An Online Visual Dictionary of Scythian Artifacts

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I just wanted some pretty pants OR Well that escalated quickly

Collage of metal working

  I had one of those moments where I look around and wonder how on earth I ended up at a table with a pile of books, bags with 5 colors of dyed wool, a 3lb wool coat with curling stags stitched on and a tin filled with red wax raven heads.  The iron made a wet clicking sound behind me reminding me I had a batch of wool cut outs ready to attach to a hidden backing so I could start stitching a set of fantastical beasts onto a cloak. 

Designing a scythian coat

Several years ago, I wanted garb that would be warm and comfortable and pretty.  Specifically, I wanted pants that would let me move around at events comfortably.  Picture now some enabling friends and I start learning about Scythians with their comfortable, warm clothing, penchant for bright colors, anamorphic shapes and shiny shiny metal bits affixed to their clothing.  ALL their clothing. Add in a tidbit which part of my savage soul found satisfying at 2,500 years of distance: in some of the tribes neither men nor women could marry until they’d killed an enemy in battle.  Eat your heart out Game of Thrones.

Dying wool collage

The pants were just that first project that got me hooked.  Now I’m down the rabbit hole so far that I occasionally rant at the professional inadequacies of archeologists who have been dead for more than a century. 

 Before I tell you what I’ve done, I think I should tell you why I did it:  I can not remember which Scythian artifacts come from which area in which time period.  No matter how many times I read the books I’ve borrowed or accumulated myself, I don’t remember which piece goes where and when.  What we call Scythians are several nomadic tribes that range from Ukraine to China across (depending on who you ask) 7 centuries.  When I want to look something up, I end up spending a couple of hours flipping through a 3 foot stack of books. It’s fun, but not really conducive to working on a project.

Most of the books, when they talk about artifacts, group things together to support whatever point the academic wants to make about Scythians using only the artifacts in “their” museum.  If you want to look at ALL the available artifacts, there’s really no amateurs reference for that.

When I’m looking for inspiration, I want to see as many example artifacts as possible in style and form AND (here’s the kicker) whether I’ve pulled elements from disparate tribes or regions.  I might combine them intentionally to create something I’m excited about but I don’t want to do it by accident.  Short of a photographic memory, the books I have, the online museum sites and academic articles won’t give me that.

Out in the mundane world, I was a web developer and I’m comfortable swimming on the internet, so my solution was putting what I needed in a format useful to me and as a bonus, making it available for anyone else who could use it. 

On to the first potential obstacle: Am I doing anything illegal or unethical with this project?

Winged Boar
"Scythian and Thracian Antiquities"
pg 55

Fair Use of Book Images

Before I took the first picture, I needed to make sure I wasn’t going to be violating any copyright laws.  Through the kindness of the SCA grapevine, I tracked down someone who teaches copyright law professionally and was gracious enough to talk through my idea and give me feedback.   Here’s the result:

What I’m doing is exactly what the Fair Use doctrine is for.  There is no legal or ethical issue with my use of images from books to create the online image dictionary.

I’m not replicating text, I’m not creating my own book, and I AM transforming the information – all of that puts me firmly into the realm of ‘fair use’.   Attaching the title, author and page references with each image is not required, but it is “ethical gravy”.  I’d never heard of ethical gravy before, but I found it intellectually delicious and consumed as much as I could making sure every image has attribution.

  For my own peace of mind, I asked my generous consulting expert why it was so hard to find readable, consistent information online about the fair use doctrine.  Her answer was a bit more cynical than even I was expecting…. It’s because many of the sites are  written by the content industries to discourage people from the expansive intent behind fair use. 

  For more information about fair use, this is the site she recommended

 Many thanks to Katie Michele (Latani) and Laurie Magan (Lerthan) for their time and expertise explaining all of this to me.

Griffin Attacking Horse
"From the Land of the Scythians"
pg 71


Second Obstacle: figure out what exactly I need the visual dictionary to do.  

  I need to be able to group artifacts by geography, time and characteristic.  For the first batch of data, I want to concentrate on plaques. 

If this isn’t a rabbit hole you’ve gone down, let me introduce you to the vast universe that is Scythian plaques.  They made these glorious metal pieces in a variety of sizes, shapes, metals and styles for attachment to clothes, hats, dishes, horse tack, weapon sheaths, etc.  So much etc.  There are thousands of plaques recovered from kurgans (burial mounds).  Just learning about the plaques, it isn’t always clear from images how big a plaque was, how much is weighed, what material it was made of…. You get the point.  So if I want to make plaques for my pants, which plaques went on pants, what were they made of and how big were they?

  Which is all to say, I was drowning in images without a way to group them into ven diagrams in my head.

Back to our creation story line: I decided to load up the plaques first because they are the most confusing to me.  Looking through my books I decided I needed to cut even that down for the first pass and limit to human clothing plaques.  There are a LOT of plaques identified as horse adornment that I want to load up as a future pass.  Halfway through my first book, I gave in and added all the human jewelry into this first pass.  I just couldn’t resist.  

Two Archers
From the Land of the Scythians
pg 62

Why THIS information and not THAT information?

Each picture in the visual dictionary has the size, weight, origin date and location of the artifact….IF that information is available.  When an artifact shows up in more than one book, I stitch the data together on the picture to provide more detail of its physical description.

Story Time:   A LOT of the Scythian archeology digs happened in the very early 1800s.  Archeology was just beginning to be taken seriously as an academic pursuit instead of grave robbing for profit.  Add to that, many of those early archeologists were also Georgians and Victorians doing digs in Eastern Europe, with the unconscious biases of their time and place.  Flash forward 150 years and Scythian art is sort of in-vogue again and that’s when most of my Museum books were published.  That’s the middle of the cold war and the dig sites were all on the Eastern side of the iron curtain.  Introducing an additional layer of East-West academic bias.  Some of the book introductions for conferences are so snarky about ‘Eastern Colleagues’ and ‘Western Colleagues’ that I was surprised the pages weren’t scorched by it.  Getting back to the artifact descriptions in those museum books: They often don’t attribute who wrote the description that to my modern eyes looks…very biased.  It could have been the original Victorian who dug it up in the 1800s, or an angry academic from one side or the other of the iron curtain or a modern scholar who originally wrote it in Russian and it was poorly translated to English.   My favorite example so far is a description claiming that the work on a torque was too detailed for any Scythian artist to make, so although 2 Scythian horsemen are created in gold as the torque terminals, it just must have been made BY a Greek FOR a Scythian.  

  Which all leads to:   I chose to NOT include anything that wasn’t a physical description in my text.   

Where is that?

As I load a picture from a ‘new’ location, I add it to an online map so I can visualize what came from which area.  This seemed like a straight forward idea when I started.  So it was, of course, by FAR the most time consuming and difficult part of the process.  

Below is the functioning ESRI map with all the locations I’ve loaded artifacts from so far. You can zoom in and out to get a feel of where a particular site is in relation to other sites or modern locations. If you click on the colored dot for a location, you’ll see the notes I have so far on that site. I expect to be updating these items as I find more precise information going through resources – the window here is showing my live map, so it will automatically show any updates I make to the data behind it.

Archeology story time: Archeological digs are often named after the surname of the expedition leader.  Not after the geographical location of the site. 

Even if a town was recorded in the books I’m referencing, that town may not have existed for up to 200 years.  Or the town may have been renamed.  Or the name recorded may have been phonetically written using the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic leaving a bit of a disconnect in finding the location.  And last but not least…. Eastern European geographies don’t translate directly to western geographies for reference (I now know the difference between Oblasts and Raions)

Some of the dig locations were shown in the books that had maps in them, but even those were often single points on a topographical map that ranged thousands of miles. Not something I could use to input a lat/long in modern mapping software.

I spent a lot more time than I expected translating, googling, mapping and researching to find the most likely latitude and longitude for each of the site locations on my map.

I have two favorites geographical victories from this exercise: One location was a town named for the volcano it was on the side of. That town no longer exists.  I did enough translating of Ukranian place names to figure out it was basically ‘Volcano village’ and the volcano still shows up on maps, but I couldn’t find any villages anywhere near it anymore. My other favorite wasn’t a location at all.  In several of my books there is reference to the location ‘Pamirskaia’.  That name didn’t appear in any close variation on any modern map on the right side of the continent. It turns out the ‘location’ came from a paper written originally in Russian and translated to English.  Pamirskaia is a Ukrainian word meaning ‘Unknown’.  It’s not a location at all, it’s artifacts that the original writer didn’t know the origin of.

I should note here, that there are a lot of artifacts that we don’t have a geographical origin for. I blame Peter the Great and a lot of grave robbers.

Visit the Archeological Site Map Here

Taking pictures of the pictures

(Rather dull but important logistics)

  I used my phone camera to take the pictures of each picture I loaded up.  Each picture was cropped to show only artifacts and enhanced to show as much detail as possible. 

There were some minor unexpected consequences: 

  • Occasionally my picture shows the detail of the paper the image was printed on giving an odd texture to a piece, but I think it’s clear in the picture thats what we’re seeing.  
  • The images are different sizes, shapes and resolutions.  It’s unfortunate but unavoidable in this context because the pictures in the books are different sizes, shapes and resolutions.  If an artifact is pictured in more than one book, I use the more detailed picture and credit both books

Show me this dictionary!

The dictionary has 90 images in it so far. As you click on any image, it will enlarge to fill your screen and text giving the details of the images will appear on the bottom right. The categories within each page are shown across the top of the screen and clicking them will show you each grouping.

Adornments by Material – Sort the artifacts by what they’re made of: Bronze, Bone, Electrum, Gold, Iron or Silver

Adornments by Type – Sort the artifacts by what they are: Bracelet, necklace, headpiece, etc.

Adornments by Location – See the artifacts grouped based on where they were discovered

Adornments by Flora/Fauna/Face – These are stylistic groupings based on whether the object has animals, plants, humans or mythological creatures depicted on them.

Adornments by Century – This is just grouping them within their century of creation. It’s not precise but it is interesting.

What’s Next?

  • First is loading the next three batches of images:
    • Horse equipment: Lots of plaques and headdresses in this batch.
    • Weapons and sheaths: For Scythians, this includes a lot of bows and bow cases with even more decorative plaques
    • Textiles: There are a startling amount of textile pieces that survived and show some pretty amazing colors and figures. I’m really interested in seeing the textiles and metals side by side grouped by time and place.
  • Somewhere during the future loads, I’m hoping I’ll find a more efficient way to catalogue the images for display. I’m not thrilled with the method I’m currently using in WordPress. I’d rather not set up a full image database with a programmatic front end, buy I may end up doing that out of irritation on the limitations in WordPress.
  • Making the dynamic map show the dig locations associated with a dynamic date selector. I want to be able to visualize what sites had artifacts at the same times. There are several sites that are literally next to each other but had artifacts from several centuries apart, so geographical visualization isn’t enough.
  • Adding images from more books and articles into the dictionary.

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18 Replies to “An Online Visual Dictionary of Scythian Artifacts”

  1. This is really great work! I love catalogues since they’re so helpful for finding things (spoken like a true library technician, lol). Your determination is commendable though, I definitely wouldn’t have the patience for what you’re doing!

  2. I know you’ve got a system and a pace that works for you, but if you’re ever looking to expand on this and want volunteers to help, I would be happy to do so! It looks like a really valuable resource that will be incredibly helpful for so many of us to turn to.

  3. I really love what you’re doing. It’s going to be an excellent resource! And you’re write-up is great–both informative and entertaining.

  4. Cool stuff. It’s lovely to see it organized because then it’s easier to trace to other nearby cultures, see time changes and the like. This is such an interesting area that I know more people would do if they had this sort of reference.

  5. So Much Awesomeness here. I can truly appreciate all the work and what a fabulous resource you are creating. Thank-you so much for sharing it with us all.

  6. This is great! I really enjoyed the story portion and the explanation for the choices you made and the logic behind them.

    The resource itself is amazing! And now I kind of want one for my Irish work….

    Does the dictionary work more optimally in a specific browser? I’m using Chrome and having some difficulty seeing the text.


    1. Thank you for the feedback! I did a color update and didn’t realize it had hidden all the captions on the images. Chrome is the best browser and you should be able to see all the text now.

      I think an Irish version would be great. If you decide to tackle it, let me know and we can chat about where some of the obstacles I found were so you can avoid them all together.

  7. This is awesome! (And what a lot of work!) I have always been fascinated by the Scythian art (I have a zoomorphic pin reproduction from 40ish years ago from when I first got into the SCA!) and I love the dorky hats 😉 So this is so awesome – I look forward to seeing more 😉

  8. Wow!!! You have such a knack for storytelling and your research efforts are outstanding. I can’t wait to see the garb you create using intentional cross-region/tribal styles. Also, have you picked one of the tribes for the origins of your persona?

    1. I haven’t picked a specific tribe to develop a persona from – in part because they blur together in my mind in time and location. Part of the purpose of my building a map piece by piece is so I can visualize where they were in geographical context to each other and other cultures.

  9. This is so amazing!! I am going to be using the heck out of this tool for years to come!! Thank you for doing this work!!

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