Frozen kurgans from Scythian times in the high mountain valleys of the Mongolian Altaj
The survey area belongs to the administrative region of Bajan Ul´gijskij Ajmak and is situated in the extreme northwest of the Mongolian territory close to the Russian, Kazakh and Chinese borders. It encompasses the wide u-shaped mountain valleys of the Ojgor-Gol and its tributaries Olon-Kurin-Gol, Unkul´chik, Togus-Kol´, Shetk-Ojgor-Gol and Dund-Ojgoryn-Gol, reaching altitudes between 2400 and 2600 m above sea level. The region is separated by a mountain range from the Ukok plateau in the south of the Russian Altaj, located about 50 km to the west.
The cooperation project of the German Archaeological Institute with Russian and Mongolian archaeologists is aimed at studying monuments of the Early Iron Age Pazyryk culture (5th - 3rd centuries BC) on the southern periphery of its distribution area in Mongolia. It especially focuses on so-called "frozen kurgans", permanently frozen burial mounds with excellent conditions for the preservation of organic materials which only exist in the Altaj mountains.
Southern connections of the Pazyryk culture and other Scythian-time archaeological groups of Southern Siberia have been known for a long time. The emergence of the Scytho-Siberian animal style between Altaj and Enissej cannot be imagined without influences from the art of the Western and especially the Eastern Zhou dynasties. The rich royal kurgans at Pazyryk in the Russian Altaj yielded decorated silk cloth which likewise originated in China. Especially remarkable are new finds from the deserts of Northern Xinjiang: male and female dress of the dried mummies found in this region show surprising similarities with the clothing from the frozen kurgans of the Pazyryk culture. Here we see a network of relations which linked soon after the middle of the 1st millennium BC the horse-mounted nomads of the South Siberian montainous regions with similarly-structured groups in the areas further south. In these regions, a net of long distance connections had already developed at that time which later was to become famous as the "silk road". Further research is urgently needed, since the southern slopes of the Altaj mountains, today on Mongolian territory, are of crucial importance for these questions but nevertheless have remained a blank spot on the archaeological map to this day.
Another reason for the urgent need of new research is the mounting evidence that in the mountains of Central Asia, too, global warming has an ever-growing impact, resulting in the melting of glaciers and the thawing of upper soil layers which had been permanently frozen up to now. Especially the latter poses a serious threat to the unique monument category of frozen kurgans since the very reason for the excellent preservation conditions within them is permafrost. Modern investigations have to ensure that the irreplaceable archaeological information preserved in these frozen tombs is not lost undocumented.
The following questions, therefore, lie at the centre of the trilateral research project: How far does the Pazyryk culture known in the northern part of the Altaj extent southwards into the territory of present-day Mongoli Does the unique monument category of frozen kurgans with its excellent conditions for the preservation of organic remains also exist on the southern slopes of the Altaj? What information can the monuments of this region provide towards a better understanding of the inter-relations between South Siberian horse-mounted nomads and the inhabitants of more southerly regions of Central Asi
Already since the 19th century scholars have been fascinated by the grave tumuli of the Pazyryk culture in the Altaj mountains. Systematic excavations of such frozen burial, in which all organic material - clothes, wooden artefacts, carpets and even the bodies of the deceased themselves - has been excellently preserved by the ice, have so far only taken place in the northern part of the Altaj.
A first scientific expedition to the area was conducted in the 1860s by the German linguist and archaeologist F.W. Radloff who was in the service of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He opened the first frozen kurgans of the Scythian period near Katanda and Berel´ in the high Altaj mountains and thus led the way for Russian researchers into one of the most fascinating archaeological regions of Siberia. Between 1929 and 1955, the Russian archaeologists M.P. Grjaznov and S.I. Rudenko continued these works and uncovered sensational finds in the rich royal kurgans of Pazyryk, Tuekta and Bashadar which can today be admired in the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
A new phase in the study of the frozen tombs of the Altaj began in the early 1990s when V.I. Molodin and N.V. Polos´mak from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences discovered kurgans on the Ukok plateau directly north of the Russian-Mongolian border which had preserved in their ice-filled burial chambers the tattooed bodies of the deceased together with all clothing and grave goods. For the first time it was possible to excavate these unique archaeological monuments using modern methods and to conduct comprehensive, interdisciplinary post-excavation analyses of the material.
Almost 150 years after Radloff´s expeditions, since 2004 German archaeologists have once again got the chance to work in the Altaj mountains and thus continue this scientific tradition from the 19th century.
A first survey of the high mountain valleys close to the Russian-Mongolian border was undertaken by the three partner organisations in the summer of 2004. The works concentrated on the location, description and photographic documentation of the above-ground archaeological monuments. As a result, 93 new sites were discovered, ranging from Bronze Age to Late Medieval times, among them 16 kurgans and kurgan complexes of the Pazyryk culture.
In June 2005 a second expedition was send to the area with the aim to more precisely document those sites from the Scythian period which appeared especially interesting and promising for a more thorough archaeological investigation. At the same time a team of geophysicists from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk conducted surveys on selected kurgans. These measurements, specially modified procedures based on geo-electrics and ground penetrating radar, were hoped to yield initial information about the possible preservation of ice lenses under the burial cairns. The results really did show distinctive anomalies in some of the investigated monuments which were interpreted by the geophysicists as ice formations - a conclusion which still needed to be tested by excavation due to the novelty of the methods used.
In June and July 2006 an excavation campaign lasting for seven weeks was conducted, during which four kurgans were investigated. These objects were the most promising as regards to the possible preservation of ice lenses, as they had been chosen on the basis of the results from the previous survey campaigns, taking into account the character of the monuments, their topographical position and the geophysical measurements.
The aim of the geophysical survey was to gain information about the existence of ice in the burial chambers under the kurgan covers. Two methods were employed: geo-electrics and ground-penetrating radar, modified to meet the requirements of the new and so far unique task. Since reliable data for comparison do not exist, the survey was at the same time an important opportunity for testing and optimising special methods to be used in permanently frozen ground.
Dendrochronological investigations on wood from the excavated burial chambers which are carried out by the Scientific Department of the DAI Head Office in co-operation with the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, are of special importance in a number of respects: besides giving an exact date for the graves, they can also provide valuable, chronologically detailed information on large-scale cultural relations in the Altaj of the Scythian period through comparisons with dated timbers from other areas. Apart from that, the new individual curves also contribute to supplementing and extending the standard curve of the region.
Anthropology and genetics:
The anthropological examination of the mummy from Olon Kurin Gol 10, kurgan 1, at the Department of Human Medicine of the University Göttingen aims to reconstruct the health status of the man, to gain information of his living habits, and also to possibly determine the cause of his death - in short, to uncover basic biographical facts. Among the methods employed are macroscopic, microscopic, endoscopic and radiological techniques as well as the use of light and scanning electron microscopes and biochemical methods. One focal point is molecular biology, used to examine old DNA. To ensure the extraction of uncontamined samples, a geneticist was present on site already during the excavation.
Archaeometrical examinations are carried out in the Rathgen-Forschungslabor of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and focus on the analysis of colour remains and traces of metal which are preserved on many of the grave goods and clothing items, but also with the determination of glues and the detection of other substances on the finds which are not visible any more.
Ulan Daba 1
The excavations works started on the largest kurgan in the region, Ulan Daba 1, which was situated by a pass road running west towards the Ukok plateau. The geophysical survey on this kurgan which measured 18 m in diameter had shown a strong anomaly at a depth of 2.5 m which was interpreted as an ice lens. In the course of the excavations, though, it was surprisingly realized that the stone cairn in fact did not cover a burial pit but had been sitting on undisturbed natural ground. The only grave within the monument was a stone cist in the centre of the cairn, erected from large slabs and containing the badly preserved skeletal remains of an adult person. Due to the complete lack of chronologically relevant finds, but also of comparable monuments, the question of the chronological position of this object can only be answered by radiocarbon dates. In the further course of the excavations, an ice lens was actually found, but it represented nothing more than a natural formation in the undisturbed river moraine.
Olon Kurin Gol 6
The second excavated object was kurgan 2 of the Scythian-time burial complex Olon Kurin Gol 6 in the Olon Kurin valley running to the north. The kurgan had a diameter of 14 m and thus belonged to the medium-sized grave mounds of the region. In the centre there was a funnel-shaped depression which can either be indicative of a collapsed burial chamber, or of disturbance by grave robbers. In the course of the excavation it soon became clear that in this case the second variant applied: already in the fill of the rectangular burial pit located under the stone mound, the manhole dug by the robbers was clearly visible, and the burial chamber found at a depth of 2 m provided a picture of devastation: the ceiling boards had been destroyed, the interior of the chamber rummaged through, and even the floorboards had been thrown around and lay one on top of the other. The skeletal remains of the adult woman buried here were scattered around the chamber, and of the grave goods, only a few fragments were still present (flecks of gold foil, remains of wooden and ceramic vessels, pieces of woven cloth etc.), which nonetheless indicated - together with ice formations - the formerly favourable preservation conditions in this grave. A surprising find was made on the ground of the chamber underneath the displaced floorboards: beside a composite comb with remains of a felt case the tiny bones of a child, probably born prematurely, were discovered. It obviously had been buried in this kurgan together with its mother. To the north of the wooden chamber, the carcass of a horse was found which had not been touched by the grave robbers. The burial dates to the late phase of the Pazyryk culture (early 3rd cent. BC).
Olon Kurin Gol 7
In the neighbouring kurgan group of Olon Kurin Gol 7, the small kurgan 2 with a diameter of only 8 m was investigated. The excavation showed that this object had not been a burial monument at all, but rather some kind of memorial often associated with kurgan rows. Under the stone cover, which in its construction did not differ from the cairns of real burial kurgans, an intentionally deposited pottery vessel was found, dating to the Hunno-Sarmatian period (2nd cent. BC - 2nd cent. AD) which followed the Scythian time.
Olon Kurin Gol 10
The fourth object investigated during the field campaign of 2006 was kurgan 1 of the complex Olon Kurin Gol 10, situated about 1 km south of the burial complex Olon Kurin Gol 6/7. While two of the mounds in the complex showed traces of robbing, kurgan 1, with 12 m diameter the largest one of this row, seemed undisturbed. The geophysical survey had indicated the possible existence of ice in this grave although the detected anomaly was not very strong.
After the removal of the stone cairn, a rectangular burial pit was visible in the centre of the monument. In this pit, at a depth of 1.4 m a completely intact burial wooden burial chamber together with two horses lying to the north-east was found, all covered with a black felt blanket. The horses, whose bodies were frozen and therefore very well preserved, had been put into the grave in full harness with their saddles and bridles decorated with beautiful wooden ornaments covered with tin foil. The elongated, rectangular burial chamber was constructed from mighty larch beams and has been preserved so well that even the traces of the wood working tools are still visible.
Just beneath the ceiling of the chamber, which had kept sealed for over 2000 years allowing no earth to enter the hollow space below, the burial was lying with all the grave goods still in place. The dead man and his equipment have been outstandingly well preserved, although they were not lying within an ice lens but just above it. The floor of the chamber was covered by a felt blanket, the edges of which were fixed on the walls with wooden nails. On the blanket, close to the south-western wall lay the partly mummified deceased, an adult man, on his back with crouched legs and the head to the south-east. The face was not preserved because at some stage the ice lens must have pressed the dead body against the ceiling. A tuft of blond hair was found on the back of the head. From the hips down, the state of preservation of the body is not too bad, while the trunk is largely skeletised, although in this region fragments of skin with figurative tattoos were found.
The dead man had been fully clothed when he was put into his grave: he wore a fur coat which was made from groundhog, sheep and mink and decorated with blue ornamental bands and a pattern of black rhombusses also made of fur. He also wore knee-length woollen trousers and on his legs long boots made of white felt and adorned with red bands. His head was covered with a high felt cap which bore complicated decorations composed of several carves wooden animal figure which had been covered with gold foil and partly painted red. Another item of personal adornment was the carved wooden neck ring which displays two wolves facing each other with their teeth bared and their lower bodies twisted at 180°. In the waist region of the deceased, four rectangular wooden belt plates were discovered with geometrically decorated rims, already resembling types known from the following Hunno-Sarmatian period. Other personal belongings are a small wooden comb in a little fur case, and a round bronze mirror in a black felt bag.
The warrior had been buried together with a complete set of weapons, typical for the Scythian period of the Altaj. Under the fur coat, an iron akinakes (dagger) with its wooden sheath and an iron battle axe with an excellently preserved painted wooden handle were discovered, both had been fixed to the belt. Behind the deceased, close to the south-western wall of the chamber, quiver and bow had been put. Of the quiver, most probably a goryth, the flat wooden rod, several arrows and a covering cap made from red and yellow felt and adorned with pompons and coloured cords were preserved. Through this cap the bow had been inserted into the quiver. The composite bow was 1.2 m long and asymmetrically curved. It had been assembled from several long wooden pieces glued together and then wrapped in leather strips. This sensational find constitutes the first bow found in a Pazyryk context and one of the few complete bows known from Scythian times altogether.
Several other grave goods were contained within the chamber: in the eastern corner stood a set of a wooden, a horn and a pottery vessel together with a large oval tablet made of wood and fitted with four feet, on which lumbar vertebrae from sheep/goat, flesh and fat remains and an iron knife were found. Not only the position of the vessels to the right of the head, but also the combination of horn, wood and ceramic pots together with a wooden tablet are a characteristic and well-known phenomenon in Pazyryk burials.
The body of the deceased, whose grave dates to the early 3rd cent. BC, is at present being examined at the Department of Human Medicine of the University Göttingen, while the finds are being preserved and restored at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk by specialists for organic materials from frozen contexts. For the future it is planned to reconstruct the excellently preserved wooden chamber in the National Museum in Ulan Bator, where it will form the centrepiece of a hall presenting the restored finds from the newly discovered Pazyryk graves in the Mongolian Altaj.
The project runs as a cooperation of the Head Office of the German Archaeological Institute (Prof. Dr. H. Parzinger, Dr. A. Nagler, H. Piezonka) with the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk (Prof. Dr. V.I. Molodin and others) and the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in Ulaanbaatar (Prof. D. Tseveendorj). The geophysical survey was carried out by the Institute of Geophysics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk (director: Prof. Dr. M.I. Epov), the anthropological examination of the human remains takes place in the Branch of Anatomy and Embryology of the Department of Human Medicine at the University Göttingen (director: Prof. Dr. M. Schultz).
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