Sword in a gold scabbard

Sword in a gold scabbard

Item description

  • Sword in a gold scabbard
  • Gold, iron
  • North Pontic area, last quarter of the 6th - early 5th century BC
  • L (hilt): 18.2 сm; W: 6.2 cm; Weight: 358 gr. (including the iron)
  • L (upper sheet): 19.6 cm; W: 7.5 cm; Weight: 104 gr.
  • L (scabbard): 43.2 сm; W: 4.6 сm; Weight: 532 gr. (including the iron)
  • Provenance: English Private Collection, ex-German Private Collection.

The sword consists of three parts: a gold hilt with a portion of the iron blade; two sheet gold sections of a composite scabbard in the form of an upper decorative plate; and the lower part of the scabbard casing with the remains of an iron blade inside.

The hilt of the sword has a massive openwork pommel, cast in the round, which takes the form of two addorsed recumbent female elk. Birds of prey perch on the heads of the elk with folded wings, their heads touching. The handle is decorated along its length with a vertical row of inverted feline protomes framed by plain double curves in deep relief. These may symbolise antlers as the set at the top ends in eagle protomes. On the cross guard two large recumbent female elk, again addorsed and with their heads turned over their backs, are attacked by stylised eagles. The birds have large circular talons and their beaks dig into the shoulders of the animals. A broken section of the iron blade is preserved at the bottom of the guard.

The upper decorative sheet of the scabbard, of tapering rectangular shape with a rounded upper end, has been worked with animal figures in high relief. It is fashioned with flanges along both sides which are pierced with fixing holes; these, combined with dog-tooth flanges on the reverse of the rounded top edge, were used to secure the sheet to a liner made presumably of leather, mounted over a wooded scabbard. Two addorsed elk, their legs folded and heads turned over their backs, decorate the rounded upper section. Small figures of wild boar crouch in the fields above their backs. Two decorative motifs of inverted conjoined bird and horse heads separate these large animals from the two symmetrical rows of animals running down the length of the casing. Nine different animals are depicted, separated by a vertical band of fourteen bear-head protomes. From top to bottom, the animals represented are: stags, lions, boar, horned bulls/buffalo, felines, rams, horses, mules and elk.

The lower scabbard casing is made of plain gold sheet with the edges overlapping at the rear. Its upper section is decorated with bands of zig-zag granulation and pendant triangles formed of filigree wire and granulation. A broad, undecorated loop is soldered horizontally to the rear of this casing.

This sword is one of a small group of high-status Scythian parade swords with composite bipartite scabbards. Four of these are known to be from the North Pontic area: from the barrow near Shumeiko Farmstead; from Ostraya Mogila near the village of Tomakovka; from a barrow near the village of Aleksandrovka (modern Ukraine); and from the ‘Golden Barrow’ in the Crimea. These can be dated to the last quarter of the sixth to early fifth century BC. The fifth is represented by the sword from the Vettersfelde Treasure (modern western Poland) also dated to the last quarter of the 6th century BC. Our sword differs from the others as the hilt and the lower part of the scabbard are fitted with heavy gold on both sides. With its sophisticated and superbly executed animal style, it is without question the finest of all surviving examples.

Analysis of the construction of these swords, suggest that our sword may be considered as an evolution of the swords of Vettersfelde type. It seems likely also that our example predates all the other swords found in the Dnieper basin and the Crimea and was used as their prototype. The suggestion is further confirmed by the somewhat similar design of the decorative plate on the sword from Ostraya Mogila, decorated along the central axis with a vertical row of panther’s heads, reminiscent in their arrangement of the central row the decorative plate on the sword discussed. The repeated identical images of crouched panthers appear in a vertical row on the decorative plate of the Shumeiko sword, however, occupying almost all it surface. In contrast to the matrix-hammered images on the decorative plates of these swords, presupposing the series manufacture, ours is decorated free-hand (sf. observations by J. Ogden).

Given its shape the finial of the sword varies from the finials of other swords with two-partite scabbards. The swords from Vettersfelde and the barrow near Shumeiko Farmstead have bar-shaped finials, and the sword from Aleksandrovka an oval-shaped finial. The decoration of the sword finial in the form of sculpted figures of animals in the antithetic pose finds prototypes on the finials of daggers from the 7th century BC barrow Аrzhan-2 in South Siberia, аs well as on iron daggers of the Scythoid Tagar culture in South Siberia and those found in the Scythian barrows in Mountainous Altai. By the same token there is a decorated handle of the akinakes from the barrow no. 1 near the village of Philippovka in the Southern Ural, which is dated to the late 5th – early 4th century BC. The scenes, representing a bird of prey sitting on a hoofed animal and tearing at its flesh, are comparatively rare. In Scythian art there are widespread examples of compositions with birds of prey picking a fish. A gryph sitting en face on an ibex, shown in profile, is presented on an Achaemenid style gold plaque from the Siberian collection. Similar motifs with eagles sitting on a head of a hoofed animal were spread in the Achaemenid glyptics.

The use in the decoration of the hilt finial, as well as the cross-guard and the upper part of the decorative plate, ensures that the image of the elk attracts attention. The images of elk are not typical for the animal style of the Northern Black sea, the Lower Volga area and the South Ural region. On the contrary, in Siberia, where they occur already in the Eneolith and in the Bronze Age, the images of elk may be found on the Tagar bronzes, as well as carved in wood (for instance on the lids of sarcophagi) from the Altai barrows (Tuekta, Bashadar, Pazyryk), and also as application on leather or birch bark. Especially numerous are the images of elk on the felt appliqués from the 4th – 3rd century BC Pazyryk barrows. It is worth noting that the images of elk are extremely rare in the Archaic Scythian art of the south of Eastern Europe, represented primarily by the engraving on bone. The best-known example of recumbent elk with their heads turned back, are on bone plates and plaques from the barrow no. 2 near the village of Zhabotin in the territory of the right shore of Dnieper forest-steppe. These are considered by modern scholars as one of the earliest examples of the Scythian animal style in the North Pontic area.

The only Archaic images of elk and female elk in gold in the Kuban area are represented on the axe from the Kelermess barrow, bearing close parallels in the Mountaineous Altai, in the Ob’ basin and in Kirgisia. Since the second quarter of the 5th century BC the images of elk are much more wide-spread, primarily in the art of the forest-steppe zone of European Scythia.

A comparatively early dating for our sword is suggested by the style of the decoration of the hilt and the upper decorative plate, which echoes the Scythian animal style of the late 7th to early 6th century BC. This is made clear by the characteristic division of the body surface into wide planes. This is comparable, for instance, to the treatment of the figure of a stag on a plaque from Kostromskaya, and to a panther on a plaque from the Kelermess barrows, and the horses on the overlays of the bridle phalerae from the Kelermess barrow. The images of animal pairs moving towards each other may be compared with the decoration of the handle of the Kelermess axe. Unlike the profile images of moving and recumbent animals however, these are single images and stylistically they have nothing in common with the animal images on the decorative plate. The frieze of moving animals, certain elements of which find parallels on the decorative plate, is shown in the lower part of the 5th century BC Thracian bronze matrix from Garchinovo in North-Western Bulgaria, executed under the influence of the Scythian animal style. In another part of the Eurasian world there are examples of friezes of animals in motion, in the tigers represented in the wood-carving on the lid of the sarcophagus from the above-mentioned Bashadar barrow in Altai.

A special attention deserves the composition of the decorative plate, representing the symmetrical images of pairs of animals grouped on the both sides of the vertical row of the bear heads. The images of standing one against the other animals in mirror symmetry, wide-spread in the art of the Ancient East and adopted by the Greek art, are unusual for the archaic animal style of the North Pontic area and the Northern Caucasus. In these areas there usually appears a heraldic composition of two identical animals, touching each other with their mauls and legs, or vertical rows composed of single identical animal images, as on the cross-shaped plaques of the so-called Olbian type. These were probably used as emblems of quivers or frontlets of horse harness (from Gusarka and Opishlyanka barrow in the Dnieper area, for instance), appeared already in the 6th century BC, but were still in use in the early 5th century, being a local type which do not having prototypes in the Early Archaic Scythian culture.

On the contrary, in the Scythian animal style of South Siberia such compositions had been wide-spread since the 7th century BC. These can be seen in images of confronting and touching each other felines on the hilt finials and cross guards of one of the daggers from Arzhan-2 barrow; on the iron Tagar dagger from the vicinities of Minusinsk. It may be also observed on a bronze decorative plate with doe images and on a fragmentary silver overlay of a sword scabbard showing the pairs of felines from the Tuekta barrow no. 1).

In the art of the European Scythia the compositions of confronting animals or fantastic creatures, most often griffins, were spread primarily in the metalwork of the Graeco-Scythian style as late as the 4th century BC. In our hypothesis – that the sword discussed could have served as a prototype for the swords like those found in Ostraya Mogila near Tomakovka, and in the barrow near Shumeiko Farmstead – it appears evident why the craftsmen who created the matrices for their decorative plates rejected the scenes of confronting animals, preferring to leave the corresponding spaces entirely free of images. This is especially distinct on the sword from Ostraya Mogila.

In relation to the suggestion that our sword was used as a prototype for the swords with bipartite scabbards from the Dnieper basin and the Crimea, comes the observations that the decorative images of our sword could have served as models for certain images developed in the animal style art of North Pontic Scythia in the late 6th - first half of the 5th century BC.

Elements of decoration such as the protomes of felines and bears decorating the hilt and the decorative scabbard plate appear amongst animal style objects from the Lower Volga and Kuban basins as well as from the forest-steppe zone of the Dnieper. The closest parallel for the bear protome – characterizing not only by a similar treatment of the muzzle, but also similarly elongated nose, decorated with transverse notches – is displayed on a gold appliqué from the barrow no. 402 near the village of Zhurovka in the right bank of Dnieper forest-steppe zone, dated to the first half of the 5th century BC.

Another interesting feature on the decorative plaque of our sword are the bands of pearl pattern in relief which appear on the edge of the neck of lions in the second row of the plaque, as on the neck of the elk shown on the left part of the upper rounded end of the same plaque. Such decoration on the necks of the animals, starting with the hoofed animals (often deer), became widespread in the North Pontic Scythian art during the 5th century BC, primarily in its first part, which is proved by the decoration of the sewn appliqués in the form of stags cat. no. 4.

On our sword the style of the filigree and granulated decoration of the lower scabbard casing differs markedly from the animal style of the upper decorative plate and the sword hilt. A similar discrepancy in style characterises the swords from Tomakovka and the barrow near Shumeiko Farmstead. This type of decoration, with bands of filigree wire, rows of granulated triangles and teardrop wire settings intended for enamel, is an important feature both for the dating of the swords and their attribution to particular production centres. Settings made of flat wire with granules on their tops and rows of granulated triangles are decorative motifs which were widespread in Greek jewellery manufactured in the 6th century BC, including articles which may be attributed to jewellers working in Olbia in the North Pontic area.

Taking account of the very sophisticated construction and the decoration of the kernel of the hilt, it may be suggested that it was made of cast iron, and that the smith used a technique that had been developed in China in the late 6th century BC. Recently, scholars posited a Chinese manufacture of the above-mentioned iron Tagar daggers, since their boasting hilts bearing similarly complicated reliefs with animal images, аs well as the daggers from the barrow Arzhan-2. This does not exclude the possibility that this technique could have been originally developed by the Scythian blacksmiths in South Siberia.

The most likely place of manufacture for the swords constructed with a bipartite scabbard seems to be a workshop in one of the North Pontic Greek centres. Excavations at these centres yielded abundant evidence of both workshops and the manufacture of gold for Scythian clients in the late 6th century BC. It seems plausible however, that this was a collaborative work by North Pontic Greek and an Eastern Scythian craftsmen (cf. the observation made by J. Ogden, that the sword was made by a goldsmith and a blacksmith) at the court of one of the Scythian kings, as was the case in the late 7th century BC with the unique items of metalworking from the Kelermess barrows in the Kuban area, produced by foreign craftsmen from Asia Minor or the Near East.

Considering the fact that the relief images of the hilt were first appeared in iron and were then mounted with gold sheet (cf. observations by J. Ogden), we may assume that the iron blade and hilt, as well as the unpreserved wooden liner of decorative plate, may have been executed by a Scythian smith originating from the East, while all the gold ornamental decorative elements may have been crafted in collaboration with a North Pontic Greek goldsmith. This suggestion is further corroborated by the use of the same type of wirework with braids framed with plain wires both on the scabbard overlay and on the hilt, just below its finial (cf. observations by J. Ogden), which proves the unity and the integrity of the gold work of the different parts of the sword. The reliefs on the decorative plate along with the images on the hilt could have been done after the carvings of the wooden liner (cf. observations by J. Ogden) executed by the Scythian artisan. The quality of Scythian wood-carving is well known after the magnificent examples preserved in the Altai barrows, and we are also aware of Scythian gold work hammered over the wood liner.

The swords with the bipartite scabbards are not the only objects of the late 6th – early 5th century, combining the images of the animal style with the fine filigree decoration with the coloured inlays. A relief figure of a panther with a sculpted head, a decoration of a quiver, found together with an above-mentioned sword in the Golden barrow in the Crimea, is executed in the Scythian animal style. It is overlaid with sheet gold over a cast bronze liner: its body is covered with wirework originally inlaid, similar to that of the group of the swords with bipartite scabbards. The piece is unique in the context of the Scythian art of Eastern Europe, and is compared stylistically by some scholars with the wood-carvings from Altai barrows. Indeed, the treatment of the body with the front part of the body and forepaws shown almost en face, while and the back part of the body and hind legs - in profile, as well as the treatment of the head find almost exact analogy on the wooden plaques of horse-harness, showing winged tigers from the Tuekta barrow no. 1. It seems that this piece was cast by a Scythian bronze-smith, while the finish with gold mount decorated with filigree and inlays was executed by the Greek North Pontic goldsmith. The following observation seems important. In comparison with its prototypes from Altai, the feline from the Golden barrow “lost” the wings. The Altai scheme of representation of the feline’s body finds its further development on bronze frontlets of horse harness from the Scythian barrows of the first half of the 5th century BC in Dnieper basin, from Zhurovka and Makeevka. Thus, we observe the same mechanism of transformation of the images of the Scythian-Siberian animal style in the art of the North Pontic Scythia of the first half of the 5th century BC, as it happened with the images on our sword.

The hypothesis about the collaborative work of artisans of various origins may be inferred by the aesthetic complexity and technological achievements of the Eastern Scythian world reflected in the marvellous representation of the various images of Scythian animal style (the hilt and the decorative plate). The combination of the former with the elaborate Greek ornamental style of the North Pontic area (scabbard overlay) probably came to satisfy the sophisticated tastes of the customer. It is worth noting in reference to the extensive use of the images of elk in the decoration of the hilt and on the decorative plate (which were rarely presented in the animal art of the European Scythia before the second quarter of the 5th century BC) that this was a wide-spread motif in the Archaic Scythian-Siberian art. The elk are shown on a larger scale on the decorative plate in comparison with the other animals and above them. They were probably the main totemic images of certain Scythian tribes, varying from those wide-spread in European Scythia images of deer; and for this reason they were chosen on the top of the presentation of the animal world hierarchy on the Scythian king’ gold scabbard.

The unusual for the European Scythian animal style image of a feline from the Golden barrow in Crimea is tentatively associated in the modern scholarship with the movement of the Scythian tribes from the Eastern fringes of the Scythian world to the Eastern Europe. This movement took place during the second half of the 6th century BC. Archaeological materials prove that the new wave of Eastern nomads reached the steppes of the North Pontic area in the end of the 6th century BC at the latest.

In this historical context was most probably created also our sword, which, given the extremely high quality of workmanship, the complexity of its artistic composition and the state of preservation, represents the most superb and the earliest known surviving example of the Scythian sword from the North Black Sea area with the gold bipartite scabbard decorated in animal style.

Оn the Scythian parade swords in composite bipartite scabbards, see Ginters 1928, 11-17, pls. 3-6; Онайко 1966b, 159-176; Greifenhagen 1970, fig. 7a; 62-63, pls. 42, 44; Jacobson 1995, 236-238, figs. 104-106. – On the daggers from Arzhan 2 barrow, see Чугунов 2004, 72-74; Čugunov et al. 2006, 118, no. 8, pl. 19-20; 133, no. 28, pl. 63, 65. – On the akinakes from barrow no. 1 near the village of Philippovka in Southern Ural, see Cat. New York 2000a, 80-81, no. 6. – On the daggers from the Mountaneous Altai, see Кубарев 1981. On the plaque from the Siberian collection with the image of a gryph, attacking an ibex, see Rudenko 1962, pl. XIX, 1-2; Артамонов 1973, 189-191, рис. 241; Schiltz 1994, 379, fig. 296; Кат. Ст. Петербург 2004, 48-49, № 50. – On the images of birds of prey sitting on the heads of hoofed animals in the Achaemenid glyptics, see Никулина 1994, рис. 482, 559.– On the images of elks: in the art of Scythian animal style in the Archaic period and in the 5th century BC, see Рябкова 2005, 49 and Алексеев 1991, 52-54, correspondingly; on the engraved plates from the barrow near Zhabotin village, see Погребова и Раевский 1992, 151-154; on the axe from Kelermess, see Кисель 2003, 39; in the art of Scythian forest-steppe zone, see Шкурко 1976, 96-97; on the Tagar bronzes, see Завитухина 1983, 14; in the art of Altai in the Scythian period, see Руденко 1960, 264-265, рис. 136; Артамонов 1973, 51, 53, рис. 62; 56, рис. 68; Баркова 1984, 83-89, рис. 6; Полосьмак и Баркова 2005, 114-115, рис. 3.6; 120, рис. 3.12. – On the plaque with the image of a stag from Kostromskaya and on the images of recumbent stags in the 5th century BC Scythian art, see bibliography to cat. no. 2. – On the plaque with the image of a panther from the Kelermess barrow, see Cat. Hamburg 1993, 48-49, no. 13; Galanina 1997, 116-118, no. 13, pls. 3; 15; Schiltz 1994, 20-21, fig. 8. – On the bridle phalerae with the images of horses from the Kelermess barrow, see Galanina 1997, 230, nos. 55-59, pl. 26. – On the axe from the Kelermess barrow, see Galanina and Grach 1986, figs, 36-40; Schiltz 1994, 95-101, figs. 70-76, 393, fig. 320; Galanina 1997, 98-102, no. 6, pl. 11; Кисель 2003, 30-44. – On the matrix from Garchinovo, see Schiltz 1994, 217, 221-222, fig. 167; Treister 2001, 161-167 (with literature).- On the cross-shaped plaques from Gusarka, see Cat. Schleswig 1991, no. 93; from Opishlyanka, see Кат. Москва 2002, № 450. – On the iron dagger from the vicinities of Minusink, see Завитухина 1983, № 40. – On a bronze plate and a silver overlay of a sword scabbard from the Tuekta barrow no. 1, see Руденко 1960, 120, рис. 70; 122, рис. 72; Артамонов 1973, 70, рис. 85. – On a gold appliqué from Zhurovka barrow no. 402, see Оnaiko 1966а, 65, no. 267, pls. XXII, 6; XXV, 89. - Оn the Archaic Greek jewellery from Scythia and North Pontic Area, see Онайко 1966а; Скуднова 1988; Кат. Москва 2002. – On the manufacture of some items from the Kelermess barrows by the craftsmen from the Near East and Asia Minor, working at the courts of the Scythian king, see Galanina 1997, 102; 212; Кисель 2003, 100-103; Алексеев 2003, 104. – Оn the technology of producing the iron Tagar daggers, see Минасян 2004, 68-71. – Оn the early stage of producing items of cast iron in China, see Wagner 1993, 335 ff.; Wagner 1999, 1-9. – On a feline figure from the Golden barrow, see Artamonow 1970, pl. 75; Cat. Bonn 1997, no. 22. – On the wooden figures of tigers from Tuekta barrow no. 1, see Руденко 1960, 150, табл. CII; Баркова 1985, 30-32, рис. 1; Cat. Venice 1987, nos. 120-122; Сat. Trieste 2001, no. 96. – On the frontlets from Zhurovka, see Artamonow 1970, 19, fig. 25; from Makeevka, see Галанина 1977, 29, 31, табл. 13, 2. – On an Eastern wave of migration of nomads to the North Pontic area in the second half of the 6th century BC, see Alekseev 2003, 168-193.

Technical Comments:

For this object the craftsmen – the blacksmith and goldsmith were almost certainly different people – have utilized the properties of their materials. The blade of the sword is wrought in serviceable iron, the sheath, cover plaque and hilt ornamented in gold, that traditional symbol of wealth and rank.

The remains of the iron blade can be seen at the open end of the sheet gold sheath. The iron is highly corroded and is surrounded by with what appears to be earth from burial plus what might be the decayed organic matter (wood?) that originally lined the sheath. Tests with a powerful rare earth magnet showed that the blade now probably only extends part of the way down the sheath. This could mean that the blade was broken or only partly inserted in the sheath at the time of burial. Breakage, of course, might be associated with the owner’s death. It is also possible that the hilt and blade have been removed in recent times for cleaning, but only part of the blade replaced. However, there is evidence for some cleaning, but no obvious indications of recent blade removal.

The iron blade extends up into the sheet gold overlay of the hilt. There is also iron inside the elaborate openwork terminal, as revealed by x-rays and magnets, and the sheet gold cladding appears to have been shaped over this with final details added by chasing. The sheet gold cladding is soldered closed around the iron. The iron inside the hilt may either be in one piece with the blade – making it a highly sophisticated piece of iron working – or made separately and attached by rivets. This latter assembly might account for the two gold rivets, but no evidence for a join could be detected with x-rays.

The decorative plate is of sheet gold with the decoration carried out from both sides. The frieze of animals and other decoration was carried out from both sides of the sheet from behind for the main forms of the design, from the front for the details. The work was not carried out directly over a former or die, but, as with other complex ‘animal style’ designs, it must be assumed that the goldsmith worked from some form of pattern or design, possibly in carved wood. Whether a wooden pattern was originally also used as the backing is uncertain, but what appear to be small traces of a wood backing do remain. None of the animal figures or masks appears to have been produced using a die, punch or former. Around the edge of the plaque are the neatly pierced attachment holes.

The sheath contrasts with the elaborately embossed hilt and upper scabbard plaque by being of primarily of plain, sheet gold. The upper end of the sheath is decorated with wirework, granulation and settings for gems, glass or enamel. This wirework is matched by a single band of wires around the hilt where the central section meets the elaborate openwork terminal. The gold wires are made in the usual ancient manner and analysis of the soldered joins revealed the use of a solder consistent with ancient practice. The attenuated, pear-shaped brownish inlay material that remains in one setting is almost certainly glass. The staining of the gold on the upper part of the sheath, over and near the filigree, is probably the result of recent cleaning to remove unsightly iron corrosion products.

The primary gold parts of the three objects reveal trace elements consistent with ancient gold and trial testing using the recently developed measurement of the radioactive decay of the minute traces of uranium as typically present in native gold indicates that the hilt, cover plaque and sheath are of ancient manufacture and share similar characteristics.