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    [size=12pt]A grave circlet[/size] excavated from the Scythian burial ground outside Bakhchysarai, now on display in Amsterdam. Bakhchysarai Historical and Cultural Preserve

    Scythian Gold Caught in Ukraine Dispute
    'Crimea: Gold and Secrets from the Black Sea,' Exhibit on Display in Amsterdam

    By Paul Sonne, Wallstreet Journal
    Updated March 30, 2014

    BAKHCHYSARAI, Ukraine—Sun shone between the minarets of the 16th-century palace here Friday, as a Crimean Tatar wedding party filed out of the palace's mosque and into the lazy afternoon breeze.

    Everything seemed peaceful and in its place, even despite Russia's recent annexation of the region from Ukraine. But one thing was missing from the palace grounds: A trove of ancient Scythian gold.

    Mid-last year, the museum and palace complex's officials sent the gold along with artifacts from three other Crimean museums to Germany for the biggest-ever modern exhibit of Crimea's ancient treasures abroad. The exhibit, "Crimea: Gold and Secrets from the Black Sea," then traveled to the Netherlands this year, where it remains on display in Amsterdam.

    Now officials here fear they will never see their precious Scythian gold on the premises again. The trove has become subsumed in a cross-national dispute that has come to reflect the nature of the Black Sea peninsula's complex and contested history.

    "The objects left when it was one government. Now they are supposed to return and it is another government," said Oksana Alpashkina, head conservationist at the Bakhchysarai Historical and Cultural Preserve—which oversees the Crimean Tatar palace from the days of Ottoman rule and a collection of older objects including the Scythian gold. "I think it is an unprecedented situation."

    Ukraine's new authorities in Kiev, which in February toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych after months of pro-European protests, have suggested the artifacts in Amsterdam shouldn't return to state museums in Crimea because the items belong to Ukraine rather than Russia, which has taken control of the peninsula—including its museums.

    "All museum objects that are being displayed abroad will return to Ukraine," said Yevhen Nishchuk, the one-time master of ceremonies at the Kiev protests and now Ukraine's Culture Minister. He called it a matter of "national security for the Ukrainian government's cultural possessions."

    The University of Amsterdam's Allard Pierson Museum, which is displaying the Crimean exhibit until late August, says it plans to return the objects according to their "legal ownership." The museum, however, didn't say whether that means the treasures will be shipped back to Crimea or mainland Ukraine.

    "Given the complexity of the issue, the manner in which the objects will be returned is currently being investigated by the legal advisers of the University of Amsterdam," the museum said in a statement. "Additional advice has also been requested from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague."

    The 16th-century Crimean Tatar Khan's Palace in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, where a collection of Scythian Gold artifacts were displayed before being sent on tour to Germany and the Netherlands.

    For the four Crimean museums participating in the exhibition, such uncertainty raises conservationists' worst fears: that they could lose some of the most treasured pieces in their collection.

    Archaeologists harvested much of the Scythian gold from a burial site not far from Bakhchysarai. They found not only gold ornaments but also ancient Chinese lacquered boxes the Scythians had buried with the dead—also on display in Amsterdam.

    "To lose these pieces, for us, it would just be an enormous tragedy," Ms. Alpashkina said. She said the museum has lent its Dutch partners more than 1,000 objects—just 1% of the total collection but some of its most precious items.

    The Scythians were nomads who inhabited much of modern-day Russia and Ukraine from about 600 B.C. to 300 A.D. They fought off their enemies from horseback with bows and arrows and interred their nobility in elaborate tombs, where they buried horses, gold and other treasured items alongside the dead. Higher-ranking Scythian warriors often had elaborate tattoos, according to Greek historian Herodotus, who described the Scythians as barbaric warriors at times prone to indulge in marijuana.

    Alexander Blok wrote about them in 1918, months after the October Revolution, in his famous poem "The Scythians." Frustrated by Russia's dragging involvement in World War I, Blok lashed out at Europe. He presented the Scythians as a savage eastern streak lingering in Russia's blood, ready to pillage Europe should the Continent neglect to end the war and fail to embrace the socialist uprising.

    "Would we be to blame if your skeleton cracks to bits in our heavy, tender paws?" Blok wrote in the poem, addressing Europe's powers.

    Such ideas of Russia's special Eurasian destiny opposed to Western Europe have undergone a revival under President Vladimir Putin, who since his return to the Kremlin in 2012 has promoted Russia as an alternative to Europe with different values.

    The controversy over the Amsterdam exhibit isn't the first time Scythian gold has emerged as a flare-up in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

    Russian media outlets recently accused Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of smuggling Scythian gold treasures from Ukraine's national gold reserve to the U.S. as a guarantee for Western loans ahead of a March meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. Ukrainian authorities called the claim a fantasy of Russian spin-doctors.

    In Crimea, museum officials say their artifacts in Amsterdam have become hostage to political forces beyond their control.

    It isn't only Scythian gold in question—but also objects from the days when Greeks, Romans, Goths and Byzantines inhabited the Black Sea peninsula, itself a crossroads of civilization for millennia. It was only in 1783 that Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula for the Russian Empire from the Ottomans.

    At Chersonesos, an ancient Greek city and Unesco heritage site in Sevastopol, deputy director Larisa Sedikova is particularly worried about an ancient Greek tombstone she lent for the Amsterdam show.

    "It's important that it's not stolen from us," Ms. Sedikova said, as she fretted over the fate of her museum's objects from a back office amid the Greek ruins. She said the contract for the exhibition stipulates the objects should return to Ukraine in the event of a force majeure. "But we do not consider this a force majeure," she said, noting that Chersonesos faces no threat of damage.

    For Valentina Mordvintseva, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology in Simferopol who helped initiate the objects' European tour, the dispute runs counter to the exhibit's initial concept.

    She said: "The idea actually was to show a melting pot, how very many cultures could live together."

    —Katya Gorchinskaya contributed to this article.




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