Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

The article below is the Introduction section of the textbook “Warriors of Ancient Siberia” (edited by St John Simpson of the British Museum and Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum) written for the BP Exhibition organized with the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, the British Museum and Thames & Hudson. The Introduction is also available for download at … For more information on this book consult: and Thames & Hudson.


The Scythian nomads controlled a vast area stretching from the edge of northern China to the northern Black Sea region. Originating in southern Siberia, they dominated the Eurasian steppe for centuries until they were displaced by other Eurasian nomad tribes at the beginning of the second century bc. Although the Greeks referred to them as ‘barbarians’, this term was applied to all non-Greeks, and the nomads developed a rich material culture with a strong visual language involving fierce contorted animal designs known as ‘Animal Style’ art. This is found on the decorated ends of torcs, bangles and dagger pommels, gold and bronze belt buckles, saddle covers and even body tattoos. The Scythians were skilled at working metals and softer materials such as bone, horn and wood, which were sometimes highlighted with paint, appliqués or colourful sheet-metal overlays; this allowed sparing use of precious metal yet the appearance was spectacularly like solid metal. As pastoral nomads they kept large herds and had plentiful supplies of leather, wool and hair, which not only provided the basis for clothing and soft furnishings but were also easily traded resources in constant demand from their sedentary neighbours. There was regular contact with these: the fifth-century bc historian Herodotus met Scythians in Greek colonies on the northern Black Sea coast; Greek and Assyrian histories record that they fought their way into Anatolia; and they proved a constant threat to the Achaemenid Persian Empire on its eastern frontier in Central Asia. These contacts, whether through conflict, trade or marriage, explain why Achaemenid silver, gold and even carpets ended up in nomad tombs, how Scythian-related goldwork forms part of the Oxus Treasure found near the river Amu darya (Oxus) in its eastern province of Bactria, and why many design motifs are shared by both the Scythian and Achaemenid worlds.

Ancient authors described these peoples where they encountered them at the fringes, but one of the regions where this early nomadic lifestyle first developed was Tuva (fig. 1), at the junction of the Siberian taiga and the Altai-Sayan mountains. It is here that the earliest manifestations of the so-called ‘Scythian triad’ of weapons, horse harness and Animal Style art emerges in the ninth and eighth centuries bc, and archaeological excavations at Arzhan reveal burials of elite individuals interred with their wives or concubines, attendants, and horses. This area is at the heart of southern Siberia and connected by a continuous corridor of grassy pasture to northern China and the Black Sea region. This biome (ecological area) is wider than the vast empire of the Achaemenids, which united the Near East between the sixth and fourth centuries bc, and the Scythians outlasted them, as they had their Late Assyrian and Median predecessors. The Scythians were finally overwhelmed and dissipated by later tribal groups. Roman and Byzantine authors continued to refer to their nomad successors in the Black Sea region and Central Asia as Scythians, but the cultures were changing, and Iranian was replaced by Turkic languages. China was now the dominant political power and there were stronger links with that culture than previously. Deep in the resource-rich but isolated Minusinsk basin, the so-called Tashtyk culture developed during the early centuries ad; this is the focus of the conclusion to the exhibition.

The story behind the objects presented here begins with chance finds made deep in southern Siberia during the eighteenth century. The Russian conquest of Siberia had begun in 1581/82 during the reign of Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’ (1530–1584), with the defeat of the Tatar khan, Khimchum, by the Cossack commander Yermak. The numerous local tribes were required to pay heavy tribute in furs, a process known as the yassak.

Fig. 1: Landscape view showing Scythian burial mounds in Tuva, southern Siberia.

Tsar Peter I, ‘the Great’ (1672–1725), began sending scientific expeditions to the region; it was during one of these that the strait separating Siberia from Alaska was discovered in 1728 and named after its finder, Vitus Bering (1681–1741). The exploration of Siberia was marked by amazing antiquarian discoveries as large burial mounds (kurgans) attracted the attention of engineers and grave robbers (bugrovshchiki). News of the discovery of fantastic gold ornaments in completely unfamiliar styles soon reached St Petersburg as a collection formed by one Demidov was presented to Peter in 1715. The Tsar issued an edict that any such finds, especially those ‘that are very old and uncommon’, should be sent to St Petersburg, and ordered that drawings be made ‘of everything that is found’. After his death they were transferred to the Kunstkamera (‘Cabinet of Curiosities’), which he had founded in 1714, the first museum in the country. In 1690 the Dutchman Nicolaas Witsen published the first map of Siberia, and two years later the first edition of his account entitled Noord en Oost Tartarye. In the same year one Andrei Lyzlov, said to be either a priest from Smolensk or a courtier from Moscow, wrote an account entitled History of the Scythians, and there was considerable academic interest in Russia into how these finds connected with the ancestral origins of the Slavs and other peoples, and therefore with the early formation of Russia itself (fig. 2).

Fig.2: Frontispiece of the History of the Scythians by A. Lyzlov. London Library.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, in the reign of Catherine II, ‘the Great’ (1729–1796), Russia occupied the northern coast of the Black Sea from the mouth of the river Dniester to the area around Kuban, and achieved its aim of obtaining a warm-water port with access to the Mediterranean (fig. 3).

Fig.3: Print showing the advance of Russia towards the Black Sea during the reign of Catherine II.
Simon François Ravenet I after Nicholas Blakey, 1753 (H. 22.4, W. 17.1 cm, British Museum, London, 1978, U.1663).

As part of its so-called Greek Project – according to which Russia intended to oust the Turks from Europe and as self-styled heirs of the Byzantine Empire found an Empire of Constantinople – cities were given Greek names. In 1787 Catherine visited the area, and antiquarian travellers began to record sites and note the presence of ancient Greek inscriptions. The first kurgan was excavated in 1763 by General Alexey Melgunov (1722–1788), the governor of the Novorossiisk province. It was found to be a seventh- century bc Scythian tomb and proved accounts that the Scythians were active in this region from this early date. Within a year Herodotus’ Histories were translated into Russian for the first time, and a copy of a gold scabbard found by Melgunov was presented to the British Museum (fig. 4).

Fig.4: The Scythian gold scabbard known as the Melgunov scabbard. Seventh century BC (L. 60 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Dn 1763 1-19, 20).

Other generals excavated a burial mound near the Black Sea port of Phanagoria, and initiated excavations at Olbia and Kerch at the eastern end of the Crimean peninsula. In 1830 a large kurgan at Kul’ Oba, near Kerch, began to be quarried for construction. Excavations immediately followed under the direction of Paul Du Brux, a French antiquarian who owned a private museum and was the chief customs officer in Kerch, and Ivan Stempkovsky, the governor of Kerch. An intact stone tomb measuring 20 sq. m was found to contain the bodies of what are believed to be a Scythian king and queen with numerous gold objects, a groom with a horse, armour, cauldrons, amphorae and drinking vessels. These objects were immediately acquired by the Imperial Hermitage and formed the beginning of the museum’s archaeological collection. On 3 June 1837 an imperial decree stated that the Ministry of Internal Affairs be informed with ‘the appropriate accuracy and detail’ of all architectural finds, and the minister of internal affairs, Count Lev Perovsky, directed the first excavations of royal Scythian burial mounds in this region during the early 1850s. Further excavations, mainly on the Kerch and Taman peninsulas, were generously funded by the Ministry of the Imperial Court, and the finds inspired arts and crafts (fig. 5) and even the interior decor of the New Hermitage, which was intended as a museum and completed in 1851. The collection from the Kunstkamera was transferred to the Hermitage, where it was, and still is, known as ‘Peter I’s Siberian Collection’. In 1854 an album was published containing the most important finds and an Archaeological Commission was founded in 1859 with the following remit:

(1) the search for antiquities, primarily those relating to Russian history and the life of the peoples who once inhabited the territory that is now occupied by Russia; (2) the collection of information on national and other antiquities located within the state; (3) the scientific study and evaluation of the antiquities discovered.1

Fig.5: A gold Scythian bracelet found in 1869 in the fourth-century bc burial mound of Temir-Gora, near Kerch in the northern Black Sea region. Bracelets like this inspired Russian jewelers to make and exhibit copies, and these were copied again by continental European and English firms (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, TG-6).

Royal burial mounds and major sites continued to be the focus in the northern Black Sea region, and large numbers were explored (figs 6–7). The 20-m-high Alexandropol burial mound (also known as the Meadow Grave) was the first to be completely excavated, though most of the finds were lost during bombing in 1941. Other mounds were excavated between 1859 and 1863 by the historian Ivan Zabelin (1820–1908), including the Great Twin Barrow on the Taman peninsula and the famous burial mound of Chertomlyk. The latter stood 20 m high and up to 120 m across, with a massive outer stone wall and a complex tomb with side chambers at the centre: although the central chamber had been robbed in antiquity, valuable finds had been overlooked, and the side rooms still contained the remains of female and warrior burials with rich grave goods.

Fig.6: The interior of a large burial mound known as the ‘Tomb of Mithridates’ near the Lazaretto of Kerch;  Edmund Walker in 1856, after a view by Carlo Bossoli, H. 18.4, W. 28.5 cm; British Museum, London, 1982,U.687 Donated by Westminster City Council)

The exact find-spots of the earliest discoveries made during Peter’s reign remain unclear but are known to have been at different sites between the Ural and Altai mountain ranges in southern Siberia; this was supported by the discovery of typical Scythian objects during excavations in 1865 by academician V. V. Radlov at two large burial mounds (Berel, Katanda) in the Altai region. In 1889 the Archaeological Commission was given exclusive excavation rights and it was agreed that, while the most important finds should be sent to the Hermitage, other pieces could be distributed to local museums. The academician and professor at St Petersburg University Nikolai Veselovsky (1848–1918) led a series of highly successful expeditions to the northern Caucasus and Black Sea region, where he excavated the major burial mounds Oguz (1891–4), Kostromskaya (1897), Kelermes (1904, 1908), Ulsky (1908–10) and Solokha (1912–13); it was in this last mound that he found some of the most spectacular examples of Greco-Scythian goldworking, including a comb topped with a battle scene, a golden phiale (a shallow drinking vessel) with animal designs, an overlay for a bow case with a scene from a Scythian epic and a silver cup depicting a Scythian hunting scene (see Chapter 1).2

Fig.7: Ruins of ancient Chersonesos. Jonathan Needham in 1856, after a view by Carlo Bossoli H. 18.8, W. 28.3 cm (British Museum, London, 1982,U.699 Donated by Westminster City Council).

In October 1917 Russia was convulsed by revolution and the Hermitage was stormed. Huge social changes began to be implemented, and in the first few months the Soviet authorities established a Committee of

the North in order to protect twenty-six ethnic groups in Siberia who were considered at greatest risk: they were exempted from military conscription and taxation, offered basic social amenities, and an attempt was made to teach in native tongues, acknowledging their nomadic existence by schooling in tents. There was also a huge increase in the number of local history societies and museums across the country. However, these measures were short-lived and the individuals concerned were soon accused of supporting local patriotism over national interests.3 In 1929/30 communist collectivization of food production began to be imposed across Russia, nomads were settled, owners of large herds were deported, shamans were outlawed and children were put into Russian boarding schools. It was immediately afterwards, in 1931,

that a detailed census was carried out, which formed the basis for a landmark study by S. Vainshtein of the disappearing nomad economy of the Tuva region.4 During the 1960s local collective farms reorganized into larger enterprises, and the integration of local and Russian populations increased.

In the meantime, on 18 April 1919 the Imperial Archaeological Commission had been dissolved and replaced by the Institute for the History of Material Culture (Lenin personally added the word ‘history’ to its founding edict), and money poured into archaeological projects from the 1930s onwards.5

The Hermitage created three new departments – one that became the Oriental Department in 1920, the Department of Prehistoric Societies (now the Department of the Archaeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia) in 1931, and the Department of the History of Russian Culture in 1941 – and it enjoyed an almost unbroken sequence of directors who were themselves archaeologists. During this period archaeology became politicized and seen as an opportunity for the Soviet authorities to find evidence for Marx’s classification of society into developmental stages, beginning from a pre-class stage through stages of slave-owning, feudalism and capitalism before attaining a classless society with communism as its climax. The superiority of Slavs over Germanic peoples was emphasized while Russia and Germany were at war; cases of ethnogenesis, or the emergence of ethnic groups, were sought within the Soviet Union, and the definition of archaeological cultures and their relationship to linguistic boundaries and peoples were debated.

The origins of the Scythians continued to attract different views. Some Russian scholars saw them as originating in the northern Black Sea region, in the area where they were described by Herodotus. Academician Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1870–1952) interpreted them as a feudal military power, and was the first to begin defining them as an archaeological culture on the grounds of the standard appearance of their burial mounds and other features.6 The Moscow professor Boris Grakov (1899–1970) was the first to excavate large numbers of simple burial mounds belonging to ‘the common people’, in contrast with the previous focus on ‘royal’ mounds; he also thoroughly explored a hill fort at Kamenka, interpreted the Scythians’ social development in Marxist terms as a stage of transition from military democracy to a slave-owning society, and saw the spread of the so-called ‘Scythian triad’ as evidence for the Scythianization of the indigenous forest-steppe population.7 The coexistence of two different Scythian cultures, on the steppe and in the forest-steppe, was instead advocated by Mikhail Artamonov (1898–1972), who later became director of the Hermitage. He wrote extensively on how much Scythian art showed Near Eastern inspiration and emphasized that the Scythians were Iranians rather than Slavs.8 His successor, B. B. Piotrovsky (1908–1990), went on to find dramatic evidence for Scythian military activity in the Caucasus during his excavations of an Urartian fortress at Karmir Blur in Armenia, which had been violently sacked, but distinguishing between objects made by Scythians and the Cimmerians, their early northern rivals in the northern Black Sea region, proved to be a long-running issue.

These and other debates rumbled on for decades, and as late as 1979 the head of Soviet archaeology for thirty years, Boris Rybakov (1908–2001), stated in a book entitled The Scythians of Herodotus that the land- tilling Scythian tribes in the northern Black Sea region were the possible ancestors of later Slav tribes, making a tenuous philological link between the Skolotoi (a name given by Herodotus for other Scythian tribes) and the Sklavins (the Greek for Slavs). However, during the 1920s an ethnological expedition began work in Altai and had already challenged the idea that Scythians originated in the Black Sea region. In 1927 the Russian Museum in Leningrad excavated another burial mound in the central Altai region at Shibe and found it to be very similar to those previously excavated by Radlov. Three years earlier Sergey Rudenko (1885–1969), head of the ethnography section of the Russian Museum in Leningrad, had discovered a group of burial mounds at Pazyryk, and he excavated the first in 1929 with his Siberian-born student Mikhail Gryaznov (1902–1984). Conditions were tough. There were no roads or nearby food supplies, the team had to employ children as labourers, horses were used to drag away the heaviest boulders and water had to be boiled by the side of the trench to melt the permafrost (pp. 98–99; fig. 8).

Fig 8: Excavations in progress at the burial mound of Pazyryk-2 in 1948 (Archive of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg, I-32719).

In the meantime there were serious political problems in Leningrad as Stalin began the ‘Great Terror’ in 1934 with a purge of the intelligentsia as well as the political and military command. A witch-hunt was instigated against individuals who had used ‘bourgeois’ classifications, such as Bronze or Iron Age; ‘archaeology’ was replaced by ‘Marxist history of material culture’; over fifty curators at the Hermitage were deported or executed; and the leading Leningrad archaeologist Aleksandr Miller (1875–1935) was sent to Siberia for ‘writing long drawn-out reports on things he had excavated’, as this was condemned as ‘empiricism’.9 Moreover, collaboration with Russians working abroad, particularly in Germany, was banned and scholars were arrested as spies. Rudenko himself was arrested in 1933, accused of pointless investigations and ethnographic idealism, and spent years working in the northern labour camps (although ironically he was promoted because of his knowledge of hydrology and proved invaluable for his ‘ice forecasts’ during the Soviet supply of the besieged city of Leningrad across the frozen Lake Ladoga in the Second World War). His colleague Gryaznov was also charged with being an underground fascist working with Ukrainian and Russian nationalists, and was exiled internally for three years. In 1941 the Pazyryk collection was transferred from the Russian Museum to the Hermitage, but from September that year until January 1944 Leningrad was besieged by the German army, and it was not until 1947 that Rudenko and Gryaznov returned to Pazyryk, where over three more seasons they excavated the four remaining mounds under the auspices of the Institute of the History of Material Culture, which retains the archives, and the Hermitage, where the finds were deposited.

Although all the tombs had been robbed and there was therefore virtually nothing of intrinsic value remaining, the frozen conditions stemming from the percolation of water into the tomb promoted exceptional preservation of the organic remains, which revolutionized the appreciation of Scythian everyday life.10

Rudenko and Gryaznov shared the same building but parted academic ways and never spoke to each other again. Rudenko established a laboratory of archaeological technology in his institute and championed the application of natural sciences in archaeology. Gryaznov went on to head the Central Asia and Caucasus section: he maintained that archaeological cultures were stages or phases in local development rather than evidence of separate cultures, but his excavations at the early Scythian burial mound at Arzhan-1 overturned earlier views and showed that what was now known as the ‘Scythian triad’ already existed in the Tuva region by the late ninth or early eighth century bc, and that this was not a development of the Black Sea or Iran.11 Although there are similarities in the material culture and pastoral economy, there are also differences in detail of dress, burial customs, pottery and other aspects of lifestyle, and it is better to regard these as evidence for a shifting confederation of powerful tribes united within a Scythian cultural world.

Archaeological research on Scythians is continuing, with excavations each year across the Eurasian steppe, extending from Mongolia through Kazakhstan and Russia to Ukraine. A Ukrainian–German expedition returned to Chertomlyk between 1979 and 1986 and added considerable new evidence for how the mound was built.12 Between 2001 and 2004 a Russian– German expedition directed by K. Chugunov, H. Parzinger and A. Nagler fully excavated another burial mound at Arzhan in Tuva, and proved that the Black Sea tradition of interring large quantities of gold did extend to this region.13 During the 1990s archaeologists from Novosibirsk excavated more ‘frozen mummies’ at unrobbed burial mounds on the Ukok plateau, next to the Chinese border (fig. 9), and in neighbouring Kazakhstan the burial mound of Berel-11 was explored by a Kazakh–French expedition and shown to belong to the same culture as Pazyryk (see pp. 100–103). Concerns that global warming will lead to the melting of the permafrost, which has been the sole reason why these tombs have yielded such exceptional finds, means that these excavations are as much rescue as research.14 Other expeditions are recording the rich rock art traditions, and large areas that include later period sites such as Oglakhty have been designated nature reserves (see p. 342).

Collaborative research and the use of scientific techniques are now common: dendrochronological and radiocarbon dates are refining the dating of sites,15 advances in bioarchaeology are adding information on the genetics, diet and health of both horse and human populations,16 and detailed analyses of metalwork and textiles are throwing new light on technologies.17 This book of the exhibition is intended to show some of these results and how far we have progressed beyond the writings of Herodotus and the first antiquarian discoveries during the reign of Peter the Great.18

Fig.9: Excavations of a ‘frozen mummy’ at Ak-Alakha-3 on the Ukok plateau.

Toyoko Morita: Iranian arrivals to ancient Japan

The article below is by Toyoko Morita and originally appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Morita’s article was originally published in print on December 15, 2008 and last updated on April 10, 2012. This article is also accessible in print Vol. XIV, Fasc. 5, pp. 558-560 and Vol. XIV, Fasc. 6, p. 561). The version published below has embedded photographs, paintings and accompanying captions that did not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica publication/posting. these a combination of lecture slides from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies course entitled: “The Silk Route: origins & History“, previous postings as well as a single image from the public domain.


The first mention of Iranians (Persians) coming to Japan can be found in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), one of the earliest Japanese historical sources, completed in 720 C.E. It records that in 654 C.E. several people arrived in Japan from Tokhārā (Aston, pp. 246, 251, 259). Though there is some controversy about the location of Tokhārā, some scholars have claimed the name to be a shortened version of Toḵārestān, which was part of the territory of Sasanian Persia (Itō, 1980, pp. 5-10).

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, it is mentioned that in 660, when an Iranian (Persian), whose name was Dārā, returned to his country, he left his wife in Japan and promised the Emperor that he would come back and work for him again (Aston, p. 266; Imoto, 2002, pp. 58-60).

One of Kaveh Farrokh’s  lecture slides at UBC (University of British Columbia) outlining the influence of Sassanian arts on Japan (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

In the 7th to the 9th centuries, foreigners—then known in Japanese as toraijin—were coming to Japan mainly from Korea and China, bringing with them technology, culture, religion (Buddhism), and ideas. Eastern Asia, especially the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), had socio-economic networks with many regions of the world, including southern and western Asia.

An enduring Sassanian legacy in Japan: the Biwa and its ancient Iranian ancestor, the Barbat (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international city with people from various countries, including Iranians (Persians), some of whom traveled further to Japan. Iranian names are to be met with in historical documents, and one can find some influence of Persian culture in the architecture, sculptures, and also in the customs and old Japanese rituals at that time. For example, some scholars have claimed that there is some influence of Persian culture in the Omizutori ritual held every February at Tōdaiji temple in Nara (Itō, 1980, pp. 125-33).

A photo of the Omizutori ritual held on March 9, 2007 in Nara, Japan (Source: “ignis” in public domain). Note that these are monks carrying torches across the balcony of the structure. This may perhaps bear echoes of ancient Zoroastrian or related mythological influences bought over by Iranian-speaking arrivals to ancient Japan.

The oldest document in Persian, which is preserved in Japan, was procured by the Japanese priest named Kyōsei (1189-1268) from Iranians (Persians) during his trip to southern Asia in 1217. Thinking they were Indians, the priest asked them to write something for him as a keepsake. However, after his return to Japan he found out that they were not Indians, because no one could understand what the writing meant. This document—a single page—was discovered in the late 20th century, when it was established that it is written in Persian and contains a line from Abu’l-Qāsem Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (qq.v.), a line from Faḵr-al-Din Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (qq.v.), and a quatrain of unknown authorship (Okada, 1989).

Scientists have used infrared imaging technology to analyze carvings on a piece of wood from – century Japan. The writings on the wood appears to name a Persian mathematics lecturer who worked at a facility in a millennium ago Japan where government ministers were trained in the former Japanese capital of Nara for more on this click here

Sheda Vasseqhi PhD Study: Positioning of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization

Sheda Vasseghi has completed her PhD Dissertation at the University of New England entitled:

Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England (download this at …)

Sheda Vasseqhi

Vasseghi’s PhD academic advising team were composed of the following members: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh.

Her study explored a number of widely taught college-level history textbooks in order to examine how these positioned Iran and Iranian peoples in the origins of Western Civilization. As noted by Vasseghi in her abstract:

“Western Civilization history marginalizes, misrepresents, misappropriates, and/or omits Iran’s positioning. Further, the mainstream approach to teaching Western Civilization history includes the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman narrative.”

Vasseghi used a multi-faceted theoretical approach—decolonization, critical pedagogy, and Western Civilization History dilemma—since her study transcended historical revisionism. This collective case study involved eleven Western Civilization history textbooks that, according to the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), are most popular among American college faculty. Vasseghi reviewed and collected expert opinion on the following five themes:

(1) terminology and definition of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian languages

(2) roots and origins of Iranian peoples

(3) which Iranian peoples are noted in general

(4) which Iranian peoples in ancient Europe are specifically noted

(5) Iranians in connection with six unique Western Civilization attributes.

Vasseghi selected experts specializing in Iranian, Western Civilization, and Indo-European studies in formulating a consensus on each theme. She then compared expert opinion to content in surveyed textbooks. Vasseghi discovered that the surveyed textbooks in her study overwhelmingly omitted, ill-defined, misrepresented, or marginalized Iran and Iranians in the origins of Western Civilization.

Readers are encouraged to visit Kaveh Farrokh’s profile cited in the introduction of this post to download Sheda Vasseghi’s Dissertation. Here is one of the quotes from her study:

“The researcher recommends that textbook authors and publishers engage experts in the field of Iranian studies in formulating content. A caveat for engaging those in the field of Iranian studies when writing Western Civilization history textbooks involves making a distinction between a native Iran and post-Islamic invasion and colonization of Iran in early Middle Ages (7th century onwards). That is, in the Age of Antiquity, Iran was under an Iranian governance and ancestral beliefs such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.”

This is an important observation given Western Media and academic outlets using sweeping (if not simplistic) terms such as “Middle East”, “Muslims”, etc. without acknowledging the context of Iran’s unique background, ancient history and language(s). Put simply, terms such as “Middle East” are not scientific but geopolitical in origin. The term “Muslim Civilization” for example serves to dilute (or even blur) the critical role of Iranian and Indian scholars in the preservation and promotion of learning, sciences and medicine. Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) who in his Muqaddimah (translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91) has acknowledged the role of the Iranians in the promotion of scholarship:

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

[For more see: Farrokh, K. (2015). Pan-Arabism and Iran. In “The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism” (Immanuel Ness & Zak Cope, Eds.), Palgrave-Macmillan, pp.915-923.]

Sources such as Ibn Khaldun are now rarely mentioned in many modern-day “Islamic Studies” in Western history textbooks which may explain in part the numerous errors uncovered in Vasseghi’s study. She further avers:

“Critical pedagogy is important in transformational leadership in education. Educators are obligated to point out errors or problems in content and mainstream narratives. In regards to teaching history of Western Civilization, one should recall the warnings of its looming demotion by Ricketts et al. (2011) because unfortunately teaching it “had come to be seen as a form of apologetics for racism, imperialism, sexism, and colonialism” (p. 14). It appears that in perceiving that something is missing from or fragmented in Western Civilization history content, educational institutions are now marginalizing and omitting it from their curriculum in America, a Western nation. Therefore, the significance of this study is the need for authors and educators to shift the currently flawed narrative on the history of the West. Iran’s positioning is a key component in the study of Western Civilization. The researcher argues that Iran and Iranians not only influenced the making of the West; they are part of the West. By placing Iran and Iranians where they belong, historians may also address concerns about teaching the history of the West (Ricketts et al., 2011).”

In her final PhD defense session with her research committee (Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh) on Monday, March 20, 2017, Vasseghi noted that she plans to author books tailored to Western audiences to help educate with respect to the role of Iranians in the formation of European civilization. Vasseghi’s books would also be geared towards a lay (non-academic) audience.

New York Times: Artifacts Show Sophistication of Ancient Nomads

The article below on “Artifacts Show Sophistication of Ancient Nomads” was first published in the New York Times in March 12, 2014. Kindly note that while the article is highly informative, it does make one misleading statement:

As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves

This leads the reader to the erroneous impression that the identity and language of the ancient Eurasian nomads are unknown. Linguists have long known of the identity and language of the Scythians and their Sarmatian-Alan successors. Below are a select number of quotes from prominent scholars in the field:

  • Channon & Hudson: “… Scythians and Sarmatians were of Iranian origin” (1995, p.18); Channon, J. & Hudson, R. (1995). The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia. London: Penguin Books.
  • Sulimirski identifies Scythians & Sarmatians “…akin to the ancient Medes, Parthians and Persians(1970, p.22); Sulimirski, T (1970), The Sarmatians. Thames & Hudson, London.
  • Cotterell: “…the close relations of the Scythians with the Persians is perhaps most illustrative…in the…fact that…Scythians and Persians spoke closely related languages and understood each other without translators” (2004, p.61); Cotterell, A. (2004). The Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. London, England: Pimlico.
  • Newark notes that the Scythians were: “…Indo-European in appearance and spoke an Iranian tongue which bought them more closely to the Medes and Persians” (Newark, 1998, p.6); Newark, T. (1998). Barbarians.
  • Mariusz & Mielczarek: “The Sarmatians…spoke an Iranian language similar to that of the Scythians and closely related to Persian” (2002, p.3); Mariusz, R. & Mielczarek,R. (2002).  The Sarmatians: 600 BC-450 AD. Osprey Publishing.


Ancient Greeks had a word for the people who lived on the wild, arid Eurasian steppes stretching from the Black Sea to the border of China. They were nomads, which meant “roaming about for pasture.” They were wanderers and, not infrequently, fierce mounted warriors. Essentially, they were “the other” to the agricultural and increasingly urban civilizations that emerged in the first millennium B.C.

Saka ParadrayaA reconstruction of the European Scythians (the Saka Paradraya) by the late Angus McBride. As noted by Cotterell “:..the close relations of the Scythians (Saka) with the Persians is perhaps most illustrative…in the … fact that the Scythians and Persians spoke closely related languages and understood each other without translators” (Cotterell, A. The Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. London, England: Pimlico, 2004, p.61).

As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves. To their literate neighbors, they were the ubiquitous and mysterious Scythians or the Saka, perhaps one and the same people. In any case, these nomads were looked down on — the other often is — as an intermediate or an arrested stage in cultural evolution. They had taken a step beyond hunter-gatherers but were well short of settling down to planting and reaping, or the more socially and economically complex life in town.

But archaeologists in recent years have moved beyond this mind-set by breaking through some of the vast silences of the Central Asian past.

Scythian Arts-1-teardrop-shaped gold plaqueA teardrop-shaped gold plaque is one of the objects that shows the strong social differentiation of nomad society (Source: New York Times).

These excavations dispel notions that nomadic societies were less developed than many sedentary ones. Grave goods from as early as the eighth century B.C. show that these people were prospering through a mobile pastoral strategy, maintaining networks of cultural exchange (not always peacefully) with powerful foreign neighbors like the Persians and later the Chinese.

Some of the most illuminating discoveries supporting this revised image are now coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders with Russia and China. From the quality and workmanship of the artifacts and the number of sacrificed horses, archaeologists have concluded that these were burials of the society’s elite in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. By gift, barter or theft, they had acquired prestige goods, and in time their artisans adapted them in their own impressive artistic repertory.

 Scythian Arts-2-Copper Alloy TrayA copper alloy tray on a conical stand with an archer at center (Source: New York Times).

Almost half of the 250 objects in a new exhibition, “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” are from these burials of a people known as the Pazyryk culture. The material, much of which is on public display for the first time, can be seen at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, on loan from Kazakhstan’s four national museums. Two quietly spectacular examples are 13 gold pieces of personal adornment, known as the Zhalauli treasure of fanciful animal figures; and the Wusun diadem, a gold openwork piece with inlaid semiprecious stones from a burial in the Kargaly Valley in southern Kazakhstan. The diadem blends nomad and Chinese characteristics, including composite animals in the Scytho-Siberian style and a horned dragon in an undulating cloudscape.

Artifacts from recent kurgan digs include gold pieces; carved wood and horn; a leather saddle; a leather pillow for the deceased’s head; and textiles, ceramics and bronzes. Archaeologists said the abundance of prestige goods in the burials showed the strong social differentiation of nomad society.

 Scythian Arts-3-An embroidery-winged bullAn embroidery of a winged bull (Source: New York Times).

Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s chief curator, writes in the exhibit’s catalog, published by Princeton University Press, that the collection portrays “a world of nomadic groups that, far from being underdeveloped, fused distinct patterns of mobility with apparently sophisticated ritual practices expressive of a close connection to the natural world, to complex burial practices and to established networks and contacts with the outside world.”

Walking through the exhibit, Dr. Chi pointed to nomad treasures, remarking:

The popular perception of these people as mere wanderers has not caught up with the new scholarship.”

Excavation at the Altai kurgans, near the village of Berel, was begun in 1998 by a team led by Zainolla S. Samashev, director of the Margulan Institute of Archaeology, on a natural terrace above the Bukhtarma River. Some work had been done there by Russians in the 19th century. But the four long lines of kurgans, at least 70 clearly visible, invited more systematic exploration.

Of the 24 Berel kurgans investigated so far, Dr. Samashev said in an interview, the two he started with were among the largest. The mounds, about 100 feet in diameter, rise about 10 to 15 feet above the surrounding surface. The pit itself is about 13 feet deep and lined with logs. At the base of Kurgan 11, he said, the arrangement of huge stones let the cold air in but not out.

This and other physical aspects of the pits created permafrost, which preserved much of the organic matter in the graves — though looting long ago disturbed permafrost conditions. Still, enough survived of bones, hair, nails and some flesh to tell that some of the bodies had tattoos and had been embalmed. Hair of the buried men had been cut short and covered with wigs.

 Scythians Arts-4-Kurgan ReconstructionA drawing showing the construction of a Kurgan (Source: New York Times).

The Kazakh conservator of the artifacts, Altynbekov Krym, said that remains in several kurgans were a challenge. As noted by Krym:

Everything was jumbled together, getting moldy almost immediately…took six years experimenting to create a new methodology to clean and preserve the material.”

Dr. Samashev said that his international crew, which is limited by climate to summer work, had excavated at least one kurgan a year. Several were burials of lesser figures. These were usually only a man and one horse. Kurgan 11 had a man who apparently met a violent death in his 30s; a woman who died later; and 13 horses, dressed in formal regalia before they were sacrificed.

So many horses, found in a separate section of the pit, affirmed the man’s lofty social status. Their leather saddles with embroidered cloth survived, as well as bridle and other tack decorated with plaques of real and mythical animals — like griffins, which had the body of a tiger or lion with wings and the head of a bird.

Scythians Arts-6-Feline

A feline face and stylized ornaments from horse tack, made of wood, tin and gold foil (Source: New York Times).

Soren Stark, an assistant professor of Central Asian art and archaeology at the N.Y.U. institute, said networks of contacts with the outside world were crucial to the political structure of the people throughout the Altai and Tianshan Mountains.

On the most basic level, they moved with the seasons by horse and camel, tending the flocks of sheep and goats that gave them the meat, milk, wool and hides of their pastoral economy. To make the most out of grasslands that were only seasonally productive, they went in small family groups into the highland meadows for summer grazing and returned to the lowlands in winter. They crossed broad plains to avoid overgrazing any one marginal pasture.

At their late autumn and winter campsites, herders assembled in large groups and engaged in tribal hunts and rituals. The exhibition includes bronze caldrons, presumably for preparing communal feasts, and several bronze stands, including one with a seated man holding a cup and facing a horse, that have the experts puzzled. Equally enigmatic are the symbols on rock faces that perhaps mark sacred places.

Saka Tigrakhauda at PersepolisSaka Tigra-khauda (Old Persian: pointed-hat Saka/Scythians) as depicted in the ancient Achaemenid city-palace of Persepolis. It was northern Iranian peoples such as the Sakas (Scythians) and their successors, the Sarmatians and Alans, who were to be the cultural link between Iran and ancient Europe  (Picture used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

From the camps, parties of mounted warriors set out to raid settlements, both to supplement their meager resources and to obtain luxury goods coveted by their leaders. Dr. Stark said the nomad elite considered such goods necessities to be displayed and distributed to key followers “to build up and sustain their political power.”

As their networks widened, foreign influences, notably Persian, began to appear in nomadic artifacts from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. The griffin, for example, originated in the West by way of the Persian Empire, centered in what is now Iran; the nomads modified it to have two heads of birds of prey topped by elk horns.

Scythians Arts-5-Snow LeopardA gold and turquoise plaque of a snow leopard mask consisting of two facing ibex heads and flying bird (8th to 7th centuries B.C.; Height 1.56 centimeters; width 2.48 centimeters; depth 0.2 centimeters) (Source: New York Times).

Beginning in the third century B.C., Chinese luxury items, like the Wusun diadem, appeared in nomad burials, mainly associated with Han dynasty. According to Chinese accounts, the Wusun nomads may have furthered contacts between Central Asian nomads and Han China, at the time expanding westward and in need of horses in its campaign against borderland rivals.

For all their networking, the nomads of the first millennium B.C. never failed to apply imaginative touches to the foreign artifacts they acquired. Dr. Chi, the curator, said the nomads transformed others’ fantastic animals into even more fantastic versions: boars curled in teardrop shapes and griffins that seemed to change their parts in a single image.

By these enigmatic symbols, a prewriting culture communicated its worldview from a vast and ungenerous land that it could never fully tame — any more than these people of the horse were ever ready to settle down.

Professor Shapour Shahbazi: Amazons

The posting below highlights the late Professor Shapour Shahbazi’s discussion of Amazon female warriors which was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1989.


AMAZONS, designation of a fabulous race of female warriors in Greek beliefs, writings, and art, fancifully explained as a-mazos (breastless or full-breasted, see Toepfer, in Pauly-Wissowa I/2, cols. 1765f.). Its derivation from Old Iranian *maz- (combat), producing a folkname *ha-mazan “warrior” (J. Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Bern, I, p. 1959) is also disputed (M. Mayrhofer, “Das angebliche iranische Etyman des Amazonen-Namens,” Studi linguistici in onore di Vittore Pisani, II, Brescia, 1969, pp. 66l-66). The Greeks placed the Amazons on the edge of the world they knew: first, on the Thermodon in northeast Asia Minor and later on the Tanais; and on the Caucasus or even on the Jaxartes as geographical explorations pushed “the East” further (Toepfer, ibid., cols. 1755f.). Thrace (Virgil Aeneid 2.659f.) and Libya (Diodorus 3.53f.) were also claimed as their habitat. Originally, they were associated with Asia Minor, where many cities (Myrine, Cyme and Ephesus) were alleged as their foundations (Diodorus ibid.; Strabo 12.3, 21; Tacitus Annals 3.61.2), and they were made the children of Harmonia—a nymph—and Ares, the clan god to whom they sacrificed white horses. Artemis was another of their chief deities (Toepfer, op. cit., cols 1764f.). Later, however, they were connected with the Scythians as the ancestors of the Sauromatae (Herodotus 4.110-17) or the wives of Asia Minor Scythians whom their neighbors had vanquished (Justin 2.4).

female-scythian-warriorA reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. What is also notable is the costume of the Iranian female warrior – this type of dress continues to appear in parts of Luristan in Western Iran (for more on this topic see – Fezana article on Ancient Iranian Women).

The Massagatae Scythians who defeated and killed Cyrus the Great east of the Caspian Sea were said to be ruled by an Amazon-like queen (Herodotus I, 20 s f.), and it was on the Jaxartes that an Amazon queen came to Alexander’s camp with 300 female warriors to beget children from him and his Macedonian notables (Arrian Anabasis 4.15, 4, 7.13, 4; Curtius 6.5, 24f.; Plutarch Alexander 46). Dionysus also conquered them on his Eastern campaign, a modification, it is claimed, of Alexander stories (W. R. Halliday, The Greek Questions of Plutarch, Oxford, 1928, p. 210f.).

Amazon-3-AchaemenidsA reconstruction of a female Achaemenid cavalry unit by Shapur Suren-Pahlav.

The Amazon’s particular importance is due to their popularity in art from the 7th Century B.C. onward. They are represented in vase paintings and sculptured reliefs in various mythical episodes, against Achilles, Heracles, Theseus and Bellerphone, particularly after the Persian invasion of Greece. For in the mythical invasions of Attica by the Amazons and the defuse of Theseus, implications of the Persian expedition and its fate were perfectly evident. This was highlighted by the oriental background or connections of the Amazons, evidenced especially in their costume—short tunic, Iranian trousers, often variegated and elaborately patterned, and pointed hat with cheek flaps and long neck-guard—and their equipment; the bow, the javelin and the light, crescent-shaped shield, also recalled Oriental arms, as can be seen from such Graeco-Persian monuments as the Heroon of Gjölbaschi, the Nereid Monuments, and the Alexander Sarcophagus (A. Klügmann, Die Amazonen in der attischen Literature und Kunst, Stuttgart, 1875; Pauly-Wissowa, I/2, cols. 1761-89; E. Bielefeld, Amazonomachia: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Motivwanderung in der antiken Kunst, Halle, 1951; D. Bothmer, Amazons in Greek Art, Oxford, 1957; A. Sh. Shahbazi, The Irano-Lycian Monuments, Tehran, 1975, p. 82).

Gun-totting-Iranian-women-MalayerIranian women from Malayer (near Hamedan in the northwest) engaged in target practice in the Eznab area of Malayer city limits in the late 1950s.  The association between weapons and women is nothing new in Iran; Roman references for example note of Iranian women armed as regular troops in the armies of the Sassanians (224-651 AD).

The Amazons have also found their way into Persian literature and romances through the Alexander-romance of the Pseudo-Callisthenes (The History of Alexander the Great: being the Syriac Version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes, ed. and tr. E. A. W. Budge, Cambridge, 1889, pp. 127f.).