The most valuable archaeological findings in Ukraine

Taras Spivak

Nomadic leaders sought maximum comfort in the afterlife. That is why their wives, slaves, horses, weapons, and piles of gold were put in their graves. There were no more valuable findings in the Ukrainian land than Scythian jewellery.

In the 8th century BC, Iranian-speaking tribes came from Asia to the coasts of the Azov and Black Seas, and later began to settle closer to the Dnipro River. With their blond hair and grey eyes they looked nothing like today’s steppe nomads. They called themselves Skolotoi, or archers. The Greeks, who established the first poleis in the Black Sea region in the 7th century BC, called them the Scythians.

‘In order to strip the skull of its covering, he makes a cut round the head above the ears, and, laying hold of the scalp, shakes the skull out; then with the rib of an ox he scrapes the scalp clean of flesh, and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps, and hangs them from his bridle-rein.’ – Herodotus, Histories (5th century BC)

All the peoples unfortunate enough to be Scythians’ neighbors spoke of their belligerence and cruelty. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that in order to receive his share of the spoils after a raid, a horseman had to present the head of a killed enemy. The scalps were used to make cloaks and towels, and hand skin provided cover for quivers.

The fighting spirit and thirst for blood were captured in Scythian gold jewellery, depicting wild animals, warriors, and elements of everyday life. The dynamic and primitive style was named the animal style.

Scythian culture flourished in the 4th century BC, when most of the jewellery found by archaeologists was created. After that, the Scythian kingdom lasted for 800 years. In the 3rd century AD, Gothic tribes roamed the Black Sea coast, pushing the Scythians away. A century later, the Huns invaded. The Scythians mingled with other peoples and lost their identity, but left many traces of their culture on the territory of Ukraine. WAS has selected the most valuable (literally) of them.

Pendant with Athena’s head

Found: Kul-Oba kurgan, Crimea
Stored: Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Greek colonies actively traded with their neighbours. The Scythians sold leather goods and harnesses and received fabrics, wine, and gold in return. Over time, Greek craftsmen learned to make animal-style jewellery for rich Scythians. A striking example of such cooperation was accidentally found in the Crimean kurgan of Kul-Oba.

In 1830, the government of the Russian Empire relocated the families of retired officers from Sevastopol to Kerch. The stone for the construction of new housing was taken nearby, from the Kul-Oba hill. The work was supervised by Paul Du Brux, an overseer of the Kerch salt lakes and a part-time amateur archaeologist. He quickly realized that Kul-Oba was not created by nature, but by man.

Inside the kurgan was the burial of a Scythian king. The deceased had a golden diadem on his head, gold bracelets on his wrists, and a golden disk weighing 461 grams (1 lb) around his neck. The Scythians believed that the afterlife continues the earthly life. Therefore, everything of value, including wives and slaves, was placed in the grave of a noble deceased.

The alleged wife of the king was lying nearby, also dressed in gold. The most interesting items were two paired temporal pendants of Greek origin with a portrait of the goddess Athena. The face resembles the famous statue of Athena Parthenos by Phidias (5th century BC). The jewellery itself was clearly made to Scythian taste.

Temporal pendant depicting the head of Athena. Illustration from the book 'Greek Gold. Jewellery of the Classical World' by Dyfri Williams and Jack Ogden

Plaque with a deer

Found: Kul-Oba kurgan, Crimea
Stored: Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

After the excavation of the tomb in Kul-Oba, a local Greek, Dmitry Bavro, broke in there at night with two accomplices. They found many gold plaques and a hiding under the floor slabs. The robbers chopped a hryvna with golden lion heads on the ends into three pieces with an ax.

Later, Bavro confessed to the supervisor of the excavations, Paul Du Brux, whom he knew personally. Dmitry told about the crime and handed over his share of the loot: a part of a hryvna with a lion’s head on the end and a deer-shaped plaque that once adorned a warrior’s shield. For the return of the treasure, Bavro received 1200 rubles from Nicholas I. The tsar promised a reward for the return of other jewellery from Kul-Oba, but no one ever came forward to claim it.

Deer-shaped plaque, Kul-Oba kurgan, 4th century BC. Source: Hermitage /

A golden comb

Found: Solokha kurgan, Zaporizhzhia Oblast
Stored: Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Solokha is a kurgan of a Scythian king or a wealthy nobleman. The expedition of the orientalist and archaeologist Nikolai Veselovsky discovered it in 1912 on the left bank of the Dnipro River near Kamianka-Dniprovska. Veselovsky was well versed in ancient burial mounds and was considered the best expert on Iron Age peoples in the Russian Empire.

The expedition found two graves in the Solokha kurgan. The woman’s tomb was looted, but the man’s tomb remained intact. It also contained the skeletons of an armor bearer, a servant, a stable boy, and five horses. The warrior was wearing armor, and a bronze helmet and a golden comb were placed next to him.

The comb depicts a battle between three Scythians. The one on the far right has just lost his horse and is now fighting on foot. He has little chance. Against him is a rider in expensive plate armor and a Greek helmet. A warrior with a short sword and a shield is rushing to the rider’s aid.

A comb depicting a battle scene. Scythian culture. Late 5th — early 4th century BC. Source: Hermitage /

Gorytos with scenes from the life of Achilles

Found: Melitopol kurgan, Zaporizhzhia Oblast
Stored: Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, and a copy in the Zaporizhzhia Regional Local History Museum
In 1954, a resident of Melitopol fell into a dungeon while digging a well. Archaeologists found two burials inside. In the grave of a noble Scythian woman and her slave, the remains of a funeral chariot and about 4000 gold jewellery items were preserved. In the warrior’s grave, two horse skeletons, a battle belt, gold plaques, and a golden gorytos depicting scenes from the life of Achilles were discovered.

The life of the Iliad hero is illustrated in detail. Most likely, this piece of jewellery was made by Greek craftsmen. The main plot is read from left to right, as in comics or Christian hagiographies. It begins with little Achilles learning to shoot a bow and ends with a scene where his mother takes the ashes of the slain Achilles home. There is also a place for animal style on the gorytos: the top row depicts a dog, a hare, a lioness, a panther and a deer.

Similar Scythian gorytos from the Chortomlyk kurgan. Source: Hermitage /

Silver bowl

Found: Haimanova Mohyla, Zaporizhzhia Oblast
Stored: Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine

In 1970, scientists from the Institute of Archeology of the Ukrainian SSR hastily investigated kurgans in the areas where irrigation canals were planned to be laid. The large Scythian kurgan Haimanova Mohyla is located near the Balky village in the Vasylivka Raion, surrounded by about fifty smaller ones. The archaeologists checked 22 of them, but those were looted. They opened four more graves in the central kurgan and discovered the same scene. When the group was already leaving the site, expedition member Borys Mozolevskyi found a cache with many valuable items.

«[They] have been accustomed, when they want to drink purer wine than common, to give the order to fill ‘Scythian fashion.’» – Herodotus wrote.

The most famous item is a silver bowl with gilding, depicting six Scythians. Two of them are talking; they are dressed in ceremonial robes, holding whips and maces in their hands. These are the leaders. On the reverse, an older man is giving something to a younger one. This is considered to be a plot from an epic or a record of an important event, such as the conclusion of a treaty between tribes. One handle depicts an elderly warrior kneeling. Beneath the other, a Scythian is drinking undiluted wine from a wineskin. The nomads passed the practice to the Greeks, who usually diluted wine with water.

Silver bowl, 4th century BC, Haimanova Mohyla kurgan. Source:
Silver bowl, 4th century BC, Haimanova Mohyla kurgan. Drawing by Halyna Kovpanenko. Source: History of the Ukrainian SSR in ten volumes, volume I.

Acinaces sword and pectoral

Found: Tovsta Mohyla kurgan, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast
Stored: Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine

Scythian kurgans look like natural hills. To identify artificial mounds, Soviet archaeologist Alexei Terenozhkin invented a method of manual drilling. If clay is found in the drill hole, there may be a Scythian tomb inside the hill. In 1964, two holes were drilled in a kurgan near Nikopol. Both turned out to be empty. After that, the Tovsta Mohyla was considered an ordinary hill.

The year after the discovery of the bowl in the Haymanova Mohyla, in 1971, Borys Mozolevskyi took up another kurgan, the Tovsta Mohyla. He made two more holes, but got the same result. Mozolevskyi did not give up and drilled a third, and a month later he led the excavation of the kurgan.

In the tomb of the Scythian leader, skeletons of servants and horses, weapons, utensils, more than 600 pieces of jewellery, and a short iron acinaces sword with an embossed golden hilt were found. Such swords allow us to trace the connection of the Scythians with Western Asia, from where the weapons came to the Northern Black Sea region. The scabbard is luxuriously decorated in animal style.

A sword from the Tovsta Mohyla kurgan, 4th century BC. The sword's golden scabbard is decorated with images of winged lions, deer, horses, and eagles. Source: Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine / Arnold Pierson Museum

Near the acinaces, Mozolevskyi found a famous gold pectoral weighing 1140 grams (2.5 lb). The jewellery item was made by contemporaries of Alexander the Great, most likely in Greece by order of a Scythian nobleman. The composition consists of three levels. The lower one depicts animal scenes, the middle one shows floral motifs, and the upper is decorated with figures of Scythians and pets.

After the discovery of the Tovsta Mohyla, Mozolewski was finally able to stop working as a stoker. He was given a three-room apartment, a salary of 200 rubles, and a chance to defend a thesis. In 1980, he became the head of the Scythian archaeology sector at the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences.