Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Chieftain or Warrior Priestess? Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by Jeannine Davis-Kimball

[image] New evidence suggests that the ancient nomad buried in this suit of gold may have been a woman. (Courtesy Jeannine Davis-Kimball) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the spring of 1969, a farmer from the Issyk collective farm, 31 miles east of Alma Ata (now Almaty) in southern Kazakhstan, was preparing the soil for planting when he noticed something glinting in the furrow left by his plow. Pushing the soil aside with his boot, he exposed a small gold plaque--treasure from a burial in a large kurgan, one of several that broke the flatness of the field. The central tomb in the kurgan had been plundered in antiquity, but the robbers had missed a rich burial hidden in the side of the mound. The farmer reported it immediately, and Kemal Akishev of the Kazakh Institute of History, Ethnography, and Archaeology (now the Kazakh Institute of Archaeology) hurried to Issyk and began systematic excavation of the kurgan. Akishev and his colleagues soon uncovered a sarcophagus constructed from large fir logs, within which they found a skeleton covered with 4,000 gold ornaments.

Although the burial was said to be of a man, the headdress reminded the Kazakh excavators of hats worn by brides in traditional wedding ceremonies. Kazakh bridal hats, part of a dowry passed from generation to generation, are also decorated with ornamental plaques of gold and silver cast from coins. Artifacts in the Issyk burial are so similar to those that we have found in burials of women warriors and priestesses at Pokrovka in the southern Ural steppe (see ARCHAEOLOGY, March/April 1997) that we cannot help speculating that this person was actually a young woman. Three earrings adorned with turquoise, and carnelian and white beads, perhaps from a necklace, suggest more elaborate jewelry than is usually associated with male Saka warriors.

* Visit the home page of the Center for the Study of the Eurasian Nomads.

Jeannine Davis-Kimball is director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America