Friends Tour of Gold of the Great Steppe at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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By Janet Pope and Peter Jackson, Friends of the Trust

The Trust arranged two guided tours of this exhibition for its Friends on Friday 14 and Saturday 15 January, and we went along to the second. We had previously made an independent visit, so knew what was on display, but knew little of the background that our guide, Dr Rebecca Roberts, so helpfully filled in.

Dr Roberts explained that these finds from came from burial tombs, called kurgans, which have been excavated very recently. The artefacts on display were the product of the Saka people who lived in the east of Kazakhstan, itself a vast country whose area can comfortably contain western Europe. The pieces have been dated to a period within 300 years either side of 500BCE.

One very interesting display was of the objects, mostly gold, buried with a young warrior. The flesh and soft organic matter have decayed, so the exhibition shows the gold adornments and a dagger with its leather sheath to mark the position of the body. These were laid out roughly as found, the dagger broken, almost certainly deliberately, and with iron-work on its handle, showing that the Saka were starting to move from bronze to iron. Small gold plaques were stitched to clothing by means of loops on the back: the wearer would have dazzled onlookers in the sunlight.

The Saka, in common with other Steppe peoples, made beautiful gold images of deer, sheep and large cats in motion – or ‘animal style’ – with amazing detail. Larger pieces made us smile – is that a cat? The delicacy of the work left us amazed: what tools did they have to shape the metal? There were piles of tiny beads, scarcely a millimetre across which would have been sewn onto clothing.

The exhibition closes at the end of January. If you have not seen it, get there quick; it’s free to book on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website: https://tickets.museums.cam.ac.uk/overview/goldofthegreatsteppe

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