Historical Reminders of the Scythians in Ukraine

Thousands of burial mounds across the southern steppes of Ukraine remain as a reminder of the historical presence of the Scythians, a semi-nomadic equestrian tribe who occupied the area between the 7th century BC and the 4th century AD. Scholars are of the opinion that the Scythians, who were of Iranian descent and spoke an Iranian dialect, started moving into the region in the late 8th century BC after being ousted from Central Asia. The Scythians drove off the Cimmerians who had been occupying the steppes, some of whom settled on the Black Sea coastline, with others waging a successful campaign to occupy Sardis in Lydia, part of the territory then known as Asia Minor.

The Scythians were reportedly often involved in skirmishes with their neighbors, including the Sarmatians to the east and Thracians to the west. When attacked by Persian king Darius I in 513-512 BC, the Scythians used scorched-earth and withdrawal strategies to force their attackers to retreat, thereby establishing their position as occupiers of the steppes. By the end of the 5th century BC the Scythians had established the fortified settlement of Kamianka and made it their capital. Most of the ruins of the settlement on the lower Dnieper River were submerged by the Kakhivka Reservoir created in 1956.

The Scythians were accomplished equestrian archers, taking great pride in raising, training and caring for their horses. In addition to their archery and sword fighting skills, the Scythians were unified by their warrior mentality where ‘blood brothers’ supported one another and those who distinguished themselves in battle were honored with praise and riches. But conflict with neighbors was an ongoing problem in those times, and eventually continued attacks by Sarmatians and an assault by Germanic Goths brought the rule of the Scythians to an end.

Although their semi-nomadic existence necessitated keeping possessions to a minimum, the items they did possess were expertly crafted. The majority of the burial mounds are thought to have been plundered before archeologists got to them. Nonetheless, some interesting items of historical value have been retrieved from a few of the more than 3,000 burial mounds excavated by archeologists. The Velyky Ryzhanivsky Kurhan, a burial mound located around 75 miles south of Kiev, was excavated by Ukrainian and Polish archeologists in 1996-1998. Amazingly, the site had remained untouched prior to this and the archeologists found the burial chamber of a Scythian chieftain. A bow and arrows, along with a sword, were found with the remains of the chieftain. He had a silver ornament decorated with images of lions around his neck, and lying at his feet was a gold headdress. Researchers also discovered silver vessels and evidence of food and wine being placed there. The bones of a horse and human were found at the entrance of the chamber and they are thought to have been sacrificed to accompany the chieftain into the afterlife.

Thanks to the perseverance and patience of archeologists, these hidden treasures were brought to light and provide interesting insight into cultures that rose and fell in the land that is now Ukraine.