The golden burial of a Scythian king

Excavations in a barrow now known as Arzhan II revealed an undisturbed royal burial containing a male and a female, which dates back to the end of the 7th century BC. This is just a taste of the spectacular objects that lay within: a golden torc, pectoral, and a selection of the 2,500 plaques depicting felines that were seemingly attached to the man’s cloak. (Image: V Terebenin)

In 2001, more than 5,000 gold objects were discovered in an untouched Scythian burial in Tuva, Central Asia. But where exactly is Tuva? We first look at an earlier excavation that pushed back the date of the Scythians, and then look in detail at the latest magnificent discovery. The excavator, Konstantin Chugunov of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, reports.

In the heart of Asia lies Tuva. Hidden away on the border between Russia and Mongolia, Tuva is the most remote and least known of all the Russian republics. It is situated on the eastern flank of the Altai massif, a hundred kilometres east of Pazyryk where the famous Scythian frozen burials were discovered in the 1930s, and a hundred kilometres north of the medieval Silk Road. There are no railways, and only two roads connect it to the rest of the country, but it is the source of the Yenisei River, the fifth longest river in the world, which flows north for 5,000km till eventually it comes out into the Arctic Ocean. In Tuva you can easily see a yurt roundhouse, or riders driving a flock or a herd: the herds are of yaks in the high valleys of the mountains, reindeer in the taiga zone, and camels in the south. Conditions are ideal for seasonal migration, suggesting that this region is one of the centres where nomadic pastoralism emerged.

In the vast valley of the River Uyuk there are hundreds of large burial mounds. Some of them reach 100m in diameter and are several metres high. Especially numerous are cemeteries in the depths of the valley near Arzhan, which the local residents call the ‘Valley of the Kings’. Most of these monuments have been robbed, no doubt because of the treasures buried within them, but also for the purpose of desecrating the burials of powerful enemies whose spirit could damage the conquerors who came to these lands.

Burial mounds in a valley near Arzhan are so substantial and plentiful that the area is known to locals as the ‘Valley of the Kings’. (Image: V Terebenin)

In 1971, Mikhail Gryaznov, a renowned professor of Siberian archaeology, and the Tuvan archaeologist Mongush Mannai-ool spent four seasons excavating one of these mounds – now known as Arzhan I – and made sensational discoveries, despite extensive robbing. When the mound was opened, a radial system of timber chambers resembling buried log cabins was revealed, with a chamber at the centre from which the burial had been robbed. Nevertheless, magnificent examples of ancient art still survived within.

Two aspects were particularly important. First, there were the horse burials: 160 horses in all had been buried in the log chambers around the central grave. Mikhail Gryaznov concluded that the horses were sacrifices undertaken by different tribes, some of whom lived far away from the Valley of the Kings.

Second, and most important, however, was the date, for radiocarbon consistently placed the burial at the turn of the 9th and 8th centuries BC, several centuries earlier than had been expected and long before the first mention of nomadic Scythians in the written sources. It was thus necessary to revise many of the ideas and hypotheses that had been developed. When did the Scythians begin? Indeed, who were the Scythians?

The intact main burial within its log chamber in Arzhan II. To the left is the skeleton of a female, and to the right that of a male. The skulls have become detached from the remainder of the skeletons, probably because the heads were initially lain on cushions that subsequently disintegrated. Bronze mirrors lay beside the faces, while the thousands of golden plaques once attached to clothing can be made out. (Image: K Chugunov)

The second expedition: Arzhan II

It was not until two decades later, in 1998, that another large burial mound – now referred to as Arzhan II – was excavated. It proved to be even more spectacular. This was a joint Russian–German project under the direction of Konstantin Chugunov from the Hermitage Museum and Hermann Parzinger and Anatoli Nagler from the German Archaeological Institute. The choice of the site was due to prosaic reasons – one of the large stone barrows located close to the highway was being intensively robbed, as the locals were mining the stones to build their houses. In addition to this modern destruction, at the centre of the burial mound was a noticeably wide funnel: a tell-tale trace of the activities of ancient robbers. The prognostics were not good.

The set of objects placed beside the male skeleton: the remains of a quiver (at the centre), bow, arrows (left), belt fittings, a battle axe (top), whip, and a bronze mirror (centre left). (Image: K Chugunov)

Fortunately, the grave robbers had made one big mistake. They assumed that the burial had been interred in the centre of the mound, but it had not: it was shifted away to one side. When the barrow was stripped, a rectangular grave pit was revealed just off centre. When that grave pit was opened in 2001, at a depth of more than 4m there was a burial chamber with double log walls, in effect two chambers, one inside the other. And on the floor at the centre of the log structure were the original burials, still intact: a man and a woman, interred with 9,300 objects, of which 5,700 were made of gold.

The image of a camel, one of several animals decorating the torc worn by the man. (Image: V Terebenin)

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 93 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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