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When Greeks met Scythians

The Getty Villa shows off the striking results of a blend of cultures.

June 18, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Long before NAFTA, global telecommunications and the international shipping industry, the ancient Greeks did overseas business the old-fashioned way: In boats rowed by slaves, they traveled to distant lands, set up shop, struck deals with the locals and got down to work. They cleared the land, farmed and bought products at bargain rates.

Initially, they shipped back staples, such as fish, grain, olive oil and wine. When business went well, trade expanded. Jobs followed. Cities grew. Eventually, luxury items were being transported between enterprising city-states and burgeoning outposts to satisfy the appetites of growing numbers of business and political leaders across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The nouveaux riches are nothing new.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, "Greeks on the Black Sea: Ancient Art From the Hermitage" includes an impressive variety of such indulgences for the status-conscious among its approximately 190 objects: stunningly beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems, masterfully crafted terra-cotta vessels, gorgeous free-blown glass pitchers, handsomely carved marble statues, ornamental bronze horse gear and a kitschy perfume bottle or two.

Organized by curators Janet Grossman of the Getty and Anna Trofimova of the Hermitage, the fascinating exhibition opens a window onto a world little known to American audiences: the trading partnership between the Greeks and the Scythians, a seminomadic tribe of horsemen from the southern Russian steppes.

Trade thrived from about 600 BC to AD 300, producing a polyglot culture with an artistic style found nowhere else. Its works are awesome mongrels, born of a promiscuous mixture of styles, forms, techniques and images that makes today's multicultural hybrids look tame.

At first, the Greeks exported what they needed to their fledgling settlements on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Clay bowls, vessels and statuettes excavated from the colony of Borysthenes, on a small, easily defended island, were made in Greece, Egypt and what is now Turkey.

Then Greek craftsmen emigrated, workshops were built, and more elaborately decorated artifacts were made. Many of these were found in Olbia, a larger and wealthier trading center with a central marketplace, numerous temples and defensive ramparts on the coast just east of Borysthenes, which was absorbed into Olbia's dominion at the end of the 5th century BC.

Artistically, that's when things got really interesting. Greek potters, jewelers, sculptors and smiths began imitating their indigenous counterparts, who were imitating the techniques introduced by the peripatetic Greeks.

The Scythians adopted Greek styles and subjects and bent them to their own ends, demonstrating their newfound sophistication without abandoning their identities or histories. The Greeks designed works to appeal to Scythian tastes, bending their conventions to make a buck. In both cases, the calm, cool, idealized classicism for which antiquity is known gave way to greater naturalistic detail; everyday, even pedestrian stories; and exaggerated, highly theatrical renderings of facial expressions more common to talismans.

Most of the works that feature such fusions were excavated from the area known as the Bosporan Kingdom, which thrived for 1,000 years, long after Greece declined and Rome replaced it as a world power. The Bosporan Kingdom occupied both sides of the narrow passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, near present-day Kerch in the Crimea.

"Jug With Scenes of Scythians" is a gold vessel about the size of a softball. Its spherical body is decorated with four exquisitely crafted images of Scythian warriors in an encampment on the steppes, enjoying a moment of respite from battle.

Two bearded men, holding spears, converse earnestly. A hooded soldier strings a bow, his face knotted in concentration. A make-do dentist pulls the tooth of a grimacing patient. And a doctor bandages a wounded man's calf, their expressions conveying relief and worry.

"Offering Dish With Head of Medusa" combines figures from Greek mythology with Scythian depictions of beasts. This meticulously embossed gold vessel, with a small central recession, interweaves 24 portraits of Medusa and 24 portraits of the aged satyr Silenus with 16 dolphins, 16 fish, 12 panthers, 48 wild boars and 96 bees. Over-the-top excess meets virtuoso craftsmanship and fabulously expensive material in the folksy ceremonial dish.

A pair of larger-than-life-size carved marble statues portrays a husband and wife, probably for their tomb. She is generalized, formulaic, an example of the Large Herculaneum Woman type. He is an individual, with thick, curly hair and prominent eyebrows identifying him as a Scythian. His soft boots and leggings, visible under his Greek tunic, drive the point home.

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