Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
The "Princess" of Ipatovo Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Andrej Belinskij and Heinrich Härke

[image] This woman of the steppes was buried with gold jewelry, a Greek red-figure cup, and other offerings. See larger image for details. (Courtesy Heinrich Härke) [LARGER IMAGE]

A rich Scythian-Sarmatian burial has been discovered near the town of Ipatovo, in southern Russia, containing gold necklets and spiral bracelets, an akinakes (dagger) in a gold-covered scabbard, ceramic vessels, and other offerings. The burial probably dates from the early third century B.C., when the Scythian culture that had occupied the southern Russian steppes was giving way to the Sarmatian culture. Whether the Scythians were assimilated into the Sarmatians, who were moving into the area, or the Sarmatians replaced the Scythians but borrowed heavily from their culture, is not clear, and a burial of this date could help clarify the nature of the transition.

Discovered during a survey in advance of the construction of an oil pipeline, the burial was excavated by a rescue mission from the regional ministry of culture. The occupant, an adult female, lay on her back with her head to the west and her left leg flexed. Six gold necklets, each weighing about nine ounces, have green glass or stone Sarmatian-style inlay and terminals in the shape of fantastic, wolf-like animals. Three bracelets are also carved with images of animals, possibly including a griffin head, in the Scythian animal style. Close to her right hand were the remains of a wooden cup covered with sheet gold embossed with animals. Other artifacts included a belt decorated with small bone plates engraved with geometric patterns, a gold buckle, a gold-covered wooden cosmetics container (with some surviving organic matter inside), a Greek red-figure cup, a local ceramic vessel, and a Bosphoran amphora (from Kerch, ancient Pantikapaion, on the strait between the Black Sea and the sea of Azov). A large bronze or silver hair pin with a gold head was found in her left eye socket; this may indicate that she was sacrificed, or it may simply have fallen into her eye as the flesh decayed after burial.

Some features of the artifacts, like the animal-style decorations, the akinakes, and the gold covering on the wooden items, are characteristic of the Scythians; others, such as the green inlay, are typical of the Sarmatians. This combination of Scythian and Sarmatian features suggests a date around the end of the fourth or the beginning of the third century B.C.; Scythian specialist Vladimira G. Petrenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archaeology in Moscow considers an early third-century date most likely. The discovery fills a hole in our knowledge of the North Caucasus, between the early Scythian (seventh-sixth centuries B.C.) and Sarmatian (after the third century B.C.) phases. It is also the wealthiest burial of any period known from the region; the closest rivals are the outstandingly rich early Scythian burials of the Kuban region farther west.

The woman's burial lay 6 1/2 feet below the surface of the 23-foot-tall barrow. Beneath it was another, as-yet unexplained feature: a second, completely empty chamber. Wealthy Scythian barrows occasionally have empty chambers, possibly intended to fool grave robbers, but these are usually found above, not below, the burial they are intended to protect. The barrow itself dates from the Early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.). Like many such mounds in southern Russia, it was reused numerous times for secondary burials. In addition to the woman's tomb, a number of other satellite burials were found, ranging in date from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1500.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America