Twenty years after it declared independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine is stepping out to tout its own heritage and cultural savvy. Visitors to the capital, Kiev, tell of new shops, restaurants, art museums, and even a stadium under renovation for the 2012 European soccer championships.
A glittering new show at the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis appears to be part of this effort to walk proud on the international stage. "Antiquities From Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations" features a handsome collection of 7,000-year-old pottery and remarkably intact gold jewelry and ornaments from Scythian burial mounds dating to 700 B.C., plus gorgeous Greek gold jewelry and Byzantine artifacts from later eras.
Some of the jewelry is astonishingly delicate, notably a garland from the 4th century B.C. in the shape of an oak branch sprouting tiny leaves and acorns, and a stunning golden buckle whose centerpiece is a little temple from which gallop two miniature horses pulling a manned chariot. There's a whole room full of such treasures, including golden pitchers and drinking vessels, cosmetic cases, bracelets, necklaces, jewel-encrusted diadems and more, all up to 2,500 years old.
While the art is on loan from PlaTar, a privately funded museum in Kiev, the Ukrainian government cooperated in its U.S. tour, which included museums in Houston and Omaha. It was organized by the Foundation for International Arts and Education, a Maryland-based nonprofit that promotes culture of the former Soviet Union.
Despite such official endorsements, the PlaTar collection is controversial in its homeland. Ukrainian archaeologists charge that its treasures came to light through "black archaeology" -- the looting of archaeological sites. The country has way more sites than its academic scholars have time or money to excavate. Armed with sophisticated metal detectors, looters can quickly plunder treasure-rich burial mounds along the Dnieper River or in the ruins of Greco-Roman cities on the Black Sea. The immense private wealth of Ukraine's new oligarchs aggravates the problem by creating a vast high-end market for looted goods, critics say.
The PlaTar collection was founded by a pair of Ukrainian businessmen, Sergei Platonov, who died in 2005 (leaving his art to his heirs), and Sergei Taruta, whose fortune is estimated at $2 billion. PlaTar officials insist they just want to preserve Ukraine's heritage from avaricious foreigners, particularly Russian collectors. Platonov even seemed to believe that all collections of antiquities are compromised, once challenging a critic to "Show me a comparable collection created with 'white archaeology.'"
Long history; myriad relics
Masha Zavialova, the Minneapolis museum's Russian-born curator, acknowledged the issues. "Private collectors of archaeological artifacts are always questionable," she said, "but these have at least created a museum and made their collection public. Many people collect, especially in Ukraine, but few share their collections."
Strategically positioned north of the Black Sea between the Danube and Dnieper rivers, Ukraine has long been a meeting ground for warriors from the East and the West, and a source of agricultural bounty. About 700 B.C., Greek colonists settled along the Black Sea, where they exchanged gold and fabrics for grain, fish and hides brought by Scythian traders from inland. Then came Roman military outposts, followed by Byzantine Christian settlements. At its peak in the Middle Ages, the Slavic kingdom of the Kyivan Rus, as Ukraine was then known, extended north from the Black Sea to encompass most of what is now western Russia.
The show comprises artifacts from all these peoples, making it a whirlwind tour of Ukraine's prehistory. Missing, sadly, is any explanation of specifically where the show's objects originated. The gorgeous Greek jewelry, for instance, may have been dug up on Ukrainian turf, but for all the show tells us it could have come from a Tiffany's in downtown Athens. This is what happens when looters beat scholars to the goods. This doesn't matter quite so much when the focus of a show is artistry, but it counts a great deal in an exhibit with nationalistic ambitions like "Antiquities."
The most curious artifacts are those of the Trypillian people, who lived from about 7,400 to 4,700 years ago and left remarkable pottery in the ruins of their villages. Immense storage jars, model houses, toys and amphora painted with graceful abstractions and animal characters suggest the sophistication of an otherwise unrecorded culture. Their most mystifying artifacts are sets of tall, flaring clay tubes that are joined like binoculars, but have no obvious purpose.
The museum's staff has taken pains to provide big-picture information and to display the objects perfectly. A timeline, painted on the floor like a stone pathway, smartly shows that the Trypillian pottery predates the pyramids and Stonehenge, for example. Maps and text panels detail Ukraine's history, complete with arrows that trace the likely routes of successive invasions by Cimmerians, Scythians and Mongols. Who but deep-dish historians still remember Herodotus, let alone know that he described the Scythians as "wiser than any nation on the face of the Earth." By the time Genghis Khan's grandson Batu Khan and his 35,000 mounted warriors sacked Kiev in 1240, you, too, want to weep in despair at the desecration.
Archaeological issues aside, the combination of exemplary scholarship and ancient bling make this unusual show well worth seeing.