Located in a massive grave mound in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia – known locally as a kurgan – god vessels containing a black compound now identified as opium and cannabis were uncovered in 2013 by Stavropol-based archaeologist Andrei Belinski.
The kurgan was left behind by the Scythians who ruled the vast grasslands of Eurasia for a thousand years, striking fear into the hearts of the ancient Greeks and Persians. The drug-fuelled rituals carried out by these fierce nomads were chronicled by Heroditus – and we now we find the evidence to back-up his accounts.
Dating to 2400 years ago, the kurgan showed signs of having been plundered in the past, but on deeper excavation, Belsinki found an intact chamber lined with broad flat stones containing the bucket-shaped gold vessels. Each was placed upside down and inside were three gold cups, a heavy gold finger ring, two neck rings, and a gold bracelet.
"It's a once-in-a-century discovery," says Anton Gass of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin. "These are among the finest objects we know from the region."
When tested by criminologists in nearby Stavropol the black residue found inside the vessels came back positive for opium and cannabis.
"It was definitely a surprise for us," Belinski says. "We weren't expecting to find anything like this."
Because the sticky residue was found on the inside of the vessels, Belinski and Gass surmise that the vessels were used to brew and drink a strong opium concoction, while cannabis was burning nearby. Perhaps confirming the observations of Heroditus that the Scythians used a plant to produce smoke "that no Grecian vapour-bath can surpass … transported by the vapor, [they] shout aloud."
As for the vessels themselves, one depicts an old, bearded man slaying young warriors while the other is covered in mythological creatures: Griffons rip apart a horse and a stag in a bleak landscape that Belinski thinks represents the Scythian underworld.
Gass suggests that the scene of the old man slaying the young warriors could be a reference to the "Bastard Wars" reported by Herodotus. Thus named because when the Scythians returned home from a 28 year war, they found intruders in their tents—the bastard children of the Scythians' lonely wives and their slaves! Perhaps the dreadful slaughter which ensued was deemed important enough to commemorate in solid gold?
Whatever the event, and despite the gory scene, the images provide a great insight into daily life with clear depictions of shoes, haircuts and clothing.
"I've never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians," says Belinski. "It's so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn."
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