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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Face of Scythian warrior revealed

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw. Photograph: British Museum

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw.
Photograph: British Museum

The real face concealed by a clay mask on the mummified head of a Scythian warrior has been revealed for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The head is on display in an exhibition opening at the British Museum along with the scan, made in a St Petersburg hospital, which reveals that he had fine teeth, a ginger moustache, a pierced ear, a hole in his skull where his brains had been removed, and a savage wound, beautifully stitched and healed, which originally ran from the corner of his eye socket to the point of his jaw.

Since the real head closely resembles the painted mask, the curator St John Simpson assumes that the faintly smiling mask of a young woman beside him, which has yet to be scanned, is also based on her appearance in life.

Her body was found lying beside his in a timber-lined tomb chamber, and she almost certainly did not die a natural death.

Dr Svetlana Pankova with the head as it is scanned in St Petersburg. Photograph: British Museum

The Greek historian Herodotus left vivid accounts of the nomadic Scythian horsemen and archers who terrorised their neighbours from an empire stretching for centuries from the Black Sea to the borders of China. His stories, often doubted, have been vindicated by recent archaeological finds, and he wrote that when a princely warrior died, a concubine was often chosen to accompany him to the grave, along with servants and horses.

“Herodotus says garrotting was used, so that would have been relatively quick and merciful,” Simpson said. “The horses we find in tombs were usually killed by a single blow between the eyes from a pointed battle axe – quite humane, like a captive bolt for a fallen race horse – so that could be another consideration.” He added hopefully: “We do also have to remember that people really do die of a broken heart.”

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The man’s clay mask. Photograph: British Museum

The scans were completed and processed so recently that they were seen for the first time in London by the Russian curators who accompanied the spectacular loans from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, including some of the first superb golden belt buckles and dress ornaments collected in the 17th century by Peter the Great.

The exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, also has loans from the new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.

The nomads had no writing and built nothing permanent except their tombs, but fortunately buried everything from their world for the dead to use in the next. The displays include not just the superb golden ornaments and metal work including weapons and utensils, but, astonishingly preserved by the permafrost of Siberia, furs, textiles, wooden furniture and containers, tattooed human skin, horse harnesses and saddles, the oldest pair of chopsticks ever found outside China, and two lumps of cheese.

Their luxury imports from China included beautiful silks so precious that even scraps were carefully kept and re-used, including a piece used to trim a child’s quiver of arrows, found with the masked mummies in the Oklakhty burial ground in southern Siberia. There was also a tiny sheepskin coat, on which the man’s head was pillowed.

The same tomb held two even more eerie objects, which Simpson hoped to borrow for the exhibition: literally straw men, two life-size stuffed effigies, with clay masks similar to those on the real heads. They were too fragile to travel, and are still being studied – but the first x-rays suggest they contain cloth bags of cremated human remains, presumably carried on horseback across the plains until they could be added to the bodies lying in the family tomb.

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear, part of the exhibition. Photograph: V Terebenin/The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

“When I saw them lying in a dimly lit room in St Petersburg, and one of the curators lifted the head – shedding bits of straw – to look at me, it was an image straight out of some Hollywood horror movie,” Simpson recalled. “I put the photograph on my office door as a way of saying ‘keep away from here’ in the last three weeks I was working flat out trying to get the catalogue finished – it was very effective.”

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British Museum under pressure to give up leading treasures

The demand, issued in Cairo at the end of a two-day conference, is addressed to every country that holds ancient relics.

Western museum hold most of the items listed by countries ranging from China to Mexico. The British museum is the principal target because of the prominence of the artefacts it owns.

Egypt wants returned include the Rosetta stone in the British Museum and the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum. Both the British and Neues Museum have rejected the demand.

The conference was hosted by Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been an outspoken campaigner for the return of lost treasures.

Mr Hawass acknowledged that there was no international legal basis for the demands but said a united stand between affected nations would bolster the claims.

“Instead of Egypt fighting on its own, let’s all fight together. let’s all come out with a wishlist,” he said. “We need to co-operate all of us especially with that wish list. we need all of us to come with one list and fight until we return this artefacts back.

“Forget the legal issue,” he said. “Important icons should be in their motherland, period.”

A spokeswoman said the British museum had not received an official request from Egypt.

“The British Museum has not received an official request for the permanent return of the Rosetta Stone,” she said. “The Museum has received a request from the Supreme Council of Antiquities requesting the short term loan of the stone for the opening of the new museum in Giza in 2012 or 2013. The Trustees of the British Museum will consider this request in due course.”

It has faced a long running campaign by the Greek government for the return of the Elgin Marbles which were taken from the Parthenon at the outset of the 19th century.

Elana Korka, a Greek culture ministry official said the marbles were its prime concern. “We would like to see some good faith,” she said. “They are the Parthenon marbles and that is where they belong.”

International conventions written since 1954 prohibited wartime looting, theft and resale of artefacts but the agreements don’t apply to items taken abroad before national or global laws were in force.

Nigeria has listed its claims for the Benin bronzes, which are also housed from the British Museum. Mexico has demanded the return of a feathered headdress of a tribal warrior and China has sought the handover of astrological items looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing during the Second Opuim War.

Artefacts that are on the looted list:

1 Elgin Marbles

(British Museum)

Greece has long fought to reclaim the frieze stripped from the Parthenon at the behest of the 7th Earl of Elgin in 1801

2 Rosetta Stone

(British Museum) Egypt demands the return of the 2,200-year-old stone tablet that holds the key to translating ancient hieroglyphs

3 Summer Palace

bronzes (private French owner)

China claims bronze heads from a zodiac clock were stolen during the Second Opium War in 1860

4 Benin Bronzes (British Museum) Nigeria lays claim to the royal treasures of Benin, saying that they were seized by British troops in 1897

5 Queen Nefertiti (Berlin Neues Museum)

Egypt wants the 3,500-year-old bust of the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten returned

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