.C. the tribes of the south learnt how to obtain bronze and how to cast from it different articles (see the relics from the areas of the Volga, Don and Dnieper rivers in cases 15-17). The Stone Age was superseded by the Bronze Age. It was the working of metal that provided the basis for the first specialized craft, developed by the tribal community in the course of their work. It is interesting to note in connection with this a set of implements used in the production of castings – clay moulds and crucibles for the smelting of metal, and a stone hammer for forging things in bronze (c. 1,500-1,100 B.C.) from the grave of a founder near the village of Rakhinka not far from Volgograd (case 18).

Room 14 contains relics of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and the early Iron Age in the Caucasus (3,000-500 B.C.). A burial-mound, dating back to the end of the third millennium B.C. and the beginning of the second and discovered at the end of the last century at Maikop, represents an interesting collection of items from the early Bronze Age in the Caucasus, at that time inhabited by sedentary tribes of cattle-breeders and farmers. This burial-mound contained treasure unusually rich for those times.* Together with some polished stone tools and flint arrow-heads were found also tools made of copper, a gold vessel and some silver ones with landscapes schematically suggested by a few lines and pictures of animals engraved on them, and ornaments – diadems, beads, bracelets, rings-made of gold, silver, turquoise and cornelian. Four stocky, sharp-horned young bulls, two cast in gold, the other two in silver, adorned the supports on which hung a canopy erected above the corpse, which was strewn with flame-coloured vermilion (red mercuric sulphide). The cloth of the canopy rotted, and all that remains are some gold rings and small ornamental figured plaques with which the canopy was embroidered. The Maikop grave, apparently that of a chief, indicated the birth of property inequality and the formation, from within the tribe itself, of an elite. Among the items on view in this room, discovered in Georgia, Armenia, Ossetia and Daghestan, are some of which special mention should be made these are bronze castings, relics of the so-called Koban culture (named so after the Caucasian village of Upper Koban in the mountains of Northern Ossetia). Much of the bronze work from Koban consists of axes, fibulae (safety-pin brooches), buckles, bracelets and pins, finely made and adorned with engraved designs.

Rooms 15-21. The art and culture of the Scythian epoch (700- 200 B.C.). The collection of Scythian antiquities in the Hermitage is of world renown and provides a vast amount of material for studying the way of life of tribes inhabiting the southern steppes of the European part of the U.S.S.R. The collective name “Scythian” is used to describe ethnically heterogeneous tribes speaking a tongue belonging to the Persian family of languages. The burials reflect the social stratification of the Scythian community, which was at the stage when the primitive structure of society breaks up. The ordinary members of the tribe were buried in shallow holes in the ground, and into the grave were put only “the most necessary things” for the “life beyond the grave”-some food in clay vessels, a knife, a few bronze ornaments, and occasionally, in the case of a man, a horse was buried alongside. The graves of the tribal chiefs were large, spacious vaults where, together with the dead person, were buried his wives, servants, horses, expensive weapons, utensils, and objects made of gold and silver. Above the grave was erected a burial-mound, in the construction of which the whole tribe took part. The highest of the Scythian tumuli, the Chertomlyk mound on the river Dnieper, reaches a height of twenty metres (over 65 ft.).

Gold stag from a Scythian burial-mound near the Kostromskaya settlement, 600-500 B.C.

Belonging to the very earliest are six large mounds (sixth century B.C.) excavated between 1903 and 1904 in the village of Ke-lermesskaya in the North Caucasus (room 15). Although these mounds were to some extent plundered in ancient times, they nevertheless afforded material of great value. Among these objects is a large gold plaque* in the form of a panther which, like the gold stag found in the Kostromskaya burial-mound (room 21), at one time adorned the shield of a Scythian warrior. The Kelermesskaya panther and the Kostromskaya stag are matchless relics of sixth century Scythian art, characteristic examples of the animal style. The representation of the animal, the only motif in this style, is remarkable for its terseness and wealth of expression, traits of realism interwoven with an original form of stylization. Our acquiantance with early examples of Scythian culture is furthered by a look at some objects found in mounds excavated in the village of Ulsky in the Kuban region, in 1898 and between 1908 and 1910. These mounds are typical of those of the Scythian ruling class, where the dead person was accompanied to the grave by a large number of horses. Thus, in the largest of those graves in the village of Ulsky, was buried a herd of three hundred and sixty animals.

Gold comb. Solokha burial-mound, 400-300 B.C.

Room 16 introduces us to the famous fourth century Scythian burial-mounds of Solokha and Chertomlyk, situated at the place where, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who left behind a description of Scythia, the “royal Scythians” lived, having brought into subjection tribes of nomad and ploughmen Scythians. Herodotus informs us that the royal Scythians buried their “kings”, i.e. chiefs, in the lands of the Gerrhi which cover approximately the territory of the present-day province of Zaporozhye. The Solokha mound, on the left bank of the Dnieper, not far from the town of Nikopol, was excavated from 1912 to 1913. An embankment eighteen metres high (58.5 ft.), concealed two vaults; one of them, in which was found a woman of high birth, proved to have been plundered – all that remained were two horses in rich attire, gold dress ornaments, a gold needle and two vessels, one silver, the other bronze. The second vault, remarkable for its extraordinary riches, contained the body of a chief, his weapon-bearer, a servant, five horses and a stableman. The head of the dead chief was covered with a heavy bronze helmet; gold rings and bracelets adorned his arms, and around his neck was a gold, crescent-shaped ornament (grlvna). The splendour of the attire, embroidered with gold plaques, was further heightened by an iron sword in a gold sheath and a delicately wrought gold phial – a symbol of power. Hundreds of bronze arrow-heads, seven silver vessels, a ladle and sieve for wine, three enormous pots with remnants of food – this is far from being the complete list of objects found in the grave. Beside the head, of the chief lay a comb, the only relic of antique jewellery of its kind. The gold comb from the Solokha mound -12.3 cm. high (4.7 in.) and weighing 294.1 grams (10 ounces) – has nineteen tetrahedral teeth, above which runs a frieze formed by the figures of reclining lions. The frieze is surmounted by a sculptural group: a horseman, accompanied by a lightly armed foot-soldier, is repelling the attacks of his enemy who has dismounted as a result of an accident – his wounded horse is fighting in its death throes and blood is pouring from a deep neck wound. The outward appearance of the Scythian warriors, their clothes and their weapons are reproduced with a doc-umental-like accuracy. The comb, like the majority of the items from the Scythian burial-mounds, is of Greek origin, evidence of the close trade connections between the Scythians and the Greeks.

Gold plaque representing animals fighting. Siberian collection, 400-300 B.C.

The colossal Chertomlyk burial-mound was excavated from 1862 to 1863. The underground vault contained several chambers, accommodating the graves of a king, a queen and a servant girl, two weapon-bearers, a servant, two stablemen and eleven horses. In the storage chambers were found the remains of woolen dresses which had hung on iron hooks driven into the wall, and on the floor, beside the royal crowns, hundreds of gold plaques which had fallen from the clothes as the cloth had rotted. From the main grave, plundered in ancient times, came swords and a quiver for holding arrows and bow covered with gold-leaf, on the surface of which was an embossed multifigured design based upon themes from the ancient myth about Achilles. Harsh retribution befell the thieves; they removed the objects from the ground in parts through a hastily made entrance, and during one such trip landslide occurred, the robbers being buried beneath the fallen earth. Thousands of years later archaeologists discovered the skeletons of two crushed men. In the grave of the queen, untouched by thieves, were found a large number of decorative objects and a famous Greek amphora vase made of silver with the figures of Scythians taming horses in relief (Gold Room).

Rooms 18 and 19. During recent years Soviet archaeologists have made a valuable contribution to science with new information concerning the culture of sedentary tribes of farmers from the Dnieper, Bug and Dniester areas during the period of 700-100 B.C. To defend themselves from the raids of the Scythian nomads, the ploughmen were obliged to fortify their settlements, examples of such fortifications having been found at the sites of Nemirovskoye near the town of Vinnitsa, excavated from 1946 to 1948, and Grigorovskoye in the vicinity of Mogiliov, where excavation work was carried out between 1952 and 1955. Behind the defence ramparts at Nemirovskoye, which reach a height of nine metres (a little over 29 ft.), were found the remains of dwellings, some utensils, various objects made of ivory and bronze, and ceramics of local and Greek origin.

The matchless wealth of the Hermitage collection makes it possible to cast some light, in separate exhibitions, on different aspects of Scythian culture. Thus, in room 17 are the weapons, clothes and objects pertaining to the rituals and religion of the Scythians; room 20 provides an introduction to the economic system of those Scythians from the forest steppes; room 21 is concerned with Scythian art and trade connections with Greece, and also includes relics of Meotae tribal culture, in many respects close to that of the Scythians (the burial-ground at Mozdok, 600-500 B.C., the Karagodeuashkh mound, 400-200 B.C., and the burial-ground near the village of Ust-La-binskaya, 400-200 B.C.).

Chariot and large rag. Pazyryk burial-mounds, 500-400 B.C.

Rooms 22, 23, 25, 28-32 are devoted to the Altai burial-mounds dating from the period of 500-200 B.C. Bearing close affinity to the culture of Scythians living near the northern shores of the Black Sea is that of the ancient Altaic peoples, about which much became known as a result of the remarkable discoveries made by the Leningrad archaeologists S. Rudenko and M. Griaznov. Between 1929 and 1949 they excavated five stone mounds (500-300 B.C.) in the high mountain valley of Pazyryk (see rooms 25, 26 and 28-32). In a grave beneath one of the mounds was found a timber structure, the “dwelling place” of the deceased. In the coffin, hollowed out from a tree trunk, lay the bodies of a chief and his wife or concubine who, according to custom, was killed after the death of the husband and buried along with him. Outside the timber structure were unearthed the carcasses of horses fully equipped, with bridles and saddles. Thanks to the permafrost which had formed beneath the mounds, the contents of the graves, which were filled with ice, were in an excellent state of preservation; not only the articles made of ivory, wood and metal, but also things which, in normal soil, would in time have disappeared without a trace – corpses, clothes trimmed with sable, squirrel and ermine, equine apparel of hide and felt, musical instruments, and even food. In a small leather pouch was a white mass which, on analysis, turned out to be cheese. Among the most interesting discoveries was an enormous wooden chariot, the different parts of which were fastened together by leather straps, with no metal used at all. During the last year of excavations two remarkable rugs were found. The first of these, made of felt and measuring 6.5 by 4.5 metres (21 by 14.5 ft.), contains an applique design in coloured felt representing many times over the figures of a goddess seated on a throne and a horseman. The other rug, the only one of its kind, is apparently of Persian origin, four square metres in size (42 sq. ft.) and woven from wool with a soft, velvet-like pile and a beautifully preserved coloured pattern. This rug, the oldest in the world, is almost two and a half thousand years old.

The objects found in the Pazyryk graves were made with great skill, and here, as in the Scythian relics, the animal style is predominant. Stylized representations of animals not only adorn household objects, but are also found in the design of the tattooing which covers the body of one of the chiefs.

For the first time in the history of archaeology ancient objects made of materials very susceptible to decay, for example silk, fur and wood, were unearthed, in such an unusually good state of preservation and in such large numbers that several museum rooms were required to house them all. The rich burial treasures of the ancient Altaic population were also found in the villages of Tuekta (rooms 22 and 23) and of Bashadar in the Altai region (rooms 26, 29 and 30).

Also related to this group of relics of early nomad art afe the ancient gold objects – belt buckles, fibulae, grivnas (crescent-shaped neck ornaments) and parts of horses’ apparel – of the famous Siberian collection made by Peter the Great (Gold Room).

The exhibitions in rooms 24, 27 and 33 include three large sections- the art and culture of the inhabitants of the southern steppes of the U.S.S.R., 300 B.C.- 1,000 A.D.; the art and culture of the Finno-Ugrians, Baits and Slavs, 700 B.C.-1,200 A.D.; and the art and culture of the nomads of the southern steppes, 900-1200 A.D. The items in the exhibition, enormous in number, are interesting not only in themselves but because they also prepare one for the exhibition that comes next: “The Culture of Old Russia”. In the first section the outstanding feature is the collection of relics of Sarma-tian culture, the Sarmatians having led a nomadic existence during the fourth century B.C. on the rich pasture lands of the Volga steppes, and later, in the second century B.C., crossed the Don and forced out the Scythian nomads there, occupying a vast area of land stretching as far as the Dniester. The exhibition presents both relics of local origin and others which were imported, reflecting the extensive ties between the Sarmatians and the world of classical antiquity, from which the Sarmatian ruling class obtained decorative objects and finery in return for slaves, cattle, grain, honey, wax and fish. Of great interest are the items from the Khazar fortress of Sar-kel, which stood on the banks of the Don where the smooth surface of the artificial Tsimlyansk Sea now stretches. Erected in the year 834 A.D., the fortress was captured in 965 by the Russian Prince Sviatoslav, who built on the site Belaya Vezha. Material from the excavations of Belaya Vezha can be seen in the “Culture of Old Russia” exhibition in room 145.

From the ninth to the twelfth century vast areas of land from the Volga to the Don were occupied by tribes of Turkish origin – Pechengs, Torks and Polovtsy. Displayed in one of the rooms are objects found in burial-mounds along the Dnieper, Don and Kuban rivers which give us some idea of the way of life of the nomads living on the southern Russian steppes.


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3 May 2007

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