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Twelve Horses Found Sacrificed in Scythian Burial October 15, 1999
by Bernadette Arnaud

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. Sealed in a chamber with a sarcophagus containing the remains of two nobles, the horses are expected to yield vital information about the Scythians, a bellicose nomadic culture famed for its horsemanship that flourished on the steppes of Ukraine and Russia between the seventh and second centuries B.C. "A discovery like this occurs perhaps twice a century," says Henri-Paul Francfort, director of the French 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.

The Scythians are known to have invaded Syria and Judea and sacked Nineveh and Babylon, yet their tumuli, scattered across the northern Black Sea Steppes 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 leaves and birch bark next to a funeral chamber containing the pillaged remains of the Scythian nobles. The horses appear to have been left undisturbed. Their bits are made of wood and sculpted 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 in wood were discovered near one horse and appear to have been worn on its head, while a griffin sculpture in the round with horns of leather was recovered near another pair of false horns.

The Altai mountains are famous for frigid temperatures that aid in the preservation of bodies; ice sheets rapidly imprison burials, saving organic remains from decomposition. Excavating this past summer, Francfort encountered enormous difficulties excavating 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 will conduct a minute excavation of the frozen blocks while specialists perform a series of biomolecular tests on the human and animal remains

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America