Knives, arrowheads, bits, traces of sacrifices, burial steles and even a Scythian crown – the findings of the fourth field season of the expedition studying the Scythian kurgan Tunnug bring us closer and closer to solving ancient burials. It has not yet been possible to establish the purpose, as well as the fact of cultural appropriation of some objects: scientists have not yet found direct analogues.
The head scientist of the expedition, senior researcher at the Institute of History of Material Culture (IHMC) of the Russian Academy of Sciences Timur Sadykov, talks about the results of the fourth field season.
“We have explored the most interesting area this year, not far from the center of the kurgan. The bones of at least 14 horses and three people were found almost on the surface. Apparently, these are traces of sacrifices. The horses were bridled – we found a large number of elements of a horse bridle: a bit, psalia, harness elements.”
Simple household items that could also be used for ritual purposes were found among the uniforms, such as a bronze knife, elements of weapons, as well as the most unusual object resembling a crown in shape.
“Of course, this is not a real crown – in those days the very symbolism of the crown was not yet used, and its diameter is much smaller. The only thing we know is that it is a piece of some kind of uniform, which was attached with straps through bronze loops.”
Scientists have not yet found the analogues in contemporary monuments or in monuments of a later period. Whether this decoration belonged to a person or was an element of a horse's harness is still difficult to say: there are both horse bones and human bones in relative proximity. Everything is in great disarray.
The Scythians were nomads – considerable attention was paid to the horse tack. In the Scythian culture, various kinds of harnesses are known, for example, the Pazyryk horse headpieces for funeral rituals with interesting large attached antlers. Similar monuments have been found in Scythian tombs in the Altai Mountains. Perhaps this "crown" is one of such funeral elements.
The picture is complemented by two burial monuments in the form of columns with an anthropomorphic image carved into the stone. Apparently, they were erected in honor of those who died and were buried in this kurgan.
“In general, the installation of similar steles was characteristic of that time, but this is the first time we come across such iconography. This is a very interesting fact that still requires some explanation. We have not yet found the burials themselves along the periphery of the kurgan, in their traditional understanding. All the bones that we found lay almost on the surface, some in anatomical order. It is quite possible that there is only one burial here – that which is in the very center. The rest – sacrifices, dedicated, in accordance with the rite, to the buried in the center of the kurgan.”
Burials of Tunnug date back to the 9th century BC. The entire excavation area is divided into 16 sectors, six of which have been fully explored. The central part of the kurgan with a diameter of 24 m remains intact. It will be explored in one go and last, in two or three years.
“In addition, we found that the kurgan itself is surrounded by a masonry wall, which can be quite clearly traced around the entire perimeter – this year we managed to partially disassemble it. The kurgan itself is huge, but the finds, in fact, are concentrated in small areas, closer to the central part.
In addition, we continue to collect wooden structures, take wood samples. We have a lot of well-preserved wood – we will transfer it to the laboratory and we will be able to determine a much more accurate age from tree rings.”
In one season, scientists can explore about two sectors. With a large influx of volunteers, the output can be doubled without sacrificing the methodology. For the winter, the kurgan is preserved in a special way to avoid accidental damage.
“The edges of the excavation are multi-layered with geotextiles and wooden shields so that the structure does not move around. After, another layer of polyethylene is added, which is filled up with stones from above. This process is long, but very important, since the clay tends to erode, and the melt water here rises quite high and washes away the edges directly.”
Since 2018, the Russian Geographical Society and the IHMC RAS have been studying the Tunnug kurgan, located in Tuva. It is part of the Valley of the Kings, where there are many kurgans of the nobility of the Scythian time. The very first season showed that the burial ground is the oldest of all discovered, dates back to the 9th century BC. This is one of the most promising expeditions of the Russian Geographical Society.