Graves of Rich, Powerful Women Found in Lost City of Herodotus

When grave robbers muff it: Archaeological excavation in Ukraine find evidence of the ‘great’ wooden city of tribes described by Herodotus, home to a melting pot of tribes, including the Scythians

Grave goods found in Bilsk
Assortment of grave goods found in Bilsk: Necklaces of semiprecious stones, gold, and potteryCredit: Iryna Shramko

Graves of rich, powerful women have been unearthed in the necropolis of Bilsk in Ukraine, the biggest of the fortified settlements of that period in Europe – the 8th to 4th centuries B.C.E. The discoveries further strengthen the presumption that Bilsk may be indeed the historical town of Gelonus described by Herodotus.

“The Budini are a great and populous nation; the eyes of them all are very bright, and they are ruddy. They have a city built of wood, called Gelonus. The wall of it is three and three quarters miles in length on each side of the city; this wall is high and all of wood; and their houses are wooden, and their temples; for there are temples of Greek gods among them, furnished in Greek style with images and altars and shrines of wood; and they honor Dionysus every two years with festivals and revelry” - Herodotus, The Histories, Book 4, 109

In his accounts of Scythia, Herodotus writes about the Geloni, a group of tribes speaking a language half Greek and half Scythian. The Geloni were believed to be of Greek origin who settled among the indigenous Budini people, though the ancient Greeks considered the two to be one nation. The Geloni lived, Herodotus describes, in a major fortified city called Gelonus, adorned with wooden houses and temples.

Located in the forest-steppe on the left bank of the Dnieper River in the Poltava region of Ukraine, Bilsk (Belsk), also known as Bilsk Horodyshche, lies approximately 165 kilometers from the city of Kharkiv. The massive ancient complex, surrounded by earthen ramparts and moats as well as fortifications almost 35 kilometers in length, encompasses no less than 22 settlements.

The plan of the ancient city of Bilsk and the western necropolis by Shramko B.A. 1987Credit: Iryna Shramko
Aerial view near BilskCredit: STUDIO MELANGE / Shutterstock.co

It is bordered on the east by the Vorskla River and on the west, by the river Sukhaya Grun (a tributary of the Psel). In ancient times, when the city was bustling with life, these rivers served as natural barriers beyond the moats and wooden defensive walls. Archaeologists have found rich evidence of the inhabitants’ residential, religious, and funerary material culture, including monumental construction and manufacturing.

Bilsk was first excavated in 1906 by Vasily Gorodtsov. Since 1958 the project was directed by the Kharkiv University, by the famous archaeologist and the historian Boris Shramko. He was later joined and then succeeded by his daughter Iryna Shramko, who has been leading the site’s excavation since 1988.

West of the fortifications and the Sukhaya Grun river, the archaeologists uncovered a vast expanse of burial grounds divided into four necropoleis: Pereschepino, Marchenki, Osnyagi, and the biggest one, Skorobir, together containing thousands of graves. Some proved to be the resting places of powerful women whose wealth in life continued to accompany them in death.

HerodotusCredit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

A union of tribes

Archaeological research indicates that the settlement complex existed from the latter half of the 8th century B.C.E. until the end of 4th century B.C.E., says Shramko.

In its early days, Bilsk seems to have had ties with the Greek settlements in the northern Black Sea area and with the eastern Halstatt culture (a dominant culture of western and central Europe in the Bronze and early Iron Age). Later, during its heyday, Bilsk’s arm reached farther, with ties to the main Greek and Hallstatt centers as well. Archaeologists have found evidence of luxury imports, wine flowing to the city, and also of a Greek presence in the city, some scholars suggest.

Until the second half of the 6th century B.C.E., the site featured two main settlements: western and eastern, each with different cultural traditions, and each surrounded with an earthen rampart and a moat. Somewhat later, towards the end of this century, they became connected by common with a wooden defensive wall, encompassing a much larger territory, giving the settlement the appearance that Herodotus described as the city of Gelonus.

In other words, during its four centuries, Bilsk was inhabited by sedentary peoples with different cultures and traditions – and then in the second half of the 7th century B.C.E., Scythian nomads arrived in the region. They brought new types of weapons and style, and became part of this melting pot, or union of tribes, as Herodotus describes.

“The diverse local population spoke both non-Scythian languages and a Scythian language,” Shramko says. their influence and features of the Scythian material culture strongly expressed in products such as weapons, bridles and artistic animals.

Scythian gold, in 2007 exhibit "Royal Tombs of the Scythes"Credit: AP

As the Scythians lived together with the indigenous sedentary population, they presumably formed mixed families, and undoubtedly entered the ruling elite, she adds.

All in all this melting pot of tribes created a hierarchical structure indicated not only by the artifacts used above-ground: it is also signaled by the discoveries in the necropolis.

When grave robbers get careless

The abundance of materials in what had been the living part of the city could fill volumes. However, this time we would like to venture beneath the surface, to the city of the dead.

The barrow necropolis in western Bilsk contains thousands of burial mounds. Many were robbed in the past, sometimes more than once. Yet among the excavated graves, archaeologists could still identify two burials where noblewomen were placed to rest in luxury.

Of the four burial areas, the Skorobir section in the southwestern part of the necropolis was the biggest, with hundreds of burial mounds. The graves excavated by the new expedition Shramko led from 2016 to 2019 yielded evidence of three magnificent women’s headdresses, two made of gold plaques – and in an extraordinary break, one was still in situ.

Gold plaques from the 2016 graveCredit: Iryna Shramko

The first was found in 2016, in the middle of Skorobir’s necropolis, the archaeologists from the Scythian expedition of Karazin Kharkiv National University, led by Shramko, came upon a burial mound which seems to be the resting place of one of the noblewomen of Bilsk from the early 6th century B.C.E. As with many other graves, it had been disturbed and defiled by treasure hunters, who dragged the deceased’s body to the surface through a hole punched in the ceiling of the oak logged grave, a technique often used by robbers for their misdeeds.

Gold plaques of mountain goats from the 2016 burial mound: Note the motif of the animal looking backwardsCredit: Iryna Shramko

However, luckily for posterity, they weren’t very thorough. The grave was a rectangular-shaped chamber crypt lined with oak logs and boards covering its floor and ceiling. Because it was disturbed, the skeleton was almost entirely missing. Only traces of it remained: a pair of teeth in the southwestern corner of the grave.

The archaeologists also found a cluster of beads probably from a necklace as well as some separate beads around the presumable area of the skull. There were amber beads, short cylindrical beads, common in ancient Scythian sites and the Hallstatt material culture, which might indicate their European origins, and biconical beads of red amber, common in the Ukrainian forest-steppe, Shramko says. There was also an assortment of biconical yellow glass (golden) beads common during the 6th century B.C.E.

Semiprecious stone beads found in the grave in 2019 Credit: Iryna Shramko

And the robbers of yore had missed something else. Imagine how surprised the scholars were to find over 30 golden plaques that had once covered the headdress of the woman in the defiled grave. Some were made of gold leaf artistically shaped as a lying mountain goat looking backwards, a common motif in the early Scythian art. Others were designed as four-petaled rosettes and some as teardrops. Some of these plaques were glued while others were sewn to the headdresses, which were usually made of soft materials like felt or soft leather.

Then in 2019, the archaeologists made another exciting discovery.

As said, most of the Scythian burial mounds excavated so far had been stripped in the past in one way or another. In Bilsk, only four were found untouched, the last one being unearthed in the 2019 excavation season.

And there, for the first time, the researchers found a Scythian headdress in situ, allowing the scholars to reconstruct the funerary garment in the future.

The burial mound, dated to the mid-6th century B.C.E., was similar to the one uncovered in 2016: the grave pit was rectangular and covered with oak boards and logs. But in this one, the excavators found the skeletal remains of a young woman, as indicated by the remaining cranial and pelvic bones found in the grave.

She was lying on her back, stretched out, accompanied by various ceramic tableware, a clay spindle, and a sandstone dish. Assorted metal jewelry, including a bronze wire bracelet, was found on her right and left sides.

Next to her head, a metal mirror was laid. Around the chest area, jewelry of various semiprecious gems was found, one of special significance being an Egyptian scarab, discovered for the first time in such an early context in these territories.

Credit: Iryna Shramko
Beads found in the grave in 2016Credit: Iryna Shramko

In the southwestern corner of the grave, the archaeologists found various weapons. But after thorough examinations, the excavators concluded that they hadn’t belonged to the maiden, Shramko says, ruling out the possibility that the deceased had been a warrior woman, an “Amazon,” as suggested by other burial mounds found throughout the Scythian territories.

The weapons might have belonged to another individual whose skeleton didn’t survive; couples graves were common in the Bilsk necropolis.

However, the holy grail of the finds in the grave was gold triangular plaques and geometrical beads and earrings of yellow metal adorning the woman’s funerary headdress. Some were found in situ, while others were slightly disturbed from their original place. However, all of them were found in the skull area, leading to the conclusion that they were part of a headdress, Shramko tells Haaretz.

Finds similar to these plaques were found in other sites throughout the Scythian Black Sea areas, although the headdresses to which they were sewn or glued didn’t survive. They were likely made of organic materials that didn’t endure the test of time.

Some scholars reconstruct these headdresses as a headband or kerchief; others think they were more like a hat or a conical hat, yet others suggest a more elaborate design. Further research and excavations might present us with a better understanding and knowledge for the reconstructions of such garb.

Reconstruction of Bilsk headdress, after Miroshiina T.V. 1977Credit: Viktoria Greenboim Rich

The character of the women’s burial and the splendor of their headdresses attest to high status in their society. They could plausibly even have been priestesses in one of the city’s wooden shrines.

Yet this major city, a metropolis, one might say, with its hierarchical and noble society, rich art and crafts, and monumental secular and religious wooden architecture, started to decline somewhere during the 4th century B.C.E.. Sections of the city were abandoned and replaced by graves. Its population shrank and by the end of the 4th century B.C.E., the city ceased to exist, left to nature until its glory was revealed by passionate archaeologists once again – together with enough evidence to suggest that this was the ancient town of Gelonus, described over 2,500 years ago by Herodotus.

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