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Equus on Ice Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by Bernadette Arnaud

[image] A looted sarcophagus belonging to a Scythian noble (Courtesy Mission Archéologique Française en Asie Centrale) [LARGER IMAGE]

A dozen horses sacrificed nearly 2,500 years ago in full-dress regalia have been recovered frozen in a Scythian kurgan, or tumulus, near the village of Berel in Kazakhstan's Bukhtarma Valley. "A discovery like this occurs perhaps twice a century," says Henri-Paul Francfort, director of the French-Italian-Kazakh team excavating the horses, which were preserved with their skin, hair, harnesses, and saddles intact. This is the first time a Scythian kurgan in Central Asia's Altai Mountains has yielded such a massive sacrifice of horses with all their equipment and finery in place.

A war-like nomadic people (see "All That Glitters Is Scythian"), the Scythians are known to have invaded Syria and Judea and sacked Nineveh and Babylon, yet their tumuli, scattered across the northern Black Sea steppe and Central Asia, are the sole monuments attesting their ancient might. "Even the most humble Scythian was buried in a kurgan," says Francfort. "To be sure, he would have been accompanied by only one horse, or sometimes only its head or horse figurines."

The horses were found buried side by side on a bed of birch bark next to a funeral chamber containing the pillaged burial of two Scythian nobles. The horses appear to have been left undisturbed. The wooden cheek pieces of their harnesses are carved with animal figures, while their saddles are decorated with gold leaf, leather, and felt and rested on red saddle blankets. Each horse appears to have worn ornaments relating to an animal commonly represented in Scythian art. Ibex horns fashioned out of wood were discovered near one horse and appear to have been worn on its head, while a griffin sculpture with leather horns was recovered near another pair of false horns.

A griffin sculpture with leather horns was found among the remains of a dozen horses sacrificed at the burial of their masters 2,500 years ago. (Courtesy Mission Archéologique Française en Asie Centrale) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

The Altai Mountains are famous for frigid temperatures that aid in the preservation of bodies; ice sheets rapidly imprison burials, preventing decomposition. Francfort encountered enormous difficulties excavating this past summer because rising temperatures threatened to melt and decompose the remains of the horses, which had to be chopped out of the ice in blocks and rushed into a freezer truck as temperatures rose. "There wasn't any question of proceeding like a classic excavation," says Francfort. "We had to cut out the blocks without taking the time to examine the discoveries. All we had time to do was identify the remains, cut them out, and pack them up."

This winter, in the comfort of a laboratory in Almaty, the Kazakh capital, Francfort's team--from the French Archaeological Mission to Central Asia, Italy's Ligabue Research Center, and the Institute of Archaeology Margulan of Kazakhstan--will conduct a minute excavation of the frozen blocks while specialists perform biomolecular tests on the human and animal remains.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America