The last thing gravediggers expect to find while digging a new grave is … an old grave. That odd and ironic event occurred recently in Siberia and the gravediggers never got to finish the new grave because the old one was so unique – archeologists brought in to analyze it discover not one but over 50 graves in a 2,000-year-old burial mound. Even more interesting – the ancient cemetery appears to have belonged to a previously unknown “Scythian-type culture” of equestrian warriors who ruled the area by force and by horse for a thousand years. Who was this unknown sect of Scythians in Krasnoyarsk and what type of unusual artifacts were they buried with that might give archeologists a clue?
“This mound was left behind by the carriers of the culture that existed in the Minusinsk hollow at the end of the first millennium BC. As a result of migration, some of the people of this culture moved further to the North.”
Dmitry Vinogradov, researcher at the Laboratory of Archeology of the Yenisey Siberia, explains in a Siberian Federal University press release what cemetery workers found while bulldozing a hill to make room for a new burial ground in Krasnoyarsk, the second-largest city in Siberia and a major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The hill was actually a previously unknown burial mound located on the grounds of a cemetery called Shinnoye that was built in the 19th century. The hill was undisturbed until 2018 when Shinnoye needed to be expanded to provide cemetery plots for some of Krasnoyarsk’s 1.1 million people. The excavation was stopped, but archeologists didn’t start digging until late 2021 under the direction of Vinogradov. Researchers from Siberian Federal University continued, weather permitting, through 2022.
“Here is one of the northernmost burial mounds of this culture, dating back to the III-I century BC.”
Perhaps Vinogradov should have said, “Here is what is left of the northernmost burial mounds of this culture” because the bulldozing in 2018 destroyed the upper portion of the mound before the work was stopped. Haaretz reports that this was common in fast-growing major cities like Krasnoyarsk which needed land for development – it is estimated that there were once about 150 such mounds in and near Krasnoyarsk. Major excavation projects in the 19th century plowed them over – apparently without recovering any of the remains or artifacts. Of the 25 or so that were spared, Vinogradov reports most were excavated in the 19th century when rules for archeological digs were far less stringent – if they existed at all. The best way to save any others was stop digging completely, which is what happened – the last known burial mound to be recovered occurred in in 1956-1957. Fortunately for Vinogradov and his team, a few of the past archeologists took photos made copious notes as they dug and these 19th century aids helped them figure out where the graves might have been under the newly discovered mound.
“At the moment, archaeologists have opened up the burial pit 6 by 6 meters and expect to see a collective burial. From several dozen people to 200 could be buried in such mounds. Among the first finds were a bronze mirror, a knife, fragments of ceramic vessels, and several well–preserved pots.”
After that initial discovery, the archeologists were able to identify a large rectangular burial pit that had been walled with timber and had a birch bark floor. Photographs of other tombs suggest that this one had a wooden roof, which would have made it what archaeologists refer to as a “box tomb.” That means it may have held the graves of as many as 50 people, along with their burial artifacts. Vinogradov told Haaretz that those grave goods ranged …
“… from beads to bronze plaques, miniature symbolic bronze daggers and battle axes, as well as knives, mirrors, and needles; and ceramic vessels that had contained foods: all items the deceased might have “needed” in the afterlife.”
What it didn’t tell him was who these people were. One plaque gave a hint – it showed a stag that was popular in Siberian Scythian animal art. However, the Scythians were not one large common group of horse-riding nomads roaming across the Eurasian steppe belt to as far east as northeastern China. Modern historians believe the “Scythians” were many diverse cultures with three things in common - certain styles of bronze weaponry; similar horse-riding gear; and art that featured real stags, cats and birds and mythical griffons. One of those cultures was the Tagars, who ruled the Minusinsk Basin during the late Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Tagars were known to bury their dead in large wooden box tombs holding multiple bodies – the tombs may have been used for generations until they could hold no more … at that point, there were set on fire.
“This conclusion is supported by the colour and nature of the soil, which attests to high temperatures – and the fact that the bones had become mixed up inside, making the work for the physical anthropologist quite challenging. Usually, after burning, the tomb would be covered in soil, and that is what created the burial mound known throughout the steppe as kurgans.”
Vinogradov told Haaretz this tomb contained burned remains that would be difficult to identify. Fortunately, the mound was surrounded by ten smaller pit burials that were not destroyed by the bulldozers. Each contained one or more individuals that were not set fire. The researchers found them laid to rest randomly on their backs, chest, or sides. There was also no organization to the pit tombs – they contained males, females, adults and children. Unfortunately, only three contained grave goods - pottery and bronze artifacts. (Photos can be seen here.) However, those artifacts, along with the others in the wooden box tomb, are different than other Tagar graves in that they are miniaturized symbols of weapons and goods rather than the real thing. Some of the artifacts were iron, which only became popular with the Tashtyk culture of the Tagars which flourished in the area from the 1st to the 4th century CE.
One final difference is the key – the tomb is located near the River Tes in the Minusinsk Basin – a new area to find the Tashtyk culture. For that reason, the researchers believe they have found the burial mound of a new “Tesinian culture.” If that is true, much more is waiting to be discovered about the Tesinians. Why did they ride north into these territories? How and why did they develop they develop their unique practices? How long were they there? Why did they die out?
One thing we know for sure … the enemy of all archeologists is the bulldozer.