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Caucasus Kurgan Cache Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by Natalya Y. Limberis And Ivan I. Marchenko, Kuban State University

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Remains thought to be of chiefs or priests were found within a rectangular wooden chamber in an early level of the mound (above left). Offerings, including a bronze knife, votive vessels filled with ocher, an incense burner, and two vessels with stone lids, had been placed in the chamber's corners. A grass shelter had been built atop the grave after it was sealed with wooden planks. A wooden wagon laden with three braziers filled with charcoal was found just outside the burial chamber (above right). (Illustrations courtesy Ivan I. Marchenko)

Excavation of a 4,000-year-old kurgan in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia has revealed the remains of 11 people, including an embracing couple thought to be chiefs or priests. Entombed in a mound measuring nearly 30.5 feet high and 525 feet in diameter, the largest ever found in the area, the dead had been buried with numerous offerings--bronze tools, stone carvings, jewelry, and ceramic vessels decorated with red ocher, some of which contained food.

Unearthed by archaeologists from Kuban State University, the remains are thought to belong to a group of Novotitarovskaya steppe nomads that roamed the Caucasus from ca. 2700 to 2200 B.C. Built over a 400-year-period, the kurgan, located on the left bank of the Ponura River near the village of Novovelichkovskaya, began as two separate mounds. Over time successive layers of earth blurred the distinction and they became one. Excavators believe the remains all belong to the same group, the site serving as an ancestral burial ground.

The embracing couple, found within a rectangular wooden chamber in the earliest levels of one of the two original kurgans, had been placed on a woven straw mat decorated with meanders, zig-zags, and concentric circles painted in red ocher. They were found lying on their right sides with their heads oriented toward the southwest. The woman was behind the man, her left arm wrapped around him, her head leaning against his back. On her wrists and left forearm, she wore bracelets of bronze and faience beads separated by agate pieces.

In the northeast corner of the tomb was a small votive vessel filled with ocher, next to it more ocher, a stone pestle, and three objects made from the metacarpals of animals; in the northwest corner archaeologists found a bronze knife and a long bronze awl broken in half; in the southwest corner were two vessels covered with stone lids; and in the southeast corner, archaeologists were surprised to find a censer of a type commonly found in later so-called catacomb burials that had been placed upside down.

Two large ceramic vessels that once contained mutton and milk and a wagon, painted with stripes of red ocher, had been placed just outside the burial chamber. Three clay braziers filled with charcoal were found inside the wagon. The richness and variety of grave goods suggest that the two individuals buried here were of high social status, possibly either chiefs of the tribe or cult leaders. The cause of their deaths remains unknown.

The complex structure of the burial--most from this early date are simply pit burials--may represent a precursor to the later catacomb-style interments, which are found throughout the region from the Ural Mountains to the Danube River. Moreover, its seemingly continuous use over a 400-year period is unusual. Generally such mounds were used only once; additional burials in them being intrusive and unrelated to the earlier grave.

The mound was one of four in the area discovered during construction of the Caspian pipeline in southern Russia, which runs through a rich archaeological zone with remains dating from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages.

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© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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