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Historic Hornography: Thrace/Scythia

Welcome! This is the first in a series of articles called "Historical Hornography" and we hope to shed a bit of light on, what you drank from was almost as important as what you were drinking! So sit back, enjoy and revel in the fact that your drinking is an extension of history!!! (Ok that might be a bit of a reach or extremely elaborate justification but it works for us! Remember, drink don't dabble!)


The drinking horn was used in ancient times for consuming ale, milk, water, or mead. At first, the vessels were made from a horn of a bovid, and throughout the centuries various civilizations all over the world started to make them from wood, ceramics, glass, and even metal. According to historians, the horn’s history begins with the Scythians and Thracians.


Both in the Greek and the Scythian sphere, vessels of clay or metal shaped like horns were used alongside actual horns from an early time. A Late Archaic (ca. 480 BC) Attic red-figure vase shows Dionysus and a satyr each holding a drinking horn.

During Classical Antiquity, the Thracians and Scythians in particular were known for their custom of drinking from horns (archaeologically, the Iron Age "Thraco-Cimmerian" horizon). Xenophon's account of his dealings with the Thracian leader Seuthes suggests that drinking horns were integral part of the drinking kata ton Thrakion nomon ("after the Thracian fashion"). Diodorus gives an account of a feast prepared by the Getic chief Dromichaites for Lysimachus and selected captives, and the Getians' use of drinking vessels made from horn and wood is explicitly stated.

The Scythian elite also used horn-shaped rhyta made entirely from precious metal. A notable example is the 5th century BC gold-and-silver rhython in the shape of a Pegasus which was found in 1982 in Ulyap, Adygea, now at the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow. M.I. Maksimova (1956) in an archaeological survey of Scythian drinking horns distinguished two basic types (excluding vessels of clearly foreign origin), a strongly curved type, and a slender type with only slight curvature; the latter type was identified as based on aurochs horns by Maksimova (1956:221). This typology became standard in Soviet-era archaeology. There are a few artistic representation of Scythans actually drinking from horns from the rim (rather than from the horn's point as with rhyta). The oldest remains of drinking horns or rhytaknown from Scythan burials are dated to the 7th century BC, reflecting Scythian contact with oriental culture during their raids of the Assyrian Empire at that time. After these early specimens, there is a gap with only sparse evidence of Scythian drinking horns during the 6th century. Drinking horns re-appear in the context of Pontic burials in the 5th century BC: these are the specimens classified as Scythian drinking horns by Maksimova (1956). The 5th-century BC practice of depositing drinking horns with precious metal fittings as grave goods for deceased warriors appears to originate in the Kuban region. In the 4th century BC, the practice spreads throughout the Pontic Steppe. Rhyta, mostly of Achaemenid or Thracian import, continue to be found in Scythian burials, but they are now clearly outnumbered by Scythian drinking horns proper. Around the midpoint of the 4th century BC, a new type of solid silver drinking horn with strong curvature appears. While the slightly curving horn type is found throughout the Pontic Steppe, specimens of the new type have not been found in the Kuban area. The custom of depositing drinking horns as grave goods begins to subside towards the end of the 4th century BC. The depiction of drinking horns on kurgan stelae appears to follow a slightly different chronology, with the earliest examples dated to the 6th century BC, and a steep increase in frequency during the 5th, but becoming rare by the 4th century (when actual deposits of drinking horns become most frequent). In the Crimean peninsula, such depictions appear somewhat later, from the 5th century BC, but then more frequently than elsewhere.

Scythian drinking horns have been found almost exclusively in warrior burials. This has been taken as strongly suggesting an association of the drinking horn with the Scythian cult of kingship and warrior ethos. In the influential interpretation due to M. I. Rostovtzeff (1913), the Scythian ruler received the drinking horn from a deity as a symbol of his investiture. This interpretation is based on a number of depictions of a Scythian warrior drinking from a horn standing or kneeling next to a seated woman. Rolle (1980) interpreted the woman not as a goddess but as a high-ranking Scythian woman performing a ritual office. Krausse (1996) interpreted the same scenes as depicting a marriage ceremony, with the man drinking from the horn as part of an oath ritual comparable to the scenes of Scythian warriors jointly drinking from a horn in an oath of blood brotherhood. The Scythian drinking horns are clearly associated with the consumption of wine.

The drinking horn reached Central Europe with the Iron Age, in the wider context of "Thraco-Cimmerian" cultural transmission. A number of early Celtic (Hallstatt culture) specimens are known, notably the remains of a huge gold-banded horn found at the Hochdorf burial. Krauße (1996) examines the spread of the "fashion" of drinking horns (Trinkhornmode) in prehistoric Europe, assuming it reached the eastern Balkans from Scythia around 500 BC. It is more difficult to assess the role of plain animal horns as everyday drinking vessels, because these decay without a trace, while the metal fittings of the ceremonial drinking horns of the elite are preserved archaeologically.


Julius Caesar has a description of Gaulish use of aurochs drinking horns (cornu urii) in De bello gallico 6.28:

„Amplitudo cornuum et figura et species multum a nostrorum boum cornibus differt. Haec studiose conquisita ab labris argento circumcludunt atque in amplissimis epulis pro poculis utuntur.“"The [Gaulish] horns in size, shape, and kind are very different from those of our cattle. They are much sought-after, their rim fitted with silver, and they are used at great feasts as drinking vessels."


Cool huh? We thought so and thanks for visiting and reading a bit about the history of the drinking horn.




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