Comb with battle scene. Gold, 12.6 x 10.2 cm. Late 5th – early 4th centuries BC. Northern Black Sea, mouth of the Dnieper. San Petersburgo, State Hermitage Museum

During the first millennium BC the vast region of the Steppes, which extended from Hungary in the west to China and Mongolia in the east, was populated by nomadic tribes that buried their kings and great warriors in complex tomb structures with funerary chambers beneath burial mounds (kurgans). Between the 7th and the 3rd centuries BC Scythian nomads built sumptuous kurgans in southern Siberia in the region of the Altai mountains. They contained weapons and gold objects decorated in the 'animalistic style', as well as horses belonging to the deceased person, which had ornate bridles and saddles.

Scythian warriors crossed the Eurasian steppes in successive waves from east to west, establishing contact with the neighbouring civilisations of China, Assyria, Greece and Persia. In the 7th century BC they reached the frontier of Assyria after crossing the Caucasus and invading Western Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians, a people that inhabited the steppes to the north of the Black Sea.

In the 5th to 4th centuries BC the Scythians settled in the Dnieper basin where their civilisation reached its height through contact with the Greek world. In the 3rd century BC this period was abruptly terminated by the arrival of the Sarmatians, a new wave of nomads from the east characterised by a very similar culture. They settled in the regions between the Don and the Danube and pushed the Scythians towards the Crimean peninsula.

The first Russian archaeological collection, known as the Siberian Collection of Peter I, was assembled in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. It includes objects pillaged from the ancient kurgans and others discovered during the earliest archaeological campaigns.

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