The geoarcheological expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Institute of History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IHMC RAS) has ended in Tuva. Rescue excavations on the banks and at the flooded bottom of the Sayano-Shushensky reservoir take place annually for no more than two months, when water is dumped at the hydroelectric power station and the bottom of the reservoir is exposed for the eyes of scientists. The shore of the reservoir is actively destroyed by winds and water, so that ancient burials are blown out of the sands or fall down from high sandy cliffs.
This year, the expedition, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, worked at the Ala-Tey and Terezin burial grounds in Chaa-Khol District of Tuva.
“The work on the Ala-Tey turned out to be short – due to abnormally high floods, water level in the reservoir was rising much faster than usual, so that already on June 1, the Ala-Tey burial ground was flooded,” said the deputy head of the expedition Pavel Leus. “For most of the year, it is 17 meters under water. Nevertheless, even during short excavations, two excavations were made here, in one of which three flat graves of the Xiongnu era (2nd-1st centuries BC) were discovered. The burials themselves could not be investigated due to the approaching water; they will be excavated next year.”
Out of the known to the scientists burial grounds the Ala-Tey is one of the most interesting monuments of the Xiongnu era in Russia. It was not touched by the ancient robbers, all the burials in it are intact. This necropolis is flat, that is, it does not have any kurgans, mounds or other visible markers on the surface. After the creation of the reservoir, the upper layer of sand above the graves was washed away by waves and blown by the wind, so that some of the shallowest burials appeared on the modern surface and were discovered during archaeological exploration carried out in the area. This is a unique and happy occasion for archaeologists.”
According to Pavel Leus, to date, 112 objects have been excavated at the Ala-Tey burial ground. Wonderful examples of ancient art, weapons and household items of the Xiongnu culture were found. According to the excavations in 2021, it became clear that the burial ground is expanding, new graves are being discovered, and the work here is still far from complete.
At the Terezin burial ground, the situation is slightly different. The burials of the Xiongnu (2nd-1st centuries BC) and later, Kokel culture (3rd-4th centuries AD) are located here on the high steep bank of the reservoir, which erodes it every year. As a result, ancient burials crumble to the shore, and many managed to fall earlier, in 1990-2000, so now objects from them and anthropological material are literally scattered all over the sandy beach of the reservoir.
“This year, we were working here at four excavations; the sand layer in some places reached a depth of four meters,” said Pavel Leus. “Excavations were carried out in places where new crumbling burials were visually discovered on the edge of the cliffs or surface scatter was found.”
In total, in this field season, they managed to excavate four whole burials, and two destroyed ones that had fallen from the steep coast. Of the whole burials, two adult ones belonged to the Kokel culture and date back to the 3rd-4th centuries; and the other two, children’s, belong to the Xiongnu culture of the 2nd-1st centuries BC.
“One Xiongnu child's burial turned out to be interesting, where a belt of an adult man and bone arrowheads of various types were put into the grave of a 5-6 years old child during the burial ceremony,” shares his impressions Pavel Leus.
In past years, archaeologists have found such rare objects at this burial ground as large bronze buckles decorated in animal style, Siberian jet buckles inlaid with semiprecious stones and other classic Xiongnu culture objects.
In addition to rescue excavations of crumbling burials, the expedition is doing a lot of work on the registration and mapping of ancient burial kurgans that are located in the flooded area of the reservoir. In 2021, scientists have identified more than 200 kurgans of various historical eras here, from the early Scythian time to the Middle Ages. Many of them, when the water is rising, happen to be in the surf zone and are destroyed by waves. Others are at the bottom for most of the year, at a depth of 15-20 meters, where they are also gradually eroded. Thus, here every year scientists identify new archaeological sites that need emergency rescue excavations.
“This area played in antiquity and even in relatively recent times, an important role, being a kind of entrance to the Sayan canyon of the Yenisei, that is, on one of the few possible routes then from Tuva to the Minusinsk Hollow. Hordes of conquerors, ancient trade caravans, migration routes and so on passed here. Therefore, there is a large concentration of archaeological sites of various eras. Numerous burial kurgans, flat graves, fortresses, ancient settlements, etc.,” summed up Pavel Leus.
Work to identify and preserve this rich cultural heritage will certainly continue.
The complex geoarcheological expedition in the flood zone of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station takes place in May-July. Its organizers are the Russian Geographical Society and the IHMC RAS. Excavations are traditionally carried out in the Ulug-Khem and Chaa-Khol Districts of the Tyva Republic during the low tide of the Sayano-Shushensky reservoir. The purpose of the expedition is to conduct archaeological excavations of unique burial grounds of the Xiongnu period: Ala-Tey-1, Chirik-Dash, Yttyg-Attyg-Ala-Tey and Khaya-Uzu on the banks of the Ulug-Khem. During the year, these monuments are completely flooded.
You can follow the expedition work on Instagram @pavel_fahrner