Complete excavation of the kurgan Arzhan 2 including an undisturbed royal grave (late 7th century B.C.).
One of the most urgent problems in Eurasian archaeology concerns the onset of Scythian material culture in Inner Asia. Of special importance in this context seems to be the question about the role played by southern influences in the formation of the new culture of the early horse-riding nomads in the Siberian steppe. Arzhan is already famous for the earliest Scythian finds of Eurasia (kurgan Arzhan 1). Also, the Scythian-era necropolis is located at old long-distance trade routes linking North China and Mongolia via the Sayan Mountains with the Minusinsk Basin.
In the early 1970s, M.P. Gryaznov investigated a large kurgan (Arzhan 1) of more than 100 m diametre which caused a sensation because of its peculiar timber construction and the preserved finds. This site enabled archaeologists to define a whole new horizon of an earliest Scythian phase which dates to the late 9th and early 8th century B.C. and can be linked to the latest Bronze Age contexts in Western Siberia and the North Pontic steppe. Thus it was understood that the necropolis of Arzhan plays a central role in solving the questions about Scythian culture, even though since that time no more excavations have taken place until the late 1990s. It has been the aim of our project to continue Gryaznov´s research.
First excavations took place in 1997 (kurgan Arzhan-Tarlag). From 1998 to 2003, the works concentrated on the Scythian royal grave mound of Arzhan 2 where an initial geomagnetic survey was carried out in 1998. Test excavations started in 2000, and from 2001 to 2003 the tumulus was completely excavated.
All Arzhan kurgans are arranged in long parallel chains running through the entire plateau. In 1997, a grave mound in one of these chains west of Arzhan was investigated (the above-mentioned Arzhan-Tarlag). The earthen tumulus of 28 m diametre had been shielded with a stone layer and contained a grave chamber built from mighty larch beams. Grave goods included bird-like golden trimmings of clothing and place the site in the 5th century B.C. In 1998 a geomagnetic survey was carried out on kurgan Arzhan-2 in preparation of future excavations (Dr. H. Becker and Dr. J. Faßbinder of the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments, Munich). While in the area of the stone platform no features were able to be distinguished, it was possible to verify several concentric rows of stone circles almost entirely surrounding the mound. The subsequent excavations revealed that these stone circles had apparently been used for burnt offerings as they contained ash, charcoal, tiny calcinated bone fragments and small remains of bronze and gold objects.
The one-site works have been concluded in 2003. Currently the restoration of the finds and the scientific analysis of the results are being carried out.
The kurgan Arzhan 2 consisted - like the tumulus excavated by Gryaznov - of a platform built from stone slabs which we now assume as being typical for the early Scythian period.
The tumulus at Arzhan 2 had a diameter of nearly 80 m and was more than 2 m high, thus being slightly smaller than Arzhan 1. Three to four rows of more than 200 larger and smaller stone circles surrounded the mound at a distance of 20 to 50 m. Apparently such stone settings formed part of the concept of such large kurgans since comparable features have also been found at Arzhan 1 although here they consisted of stone mounds.
In the year 2000 initial excavations of the stone circles surrounding the large tumulus of Arzhan 2 revealed thin layers of burnt material containing small amounts of ash, charcoal and burnt animal bone (of sheep/goat, cattle and horse). Occasionally we also found smelted fragments of sheet gold and bronze objects. Without doubt these stone circles represent places for burnt offerings which were linked to a memorial cult connected with the burial.
The excavation of the large tumulus at Arzhan 2 began in 2001 when slightly more than a quarter of its entire area was uncovered. Since southwest of the kurgan centre a large robbing funnel was visible, we initially avoided this area and instead opened three sectors in the vicinity: one in the centre of the southern half and a further two in the north and the north-west. In two of them we discovered Scythian graves: burial 2 in the north and burial 5 in the north-west.
Burial 2 consisted of a small timber construction containing the symbolic interment of a horse. Of the grave goods, wooden remains of a saddle as well as golden decorative ornaments from horse adornment were preserved, among them a cone of thin, slightly damaged gold sheet crowned with the head of a bird of prey. On three of its sides fish shapes cut from thick sheet gold had been fastened. Generally similar if substantially larger fish representations are known from ice kurgans in the Altai Mountains, for example from Ak-Alacha (kurgan 1) where they were cut from felt and had been fastened to the saddles of the buried horses accompanying the human grave - here, too, we have thus a connection between fish and horse/saddle.
About 10 m south-west of burial 2 lay burial 5, the Royal Grave. Its undisturbed, more or less rectangular burial shaft measured approximately 5 x 4.5 m and was orientated NW/SE with its long axis, its fill consisting of the original dug-out loamy material. At a depth of c. 3 m we discovered the timber covering of the burial chamber which was untouched and had only slightly caved in at the southern end due to the weight of the above earth. The excavation then revealed that under this first wooden covering a second ceiling followed, consisting of even larger beams which ran at right angles to the first. The structure therefore consisted of two wooden chambers placed one inside the other. The inner chamber had been erected with much more massive larch beams which were worked down on the interior to form an even surface. Inside, the chamber measures 2.6 x 2.4 m. Along the interior walls red felt had been draped originally which is not preserved but small remains of which have been found sticking to objects by the walls. The chamber floor was covered with a black felt blanket.
Lying on the floor of the burial chamber we found the skeletons of a 40-45 years old man in the northeast and of a woman aged between 30 and 35 years in the southwest. All grave goods - with the exception of the two bronze mirrors to the left of the heads - had originally been hanging from the walls. The deceased lay in a slightly crouched position on their left side, the left hand being extended down along the side of the body while the right one rested on the pelvis. The skulls had rolled slightly backwards and sideways respectively, apparently they had originally been placed on pillows made from organic material.
The man wore a massive golden torque weighing c. 1.5 kg around his neck which is ornamented with a continuous spiral-shaped animal frieze depicting panthers, ibex, camels and other beasts. Countless small panther figures had been soldered to its widened rectangular main viewing side. Close to the skull, five animal-shaped gold objects were found representing four horses with folded legs and loops on the reverse side and one belling deer fixed to a wing-shaped stand. The are all cut from thick gold sheet and decorated with drop-shaped enamel inlays. Clearly these ornaments had been fastened to the head-dress of the man, with the four horses probably fixed to the sides (two look to the right, the other two to the left) while the deer had probably been placed on the top of the head, as its slightly vaulted stand suggests.
The upper garment probably had been a cape reaching down to the hip region, it was adorned with more than 2.500 small panther figures cast in gold. On their reverse side each of them bears three tiny loops for fastening. They seem absolutely identical, but nonetheless two groups can be distinguished: some stride to the right, the others to the left. These little figures formed layers in the upper body region where their position was precisely documented. While the work on reconstructing the garment is still ongoing, it seems obvious that the distribution of the panthers is not accidental but follows a certain curvo-linear pattern possibly resembling feathers.
Of the man's leg-wear no organic remains have been preserved. He probably wore felt or leather trousers onto which thousands of tiny golden beads had been sewn (diameter less than 1 mm). The feet had been dressed in boots probably also made of leather or felt which reached almost up to the knees and ended in golden cuffs.
By his right hip the man carried an iron dagger in a wooden sheath. During restoration of this badly corroded object in the State Hermitage it was discovered that apart from the dagger, the sheath also contained two iron knives with ring-handles. The handles of all three pieces and the blade of the dagger were beautifully ornamented with gold incrustations depicting panthers and spiral- or wing-shaped motives. The sheath had been fastened to a belt which was also decorated with cast gold ornaments.
The man's other weapons were not lying beside him but in the northern corner of the burial chamber. They include bow and quiver (a so-called goryth), a whip and a battle pick. In the quiver numerous arrows were found with their wooden shafts so well preserved that in some places the original red-and-black painted zone ornament is still visible. The three-winged arrowheads are badly corroded but nonetheless still show traces of golden and silver inlays depicting animals and spiral motives. One long side and the base of the quiver were made of thick sheet gold and decorated with a fish scale ornament. The outline of the opposite long side of the goryth, which had probably been made of wood, was marked by little golden figures of wild boars; additional boar applications adorned the quiver in other places. Beneath it the remains of the bow were discovered, it probably had been fastened in its own case to the back part of the quiver. The extremely rich ornaments decorating the quiver strap were also cast in gold and are dominated by spiral motives. This strap ran diagonally across the upper body and around the hip, and thus the visible part on the man's stomach is especially emphasized by the very close positioning of the decorative elements. A round clasp made of massive gold and ending in the heads of two birds of prey linked the strap ends together.
Between the goryth and the north-eastern chamber wall lay a battle pick that had originally also hung from the wall. Its wooden shaft is preserved, and although the pick itself is badly corroded, it still bears traces of gilding. Between quiver and pick we found the remains of a riding whip, of which only the 40 cm long handle has been preserved including its golden cylindrical ornaments.
The dress of the woman who also was buried in the grave chamber shows many similarities to that of the man. Again, close to the skull four golden metal sheets from the head dress were found, two of them depicting horses with folded legs, one consisting of a wing-like element and the fourth representing a small panther. The head-dress was completed by a pair of golden needles, two masterpieces of 35 cm and 30 cm length respectively with shafts ornamented all over with deeply carved animal figures, one crowned by a beautifully crafted deer sculpture, the other by a wing ornament. Remains of golden bands were also discovered in the area above the skull. All these pieces apparently have been part of a high, column-shaped head-dress similar to those known from women's graves in the ice kurgans of the Altai Mountains.
The woman also wore a cape decorated all over with countless golden panther figures, although in this case they are not cast but beaten, and all of them stride to the left. They, too, were not arranged randomly but in a curvo-linear, feather- or flame-like pattern. The position of a number of these panther figures in the neck region might suggest some kind of stand-up collar, although the exact reconstruction of the garment is not yet finished. In the chest region beads of many different shapes were discovered which were made of garnet, malachite, gold, turquoise, carneol and glass paste. Two golden earrings with granulation and droplet-shaped enamel inlays completed the adornment.
The leg dress originally worn by the woman has not been preserved. Above the knees, however, we discovered a spread of countless tiny beads as well as other materials possibly representing remains of the decorative trimming of a knee-length skirt. The area around the feet was also covered with hundreds of tiniest golden beads and two gold bands decorated with granulation and droplet-shaped enamel inlays which had probably been fixed to knee-high boots of felt or leather.
By the right hip of the woman hang an iron knife with its handle incrusted with gold inlays, it had been linked to a strap ornamented with beautifully crafted golden decorative pieces. In addition the woman carried a small golden miniature cauldron embellished with interwoven animals hanging from her belt.
Above the woman to the right and close to the western corner of the chamber lay a number of large amber beads, a well-crafted wooden cup with a golden handle resembling an animal's foot, a golden comb with wooden teeth, stone incense burners, a small bronze vessel in a leather pouch, and a gold pectoral decorated in animal style and doubtlessly belonging to the woman even though she was not wearing it. All these objects were found within a heap of organic remains. Their analysis has not yet been completed but it seems already certain that wild cherries (syn. Cerasus fructicosa Pall.), wild carrots (cf. Daucus carota L.) and chufa flatsedge (Cyperus esculentus L.) are present. Interestingly, all these species are not native to Tuva and the surrounding regions but grow in the northern part of Central Asia. The fruits had been stored in several leather bags sealed with wooden plugs. These containers originally hung on the wall in the western corner of the chamber and have partly been preserved.
In the course of the dismantling of the double chamber two bronze cauldrons were found lying between the outer wall and the side of the burial pit.
A complete overview over the rich inventory of the royal grave will only be possible after restoration of the finds has been completed. Altogether the double burial contained about 9.300 objects (not counting the beads), of which 5.700 are made of gold. Thus, grave 5 of the kurgan Arzhan-2 is not only the richest Scythian grave in Siberia, it also represents one of the most outstanding complexes of the period altogether, and its discovery was a stroke of luck for Eurasian archaeology.
In the two following years (2002 and 2003) the excavations were aimed at uncovering the remaining part of the mound. Directly west of its centre a mighty funnel partly filled with stone slabs and earth indicated an old robbing trench. In this central area we suspected the location of the robbed main burial. But the excavation only revealed two empty pits (nos. 9 and 10) which had also been reached by the robbers. Both being nearly square in shape, the eastern measured 5.5 x 5 m while the western was with 4 x 4 m slightly smaller. Judging from their size they would well have been able to hold graves. But since they did not contain the slightest trace of archaeological remains, neither finds nor bones nor any parts of grave constructions, it must be concluded that in fact they never contained burials. Obviously they had not been intended as grave pits.
About their function, however, we can so far only speculate. The idea that they might represent "pretence burials" aimed at fooling potential grave robbers who would naturally be expected to start digging in the centre of the mound and by that trick protect the main burial no. 5 further to the northwest seems certainly plausible, especially since that is exactly what happened. Nevertheless other possible explanations should not be discarded. May be the pits 9 and 10 were linked to rituals taking place before the erection of the stone mound. Future analysis will have to follow up such questions.
Altogether 26 burials were uncovered in the course of the excavations on this site. Most of them date to Scythian times and thus must be seen in connection with construction and lay-out of the large kurgan, while nine of the graves were dug much later at the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and have no contextual connections with the kurgan structure. Most of the Scythian graves belonging to the main kurgan were stone cists containing one skeleton. In the graves 14 and 20 two adult men respectively had been buried, and in grave 13 the remains of three women were found. In those cases where the skeletons had been preserved undisturbed in their original position, they were lying crouched on their left side with legs dragged up to different degrees and heads pointing mainly in a north-western direction. This shows that orientation and body position used in the royal grave no. 5 were also valid for the Scythian remaining burials of the kurgan.
The distribution of the Scythian graves at the site is not random. They are either located beneath the stone circle surrounding the kurgan, or they lie in the line of a SW/NE axis running across the centre of the mound. Anthropological analysis established that the deceased in the graves 7, 12, 13A, 13B and 22 were women aged between 16-18 and 45-50 years, while the graves 8, 14, 20, 24, 25 and 26 contained the skeletons of adult men between 20-25 and 45-50 years of age. Mapping this information shows that all women were buried in the south-western half of the kurgan area - the woman in the royal grave also lay on the south-west side of the chamber. The north-east, on the other hand, obviously constituted the male sphere: the man in the royal grave had been laid down on that side, and the other male graves dominated the north-east, with the exception of burials 24 and 26 in the southern part of the kurgan. These observations clearly show that nothing in layout and structure of this site was accidental.
Finally, in the south-east of the mound we unearthed the horse burial no. 16. It measured 8 x 3 m and contained 14 horses laid down on their bellies with legs folded beneath the bodies and heads pointing to the west. The bronze harness and strap decorations of the animals were more or less identical. Close to each horse we also found two pieces of bent gold sheet one of which had embellished the tail and the other the mane.
In contrast to the other Scythian burials of the kurgan which had all been dug before the erection of the mound, the 14 horses of grave no. 16 had been buried later. It had been necessary to re-open the stone platform at this place in order to insert the bodies of the animals. The opening then was closed in such a way that the disturbance was not visible any more, which is also why it was not noticed during the excavation. This special care employed in the restoration of the stone mound strongly indicates that the horse burial was part of the overall ensemble and was connected to it ideologically in a way which as yet we cannot further explain.
At the eastern edge of the kurgan, 15 upright stone slabs were placed one beside the other, each of them bearing figural designs on the eastern or southern face. Some of these petroglyphs represent animal species which are also known from objects decorated in animal style (deer, wild boars, camels, horses) while others depict human figures, two-wheeled chariots with spoke wheels, and wooden shields. Connections of these pictures to a developed phase of the Early Scythian art are obvious. The concentration of the petroglyphs at the eastern edge of the mound probably can be explained the topography of the kurgan and its surroundings. If one enters the Arzhan plateau from the east - which is the only convenient natural access -, immediately after having surmounted one last height one meets the kurgan Arzhan 2 exactly at the side with the petroglyph gallery.
The Scythian graves of Arzhan 2 can be regarded as contemporary. This is indicated on one hand by numerous typological interconnections, on the other hand it is underlined by the fact that all graves were dug before the construction of the stone platform (except the horse-burial no. 16). Comparing the kurgans Arzhan 1 and Arzhan 2, there can be no doubt that the latter is substantially younger and does not belong to the first phase of the Early Scythian culture of the 9th and 8th century B.C.
The animal-style objects from Arzhan 2 have good parallels in the Aldy Bel´- phase in Tuva which constitutes a younger phase of the Early Scythian period and can be dated to the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Dendrochronology has in the meantime been able to date the royal grave at Arzhan-2 more precisely: The larch beams used in the construction of the burial chamber had been felled approximately between 619 and 608 B.C, verifying a setting in the late 7th century.
These preliminary remarks leave many questions open which can only be answered after a detailed analysis of the excavation results. Nevertheless, a number of remarkable observations can already be highlighted: the horse burial no. 16 which was inserted after the construction of the stone platform, the empty pits nos. 9 and 10 in the centre of the structure, and the SW/NE axis running across the centre of the kurgan with all female burials in the south-west and the male graves in the north-east, a feature also paralleled in the royal grave no. 5. This evidence indicates that Arzhan 2 was not purely a place of burial but also functioned as a cult site where the burial of the royal couple was accompanied by various rituals carried out in what appears to have been very much a "stage-managed" way. Archaeologically, it is not possible to separate the burial dimension and the cultic dimension clearly from one another.
The excavations were carried out as a cooperation between the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin (Prof. Dr. H. Parzinger, Dr. A. Nagler) and the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg (K. Chugunov).
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K. Čugunov/H. Parzinger/A. Nagler, Der Fürst von Arzhan. Ausgrabungen im skythischen Fürstengrabhügel Arzhan 2 in der südsibirischen Republik Tuva. Antike Welt 32 (6), 2001, 607-614.
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