The richest gold finds from antiquity originate from the burial mounds of Scythian princes in the northern Black Sea region. The Collection of Classical Antiquities here in Berlin boasts the most important collection of Scythian gold after St. Petersburg and Kiev. On show in the Altes Museum, between works crafted by ancient goldsmiths, the Greek influence in these finds becomes clear, but so too does the singularity of Scythian culture. The European Scythians were nomads who rode on horseback, and who in the 9th century BCE started spreading out from the Eurasian steppes towards the west via southern Siberia, reaching as far as Mesopotamia and Egypt via the Caucasus by the 3rd century BCE. The Scythians developed thriving contacts with their neighbours to the west, the Thracians and Greeks. Herodotus of Halicarnassus travelled the land of the Scythians around 450 BCE and, in the 4th book of The Histories, reports with amazement and horror of their exotic way of life, the military strategy of ‘scorched earth’, the ritualistic killing of people and horses that took place, for instance, during obsequies for a deceased king, as well as their lavish funerary objects. Herodotus presumed that the gold he saw used in abundance originated from the rich deposits in eastern Kazakhstan (still rich in gold deposits today) and the Altai Mountains. However, it is also plausible that the Scythians imported panned gold from Colchis, now in Georgia. The Greeks satisfied most of their demand for grain through the Scythians who admired the virtuosity of Ionian goldsmiths and traded the grain for their gold works. These Ionian works in turn influenced the indigenous craftsmanship. ‘The Fish of Vettersfelde’, decoration from a shield, is an outstanding example of such cross-pollination, executed in what is termed the Scythian animal style. The fish was found on 5 October 1882 by a farmer on the estate of Prince Heinrich zu Schönaich-Carolath, south-east of Guben in Lower Lusatia (now Poland). Also part of the sensational gold treasure were: a large quatrefoil decorative gold plate, a short sword or acinaces with scabbard (which also bore elaborate decorations of animals), a woven chain (71 cm in length that belonged to the sword), an earring with pendant, a ‘whetstone’ (perhaps used as a talisman), covered above by sheet gold, a solid bracelet and a large sealed ring, 21 cm in diameter, the same weight in gold as the fish, as well as several other items. The discovery of such a large gold treasure was not the main cause for the sensation, rather the fact that it was found more than 1500 km north-west of the area that the European Scythians were known to have settled in, along the Dnieper River and the northern coast of the Black Sea where similar gold objects had first been retrieved from the ground in the early 18th century. In those finds, the rich grave goods were hidden relatively far below ground in huge barrows (or ‘kurgan’), burial mounds for rulers. The gold of Vettersfelde, by contrast, had come to the surface during ploughing. Further excavations in the summer of 1883 produced no indications of a burial there. Recent German-Polish digs suggest that the place was once a sacrificial site. It remains contentious whether the Scythians actually made a one-off, short incursion so far into the settlements of ‘Lusatian’ culture, around 500 BCE. The fish is raised from strong gold sheet, its decorative motifs on the front chased and punched. The pectoral fin divides the body into two relief zones: in the upper area a panther attacks a boar and a lion a stag, above that is the (damaged) depiction of a leaping hare. In the lower zone a bearded Triton wields a fish in his hand while leading a school of fish. In the centre of the tail fin, which ends in rams’ heads, an eagle spreads its wings. The large eye of the fish originally gleamed with a glass insert. On the underside four staples are still in place (three others have been ripped out), proving that the object was once fastened to another surface – probably a round shield with an iron mount. We know that such a shield once held the golden stag emblem found at Kostromskaya Stanica in Kuban.
The nonliterate culture of the Scythian nomadic tribes means we can only surmise on the totemistic significance of the symbols on the plate: the rulers of the heavens (eagle), the sea (Triton) and the earth (lion, panther) might have conveyed their powers to a royal warrior leader. The fact there are few signs of use on all items in the find suggest they had not been carried for long. In places where objects are damaged, the crudeness of the strokes suggest the gold sheet was hurriedly torn off from a shield (fish) and a breastplate (quatrefoil), bundled together with the remaining articles and stolen.