The Gold Pectoral of the Scythian Ruler

A story about a unique gold ornament found in a Scythian mound

By National Museum of the History of Ukraine

On June 21, 1971 at 2:30 p.m., the head of the archaeological expedition, Borys Mozolevskyi, made a sensational discovery while exploring the Central tomb of the Tovsta Mohyla kurgan (near the city of Pokrov in Dnipropetrovsk region). In his diary, the scholar recorded: "I found it just 10 centimeters away from where the robbers had plundered. While clearing the grave shaft, I felt something scratch my finger, and my heart beat faster with excitement.

Crescent-Shaped Gold Pectoral of a Scythian King (400 - 300 BCE) by UnknownNational Museum of the History of Ukraine

I carefully removed the clay and saw the glittering gold."  It was a decorative breastplate or "pectoral" of a Scythian ruler, a symbol of his power.

The ancient Greeks called the peoples who lived on a large territory of modern Ukraine in the 7th–4th centuries BCE as Scythians.

Crescent-Shaped Gold Pectoral of a Scythian King (400 - 300 BCE) by UnknownNational Museum of the History of Ukraine

The unknown Greek masters created the pectoral around 370-360 BCE. The composition of the ornament displays remarkable precision, harmony, rhythm, and proportions.

The manufacturing technique of the pectoral also attests to the highest level of skill of Greek jewelers.  A wide range of known technics for working with precious metals was used to make the pectoral.

The images depicted on the pectoral embody Scythian beliefs and are the quintessence of Scythian mythological concepts, including those associated with royal power.  The pectoral frame is composed of four hollow rods of varying diameters, which imitate twisted torques.

These "torques" form three tiers. All tiers are filled with 48 figurines of humans, real and fantasy animals, and birds, cast in gold with lost-wax casting technique and soldered onto the base - the "torques".

Extremely delicate work allows you to scrutinize the smallest details - every feather, every muscle, every hair of the fur and even the expression on the face. The intricacy of the work is astonishing.

At the center of the lower open-work tier are three scenes of horses being attack by griffins, scenes of a leopard and a lion attacking a deer (on the left), and a wild boar (on the right). 

On either side, the pursuit of hares by dogs is depicted, and behind the hares are eternal companions of the steppes - grasshoppers, facing each other. Lower tier represents death. But if you look closely, you will notice how with each subsequent scene, death retreats.

In the center, griffins have already triumphed over the horse and are tearing it apart, while next to it we see the horse still fighting for its life, biting a paw of the griffin. The predators have just attacked the boar, and the hare is fleeing from its attacker.

Therefore, the center of the tier reproduces the triumph of death, which retreats with each scene, and at the edges of the frieze, a mating pairs of grasshoppers herald the birth of new life with their singing.

The upper tier testifies to the triumph of life.

In the center of the frieze are figures of two men stripped to the waist, sewing ritual clothes from sheepskin.  Next to them are two qorytoi, cases for a bow and arrows.  The gorytoi are decorated with miniscule images of a hero fighting a monster.

The Scythian on the left stands on his knees,

his left hand pulling the skin and holding some tool in his right hand. The man on the right is sitting on his bent left leg, pulling up the sleeve of the garment with his left hand, and holding a gold wire that imitate the rope in his right hand.

The man's hair and beard are adorned with large curls, and his face has slightly elongated proportions. Much speculation has arisen regarding the identity of these men. Various scholars see them as kings, priests, legendary heroes, or even gods.

On either side of this scene stand mares and cows with their babies. While one foal lies down on one side because it has just been born, on the other side, a slightly older foal is depicted sucking milk.

Then a human child is shown next to the sheep. On the right, a younger boy milks the sheep, while on the left, a youth opens an amphora of wine (perhaps he is a royal wine-bearer).

On both sides of the sheep are goats with their kids, which also vary in age. These are already adult kids, ready for independent life.  Therefore, the upper tier shows the cycle of life through the birth and growth of infants.

The composition is completed with an image of two birds taking off. On one side, it is a duck, and on the other, a predator. They fly in opposite directions, but since the circle continues imaginarily at the top, they appear to be flying towards each other.

Two different themes - life and death - which converge in the circles of the pectoral and merge into each other, as depicted in the aforementioned images. The eternal cycle of life and death is the foundation of existence and the pectoral's main idea.

The middle frieze separate two opposing worlds. On a solid gold plate, we see a plant ornament in the form of an acanthus bush, whose sprouts diverge in different directions and twist in spirals.

Different flowers can be seen on the sprouts, some of which were once covered with blue enamel. Five birds are also placed on the shoots. This fantastic plant is a symbol of the world tree, the foundation of life in the universe.

To achieve victory of life, significant effort is required. The rulers who wore the pectoral take complete responsibility for the community they lead, pledging to do everything in their power to help their people withstand adversity and succeed.

These views were possibly held by Scythian sages, who together with prominent Greek masters, created this unparalleled masterpiece of ancient jewelry art. There are no equivalents to this pectoral in the world, and it is absolutely fair to recognize this adornment as an archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

Credits: Story

Research and text: Yuriy Polidovych
Project Сurator: Nataliia Panchenko
Technical implementation: Oleg Mitiukhin, Oksana Mitiukhina, Liudmila Klymuk
Scientific editor:  Oksana Lifantiy   
Text editor:  Oksana Kovalyova, Valentyna Yanchuk
Translation: Oksana Lifantiy, Dmytro Mitiukhin
Selection of exhibits:  Yuriy Polidovych
Photographer: Dmytro Klochko

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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