Secrets of the Scythian’s Burial Mounds


Archaeologists are uncovering more about the Scythian’s burial mounds and customs.

The Scythians, an ancient nomadic people, buried their dead in burial mounds (also known as kurgan), which can be found across the vast steppe region from northern China through southern Siberia to the northern Black Sea. These mounds range in size and are clustered in groups or lines, which probably represent tribal or family cemeteries. Grave goods found in the mounds show that the larger the mound, the higher the status of the deceased. Archaeological excavations provide evidence of Scythians of all ages, ranks, and genders and their belief in an afterlife. The Scythians practiced a form of mummification, as evidenced by the well-preserved contents of the burial mound sites, such as Pazyryk and Touran-Uyuk.

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Scythian’s Burial Mounds in the Mongolian Altai, the Pazyryk Culture

Pazyryk horseman.- Ancient Scythian civilization
Pazyryk horseman. Circa 300 BC. Detail from a carpet – 5-4th century B.C.- in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Archaeological work conducted by a Spanish–French–Mongolian team in the Mongolian Altai during the period 2005–2007 discovered burial sites belonging to the Pazyryk culture. This was the first time that this culture was found in Mongolia. Pazyryk is the name given to Iron Age nomadic tribes who inhabited the high steppes of the Altai Mountains between the fifth and third centuries BC. This culture is known from the discoveries of stone tumuli holding the frozen bodies of warriors buried with their horses and their weapons. Pazyryk culture sites were first described in the Altai region of southern Siberia and east Kazakhstan. More recently, two different expeditions also discovered Pazyryk burials in the Mongolian Altai, indicating that these Iron Age people had also spread into East Asia. Interestingly, the Pazyryks have traditionally been associated with the Eastern Scythians.

One of the intriguing discoveries from the burial sites is that the deceased were carefully dissected, and their entrails were removed and replaced with straw. They were then placed in hollowed-out and dressed log coffins, which were sometimes decorated with carvings or tin foil-covered leather appliques. The tomb chambers were log cabins, built with larch wood logs and dressed with felt coverings. The personal saddle horses of the deceased were killed and buried with them. The graves were then covered with layers of leaves, bark, and moss, and a burial mound of boulders and gravel was built on top. The main burial mounds belonged to high-status men and women, and while they had been robbed in antiquity, they still contain a range of personal items and tools used in digging the ground.

Research suggests that advances in technology that favored mounted nomadic pastoralism were the triggers for the expansion of Scythian culture across the Western Eurasian steppe. The end of the Scythian period might be related to the westward migrations of nomadic Turkomongolian tribes that have been coming from East Asia since the 3rd century BC, which marked the end of Indo-European domination of the steppe. Archaeological findings, almost entirely provided by burial site discoveries, documented that the Scythians had European morphological features.

However, several recent works focusing on the ancient mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Eastern Scythian burials revealed that this population has a mixed mtDNA composition of West and East Eurasian lineages. This is particularly interesting for the timing of the early contacts between European and Asian people in Altai because all ancient DNA samples analyzed so far from Central Asia belong to a period before the Iron Age and bear West Eurasian lineages.

These molecular data raise two likely hypotheses for the origin of the genetic diversity and admixture among the Iron Age inhabitants of the Altai: 1) People holding west Eurasian lineages arrived at the Altai Mountains with the eastward migration of Scythians and, once settled, they began to establish relationships with the neighboring communities from East Asia holding east Eurasian lineages; 2) this was the result of the admixture between the native people inhabiting either side of the Altai Mountains (people with west Eurasian lineages in the Western Altai and people with east Eurasian lineages in the Eastern Altai), as a result of a demographic expansion during the Scythian period. Hence, the second hypothesis would provide support to the cultural transmission against the demic diffusion during the Scythian period.

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Scythian’s Burial Mounds Unearthed in the Siberian (Valley of the Kings)

Early Scythian kurgan burials in the Tuva, Russia
Early Scythian kurgan burial (Arzhan Kurgan) in Tuva, Russia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the vast and mysterious “Valley of the Kings” in Siberia’s Touran-Uyuk, Scythian royal burials were unearthed. Archaeologists have stumbled upon a colossal burial mound, dating back more than 2,500 years, housing the remains of five individuals, including a woman and a toddler. What’s more intriguing is the array of lavish grave goods found alongside their bodies, which included a crescent moon-shaped pendant, gold earrings, and a bronze mirror.

But what makes this particular find so remarkable is its proximity to another burial mound belonging to a Scythian leader. This has led experts to speculate that the woman buried here must have been a person of great importance in their society.

As archaeologist Łukasz Oleszczak from the Institute of Archaeology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków explains, the crescent pendant found with the woman was particularly noteworthy. Similar pendants had only been discovered in men’s burials in kurgans located in southern Siberia, making this discovery an extraordinary breakthrough.

Despite years of study, we still know very little about the Scythians and their way of life. However, this incredible discovery is bringing us one step closer to unraveling the mysteries of these ancient nomads.


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