Scythian gold; Plains Indian war shirts

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 29 16:25:44 MST 2000

[Over the past couple of days I was fortunate enough to see two first-rate
shows in NYC museums that had some obvious connections. At the Metropolitan
Museum, "The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures From
the Russian Steppes" is devoted to the artwork of a nomadic people who
flourished in the pre-Christian era. Using their command of horse-riding,
they repelled more advanced civilizations from the south including the
formidable Persians while hunting deer.

[Herodotus, the fifth-century-B.C. Greek historian, observed Scythians
firsthand in his travels and became obsessed with them. Quotes from his
writings are displayed prominently in the exhibit. He regarded the
Scythians as complete barbarians. They were reputed to drink too much and
smoke pot at steam baths.

[Despite their "wild bunch" behavior, they seemed to have the most refined
tastes in art in the entire region. Using gold for common everyday utensils
like drinking cups or sword scabbards, they incorporated elaborate
geometric patterns and highly realistic images of deer, camels, horses and
tigers. Much of their work was done by Greek artists whom they hired. So
you end up with many of the objects incorporating the style of Athens, over
1000 miles to the West.

[From what I can gather, the indomitable Scythians had much in common with
the Plains Indians of the United States, who were also nomadic but within
clearly defined territorial proto-state structures which the invaders were
forced to negotiate treaties with.

[At the Museum of the American Indian, an exhibit of Plains Indian Shirts
displays samples of some of the great shirts which were awarded to Crow,
Shawnee, Blackfoot and Lakota warriors. Like the Scythian artwork, the
objects did not exist outside of society but were interwoven with everyday
life. These elaborate and beautiful handmade fringed garments were made of
buckskin and were adorned with porcupine quills, hair, feathers, copper and
glass beads.

[A warrior was entitled to wear a shirt if he demonstrated some particular
act of bravery, such as sneaking into a rival tribe's village and stealing
their horses! This in fact was pretty much the basis of all inter-tribal
warfare before the hegemony of the white capitalist invaders. In such
encounters, Indians fought each other at close quarters. It was a special
act of courage to touch your foe in such battles.

[Videos of elders who still wore war shirts were on display throughout the
exhibit. In one particularly inspiring case, we learn how Joe Medicine Crow
earned a war shirt for stealing 50 horses from Nazi cavalry officers during
the waning days of WWII.]


Daily News (New York), October 11, 2000, Wednesday



Like the treasures of ancient Egypt, the objects in "The Golden Deer of
Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures From the Russian Steppes" were
not created for public consumption.

They were intended to be viewed only in the afterlife - fashioned, scholars
think, for the funerals of nomadic chieftains - and were buried with the
dead, which is why they have been preserved for 2,500 years.

Another reason they are in such remarkable condition is that many pieces
have been unearthed only in the last 15 years and have never been displayed
- until now. They will be on view beginning tomorrow (through Feb. 4) at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This includes 16 wooden stags nearly 2 feet high covered in gold and
silver, which are the centerpieces of the show.

Many of the dazzling objects on exhibit were unearthed between 1986 and
1990 at an archeological site outside the village of Filippovka, located on
the open steppes of southern Russia. A third of the objects have been lent
by the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, and the
Archeological Museum of the City of Ufa, an unprecedented international

Although the burial mounds of these nomadic tribes in the Ural Mountains
have been attacked by graverobbers over the centuries, much of the treasure
remained undisturbed because it rested in adjoining chambers not visible
from the burial chamber itself.

In addition to the ornamental stags there are weapons, ornaments for
drinking cups, jewelry, belts, equipment for horses and, most remarkably,
textiles, whose survival - deep colors intact - over two millenniums indeed
seems miraculous.

Scholars conjecture that these objects were created when the tribes
encamped for the funerary rites of their leaders, but the level of artistry
is so high, it suggests the artisans had plenty of opportunities to work in
gold, mined from the Urals.

The objects make extensive use of animal imagery.It is thought that the
nomads regarded deer as the steeds on which the dead would mount to heaven.


NY Times, December 29, 2000


Powerful Shirts of the Plains Indians


To Plains Indians of the 18th and 19th centuries, magnificently decorated
hide shirts were symbols of bravery earned by only the most courageous:
those who met the enemy in battle or sneaked into enemy camps to steal
horses. And those rewarded had to live up to the shirts, observing a strict
code of conduct. Many warriors who did became the political and spiritual
leaders of their tribes.

Of course, the shirts were made by women, often from hides tanned with
animal brains. (Certain tribes, like the Cheyenne, were known for their
tanning skills.) Obsessively fringed and embellished with porcupine quills,
paint, ribbons, hair and, later, tight patterns of colored glass beads, the
shirts often recounted the derring-do of their owners. Battles and horse
raids were commemorated, mainly in symbols and pictographs.

The shirts were said to take on the spirits of their owners, and during the
reservation era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when their
former way of life had been extinguished, Plains Indians continued to make
and wear them. The Plains shirt, symbolizing honor, courage and ancestral
tradition, carries on today in regalia worn at powwows and in recognition
of young people's accomplishments in sports and at school.

"Beauty, Honor and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts," a show
at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian,
celebrates the power of this glory gear. On view are almost 50 dazzlers in
the museum's collection, dating from around 1820 to the 1990's. The shirts
were made by Plains Indian tribes, among them Apache, Arapaho, Assiniboine,
Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Lakota, Nez Percé, Pawnee, Piegan and

Full article at:

Louis Proyect
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