Silver plate with Scythian gods found in barrow

Archaeologists have unearthed a unique silver plate engraved with images of Scythian deities and eagle-headed griffins near the village of Devitsa in the Ostrogozhsky District of western Russia’s Voronezh Oblast. This is the first artifact depicting the Scythian pantheon to be found so far north of the Scythian tribal centers.

The plate was discovered in a richly furnished warrior’s tomb in the barrow cemetery of Devitsa V. The necropolis on the bank of the Devitsa river today consists of 19 tumuli, but the site has been extensively farmed and many ancient barrows were destroyed over the centuries. It has been excavated regularly since 2010, and this year’s fieldwork focused on barrow number seven.

Barrow seven was one of the largest in the necropolis before agricultural work whittled it down. It was about 130 feet in diameter and more than four feet high when it was intact. The central grave has thankfully managed to survive, albeit not without damage. The tomb in the center of mound is 24.6 x 16.5 feet, the largest surviving grave in the necropolis. It was made of 17 oak pillars and covered with half-oak beams. The roof had fallen in, and the collapse had the happy side-effect of preserving grave goods that would otherwise have fallen prey to the looters who plundered the tomb in antiquity. It dates to the 4th century A.D.

Inside the tomb were the skeletal remains of an adult male about 40-49 years of age at time of death. His grave was richly furnished with precious metals, weapons, horse tackle and pottery vessels. Next to his head were numerous small gold hemispherical objects that had originally been stitched to his garments (now decomposed). An iron knife, spearhead and three dart heads were next to him. A horse rib believed to be the remains of a ceremonial offering was also found by his side.

The equestrian accessories were located in the southeast corner of the grave and include pieces from three harnesses: bits, cheek pieces, girth buckles, iron bridle browbands and iron, bronze and bone pendants. Each of the three harnesses was adorned with two bronze cheek pieces in the shape of wolves’ heads. Next to the harnesses was the jaw of a young bear, symbolic of the Scythian bear cult that was popular among the tribes of the Middle Don area.

In the northeast of the grave several feet away from the skeleton was the rectangular silver plate about 13.6 inches long and three inches wide at its widest point in the center. It had been nailed to a wooden plank with a myriad small silver nails. The wood has almost entirely rotted away.

In the central part of the plate as the scientists suggested a winged figure facing of a Goddess of animal and human fertility, the Goddess known as Argimpasa, Cybele, the Great Goddess is depicted. The Upper part of her body is stripped, there is a head wear, likely crown with horns, on her head. The Goddess is surrounded from both sides with the figures of winged eagle headed griffons. The depictions of such type where the traditions of Asia Minor and ancient Greek are mixed, archaeologists found many times during the excavations of the Scythian barrows of Northern Sea region, Dnieper forest-steppe region and Northern Caucasus.

The left side of the plate is formed by two square plates decorated with the depictions of syncretic creatures standing in a so-called heraldic pose (in front of each other, close to each other with their paws). From the right side two round buckles are attached to the plate on each of which one anthropomorphic character with a crown on his head standing surrounded by two griffons is depicted. Although, who are those characters and which item was decorated by this plate is still an open issue.