Those 2400-year-old solid-gold bongs unearthed in southern Russia – not actual things. Scythians never smoked bongs because no Scythian bongs ever existed.
What Scythians did do is burn cannabis using braziers. Fumigation with cannabis – or ‘hotboxing’, if you prefer – was a Scythian custom we know was practiced at their funerals. Historical and archaeological evidence for this exists in Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus, a kurgan at Pazyryk in the Altai, and a burial ground in the eastern Pamirs – though the latter did not yield up any tripod ‘hotboxing’ tents.
Cannabis was perhaps also ‘smoked’ recreationally in and around Central Asia by simply throwing the plants onto bonfires, as the Histories describes with an unknown plant and unknown people on a river Herodotus calls the Araxes, which may possibly be the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) of today’s Uzbekistan.
But what we know for sure is cannabis was burned sacramentally at Scythian funeral rites and now, thanks to the so-called ‘bong’ finds, that opiated cannabis drinks were brewed in solid gold vessels, apparently to be drunk from equally exquisite gold cups by the immensely wealthy, immensely powerful Scythian elites.
History’s original dope fiends, these Scythians were ethnolinguistically northern Iranian peoples whose settled and nomadic cultures spanned from what are now Ukraine and Turkey to northwest India, Mongolia, and the frontiers of the Central Chinese Plain. Throughout the Iron Age, Scythian federations dominated much of Eurasia, in some reckonings not just shaping but giving rise to the Axial Age – the birth of civilisation as we understand it and the era of Buddha, Plato, and Lao Tzu. It’s been argued Gautama Buddha and even Lao Tzu were Scythians themselves. True or not, that’s a reminder that not every ethnic Scythian was a pot smoker, kind of the same way that not every Jamaican is a Rasta or every Indian a sadhu of the Juna Akhara. Many Scythians, incidentally, likely wore dreads.
All of which is great….
But there’s no such thing as a Scythian bong. Unless, that is, you’re online and reading the Daily Mail, Daily Express… etc… etc… etc… or world’s worst source of cannabis information, Wikipedia. In which case, Scythian bongs are totally real. FACT!
Not exactly… Actual fact is the Scythian bong is just another instance of unreality and how it multiplies online.
Born shortly after the May 22nd 2015 publication in National Geographic of an article by Andrew Curry entitled Gold Artifacts Tell Tale of Drug-Fuelled Rituals and “Bastard Wars”, Scythian bongs undertook a rapid, thoroughly Scythian conquest of the expanses of the Internet.
Note that “shortly after”, because nowhere in Curry’s article is there any mention of bongs. All the bong claims are from clickbait published by cynical UK tabloids that caught wind of his National Geographic article.
Meanwhile, back in reality, Curry’s expert source is the archaeologist Andrei Belinski, who in summer 2013 unearthed astonishing gold treasure from a Scythian kurgan in the steppe grasslands of Stavropolski Krai, southern Russia. It’s these gold objects that provide one part of the material basis for the otherwise entirely imaginary 2400-year-old Scythian bongs….
Exquisite as it is, this gold treasure in fact comprises two vessels and three small gold cups, plus a heavy gold ring and armbands. No bongs. No pipes. Not even any braziers. “The chamber contained two bucket-shaped gold vessels, each placed upside down. Inside were three gold cups.…” These showed “no sign of charring or burning.” Belinski speculates that “they were used to brew and drink a strong opium concoction.”
Enter the “black residue” inside the vessels, which is the second fragment of objectively verifiable reality out of which the Scythian bongs fantasy was born. Sent to a criminology lab, this black residue tested “positive for opium and cannabis.” This is the basis for Belinski’s speculation. His guess is that “cannabis was burning nearby.” That’s a guess based partly on the Histories’ account of Scythian cannabis fumigation and partly, it seems, on an assumption by Belinski that cannabis is not a drug that is drunk.
Because a much more straightforward explanation for this black residue containing traces of opium and cannabis is that – you guessed it – the brew contained opium and cannabis.
These gold drinking vessels belonged to very wealthy, very powerful Scythian elites. The Scythian federations of the Western Steppe amassed that wealth through Black Sea trade with Greeks and by plundering the settled urban civilizations of the Middle East, where Scythian clans operated as mercenaries and power-brokers, at times seizing control of whole kingdoms and forging empires. That history is told in Herodotus and – if Belinski is right – one of its episodes, the Bastard Wars, is depicted on these very vessels.
As argued by another archaeologist, Andrew Sherratt, to drink – in imitation of the wine of the urbane Middle East – is exactly what you’d expect in this elite context.