Scythian gold vessels found with opium, cannabis residue

Gold vessels found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus Mountains near Strovopol, southwestern Russia, have traces of cannabis and opium inside them. The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2013 when kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 was being excavated in advance of power-line construction. Archaeologist Andrei Belinski didn’t expect to find anything of note — the kurgan had already been looted — but after a few weeks of digging, the team encountered a thick layer of clay. Underneath the clay was a rectangular chamber lined with flat stones that held a treasure trove of 2,400-year-old solid gold artifacts.

The trove consists of two gold bucket-shaped vessels turned upside down on top of three gold cups with holes in their bases, a heavy gold ring, two neck rings and a bracelet. Their total weight is 3.2 kilos (seven pounds). Seeing a black residue at the bottom of the vessels, Belinksi had forensic criminologists in Strovopol analyze the substance. It tested positive for opium and cannabis, providing archaeological evidence for a practice mentioned by ancient Greek historian of dubious accuracy Herodotus.

Herodotus gives an account in Book IV of his History of Scythians using hemp in a purification ritual after the funeral of a king.

After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. […]

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

The elaborate decoration on one of the upside down gold vessels may also tie into one of Herodotus’ anecdotes. At the beginning of Book IV, he describes the Schythian warriors returning home after 28 years of war in Persia to find that their wives gave up on them years ago and had children with their slaves instead. The sons, knowing they would not be accepted by the cuckolded husbands, attempted to block their return. They were successful at first, winning battle after battle, but soon they were overcome by the mere symbols of their slave heritage.

“What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice — lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”

The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.

This conflict became known as the Bastard Wars. One of the vessels has a scene of an older bearded man slaying a young warrior, a possible reference to the Bastard Wars. Andrei Belinski thinks the imagery isn’t referring to a specific battle, but is more likely to be a metaphoric representation of chaos in the wake of a king’s death, an appropriate subject for royal grave goods. It would be more in keeping with the decoration of another vessel: a mythological scene of griffons tearing apart a horse and stag in what may be the Scythian underworld.

The high quality of the decoration on the solid gold pieces suggests they were made for royalty. The designs are exquisitely detailed.

To archaeologists, the information contained in the images on the gold is exciting. From the warriors’ shoes to their haircuts, the depictions are amazingly lifelike. “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.”

The excavation of the kurgan was completed last fall, but archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate the network of trenches and earthen rings circling the mound which may indicate a ceremonial complex built around the central mound.

5 thoughts on “Scythian gold vessels found with opium, cannabis residue

  1. Their craftsmanship is truly spectacular, for a pectoral see here and here. By the way, similar ‘vessels’ of almost the same shape and size can still be seen today:

    …’A Himba lady preparing deodorant. She uses smoke from smouldering specific herbs, plants and aromatic resins to cleanse and perfume herself. This scene was taken inside her hut, in a village about 15 km north of Opuwo’.

    There are even similar peoples, i.e. 2.5 millenia earlier, described in Herodotus’ Histories (still in Book 4), where he also describes several African tribes: “For, except that the garments of the Libyan women are of leather, and their fringes made of leathern thongs […]. For the Libyan women wear over their dress stript of the hair, fringed at their edges, and coloured with vermilion; and from these goat-skins the Greeks get their word Aegis (goat-harness)”

  2. By “Libyan” he presumably meant not “African” in the American sense, but North African.

  3. Yes, the Greeks were indeed mainly referring to northern Africa – even if ‘Libya’ was their expression for the whole of the African continent.

    However, he also describes a Phoenician expedition sent down the Red Sea by pharaoh Necho II of Egypt around 600 BC that is said to have circumnavigated Africa and returned through the Pillars of Hercules after three years, and he also gives a lot of other interesting details (e.g. from Book 4):


    “As for Libya, we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Necos, the Egyptian king, who on desisting from the canal which he had begun between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean sea, and so sailed into the southern ocean. When autumn came, they went ashore, wherever they might happen to be, and having sown a tract of land with corn, waited until the grain was fit to cut. Having reaped it, they again set sail; and thus it came to pass that two whole years went by, and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home. On their return, they declared- I for my part do not believe them, but perhaps others may- that in sailing round Libya they had the sun upon their right hand. In this way was the extent of Libya first discovered.”


    “The Carthaginians also relate the following: There is a country in Libya, and a nation, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which they are wont to visit, where they no sooner arrive but forthwith they unlade their wares, and, having disposed them after an orderly fashion along the beach, leave them, and, returning aboard their ships, raise a great smoke. The natives, when they see the smoke, come down to the shore, and, laying out to view so much gold as they think the worth of the wares, withdraw to a distance. The Carthaginians upon this come ashore and look. If they think the gold enough, they take it and go their way; but if it does not seem to them sufficient, they go aboard ship once more, and wait patiently. Then the others approach and add to their gold, till the Carthaginians are content. Neither party deals unfairly by the other: for they themselves never touch the gold till it comes up to the worth of their goods, nor do the natives ever carry off the goods till the gold is taken away.”

  4. The second para quoted, the tale that Carthaginians sailed down the west coast of Africa, seems entirely plausible to me. I’d love to know how they learned to make the return trip: it later took the Portuguese some time to learn enough about the Atlantic winds and currents to be confident of getting back north, and they had better vessels. Presumably the tactics used by Carthaginian galleys might be different.

    The first quoted para, the one about a circumnavigation, seems entirely implausible; I gather that historians differ on that.

  5. The Scythians clearly considered cannabis (a psychedelic) and opium (a CNS depressant) as spiritually valuable or they wouldn’t have buried them with the corpse. The same with the spiritual effects of drinking “soma juice” which is mentioned many times with reverence and triumph in the Rig Veda. There is no evidence yet that soma was hemp or opium, but there seems to have been a common culture of imbibing psychoactive compounds and considering them to be spiritually valuable.

    Later on yogis developed non psychedelic methods such as yoga, pranayama etc. to elicit similar states of awareness and ecstasy so the use of psychedelics may have dwindled towards the end of the Vedic period. Currently there is an attempt among Indian Vedic scholars to clean up the Rig Veda itself from being tainted with psychedelics. So finds such as the present one may add circumstantial refutation for their attempts.

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