A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Blocks of frozen earth yield the remains of horses bearing extravagant regalia.
In the world of the Scythians, the horse was the single most important animal, enabling these Eurasian steppe nomads to traverse vast distances. It was also an essential companion in the afterlife and the elite could expect to be buried in large mounds, or kurgans, along with several sacrificed horses. In 1998, we excavated one of these great kurgans in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan.
Within the mound were the extraordinary remains of 13 sacrificed horses ("Equus on Ice," January/February 2000). Because they had been entombed in frozen or near-frozen earth for over 2,300 years, a conventional excavation would expose them to temperatures that could accelerate the decomposition of the organic remains. We solved the problem by taking still-frozen blocks of earth from the site and bringing them back to a laboratory in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city. Thanks to meticulous "excavation" in the lab, we now know in which season the horses died and their age at death. DNA research is ongoing, but the size of the horses suggests they might be related to breeds that live in the Altai Mountains to this day.
We've also been able to reconstruct the extravagant regalia worn by the horses when they were sacrificed, sometime between 330 and 270 B.C. One of them wore large wooden ibex horns, suggesting the Scythians may have believed the dead journeyed to the afterlife on the back of a wild animal. Decorative wooden bands on the other horses depicted stylized heads of animals or mythical monsters, including a moose, sheep, griffin, and horned lion. The horses were also decorated with pendants, garlands, and other wooden ornaments in gold leaf--all once shining brilliantly against red felt saddle blankets. The eclectic style of the decorative elements shows that the isolated Altai Scythians had been influenced by civilizations that lay far from their native mountains.
Between 800 and 300 B.C. the Scythians dominated a vast swath of land stretching from Siberia to the Black Sea. Those who roamed what is today Kazakhstan and southern Siberia were known as the "Saka," a word used by the ancient Persians, who encountered the Scythians in a series of battles during the reign of Darius (r. 521-486 B.C.). The frozen tombs of the Saka first captured the public's imagination when a Soviet expedition discovered royal burials at the site of Pazyryk in 1927. The level of preservation was astonishing. Clothing, ornaments, sacrificed horses, and even tattooed mummies had survived.
Hoping to find similar burials, we were drawn to Kazakhstan's Bukhtarma Valley, high in the Altai Mountains, where in 1996 we selected a kurgan near the village of Berel' for excavation. The tomb, 75 feet in diameter and eight feet high, is one of eight in a Scythian cemetery on the Bukhtarma River.
By the time excavation began in August 1998, our team included researchers from Kazakhstan, France, Italy, Belgium, and Russia working in fields as varied as geomorphology, paleobotany, and dendrochronology. After two months of excavating, it was clear that temperatures hovering around freezing some 13 feet below the surface had maintained excellent preservation of the remains in the burial pit. It was also clear that the burial was still rich in important organic remains, even though grave robbers had looted the tomb in ancient times, making off with grave goods like gold jewelry and metal weaponry.
The 13 sacrificed horses in the north of the pit were buried in two levels covered by twigs and birch-bark sheets. The first level was partly disturbed by looting but the second was practically intact, having just recently begun to decay. Even the horses' skin and hair color were preserved.
Zainullah Samashev is director of the prehistoric and early nomads department at the Margulan Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Research of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Henri-Paul Francfort is director of the French Archaeological Mission in Central Asia.