During a comprehensive archaeological and geographical expedition to explore the Tunnug kurgan in the Republic of Tuva, experts found many bones of horses and people, various types of bits and other fragments of horse bridle on the surface of the kurgan mound, under a stone, in clay structures. They believe that these are the remains of a large sacrifice performed on the surface of the kurgan before the stone was laid on it. The participants of the RGS’s expedition found out how this ancient bloody rite was performed.
The kurgan Tunnug has a complex structure. It is based on a "network" of larch logs, on which a layer of clay is laid. From above, the whole structure is covered with a solid layer of stone.
“Presumably, the burial at Tunnug was carried out in the same way as at Arzhan-1,” said Timur Sadykov, chief scientist of the expedition, researcher at the Department of Archaeological Conservation of the Institute of History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “A huge wooden framework measuring about 8x8 m was placed on the surface, in which the body was placed, and a huge clay-wooden platform was erected around it, and horses and people were sacrificed on its surface. Apparently, this rite is similar to the ritual of horse and human sacrifices after the death of the Scythian king, which was described by Herodotus.”
The ancient Greek historian wrote that after the death of the leader, 50 young men, his most devoted servants, and 50 best horses were selected, strangled, their insides were taken out, their bodies were stuffed with bran and sewn up. Stakes were driven into the horses, passing through the entire body to the neck, and they were mounted on wooden structures on wheels (or only the head with the coat was mounted on them), thus making a horse model. They put bridles and bits on the horses, stretched them and attached them to pegs. A stake reaching to the neck was also driven into the corpse of each young man, they were "mounted" on a horse, and the dead riders were placed on the surface of the kurgan.
“The dead horsemen, sometimes called the ghost army, stood for some time, exposed to the elements,” explains Timur Sadykov. “But, judging by the finds, the ritual on Tunnug was somewhat different. We came across human bones. So far there was only one relatively complete skeleton among them, from which we were able to determine that it was a woman of 25-30 years old. And according to Herodotus, only young men were sacrificed.”
It is unclear how this girl was killed – there are no visible signs of violence on her remains, but if she was strangled, as in the ritual described by Herodotus, then they may not be. All the other bones found during the excavations are scattered, they can only be said to presumably belong to adults. Radiocarbon dating only shows how many years ago they lived. Experts can determine the age with an accuracy of 10 years by the skull or pelvic bones, but so far only fragments of them have been found, there have not been any whole ones, except for the remains of the girl. There were no children's bones among the victims of the bloody ritual.
The sacrifice itself most likely took place after the funeral. At the end of the ritual, the entire structure was covered with a stone on top.
Archaeologists have already excavated about half of the kurgan, and everywhere closer to the center one way or another there are traces of sacrifices, therefore, it can be assumed that they were probably concentrated in the central part.
“Most likely, there is a spot with these items in the center, which are not connected with the burial, but with an ancient sacrifice, with a diameter of 30 or even 40 m, where the ritual took place directly,” says Timur Sadykov. “Presumably, the central burial kurgan is surrounded on all sides by traces of sacrifice on the surface. But the full picture will be formed only after the central part is excavated. We are only barely touching it now, we want to dig it out later in one season. First of all, then individual people will be assembled from the bones. After that, having collected all the bones in the area, we will already be sure that, for example, this leg belongs to this skull, etc., and we will be able to calculate how many people were sacrificed, their approximate age, and how they were killed.”
Horse and human sacrifices are known in many Scythian-type cultures both from written sources and archaeologically, but can be expressed in different ways. These may be "accompanying burials", surface sacrifices, or even some rituals that leave no archaeological material traces.
In the case of the Tunnug kurgan, the traces of these sacrifices are well preserved and, with careful cataloguing, will help to study the details of this forgotten cruel ritual.