Kids Playing With Human Bones Unintentionally Reveal Ancient Cultures of Crimea

Robbers desecrating graves left the bones lying about, a crime culminating in new discoveries about a widespread Indo-Iranian culture and their inheritance customs

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Excavated graves in Opushki
Aerial view of excavated graves in OpushkiCredit: Igor Khrapunov

On a sunny summer day in 2002, in a village on the green slopes of the Crimean foothills, the townsfolk spotted children running around the streets, playing with peculiar toys.

Their toys happened to be human bones. After the kids explained where they acquired their unique toys, it transpired that robbers had defiled graves in the nearby Opushki burial ground, leaving the bones exposed, which were found by the local kids.

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The local heritage authorities were called in, and in 2003 the first Opushki archaeological expedition, led by Igor Khrapunov of the Crimean Federal University, set foot in the site.

The Opushki cemetery, located 20 km from Simferopol on the hills of the Crimean Peninsula, is a vast area encompassing about 2 hectares – about 20,000 square meters. Only 3,500 square meters of that have been excavated so far. At first the cemetery was surveyed and excavated only sporadically, but in 2016 excavation started in full force, with students and volunteers arriving to dig during the balmy summer days of Crimea.

The cemetery contains thousands of burials, from the first century B.C.E. and up to the 4th century C.E. From then it was used no more, possibly due to Hunnic invasions to the area. But over its 500 years of history, it served as a burial center for five cultures: The late Scythian, middle and late Sarmatian, the Alans, and the Goths, each bringing their particular traditions and rites.

When this story begins, Crimea had been settled by Greek colonies. The east was dominated by the Bosporan Kingdom, with important colonies such as Panticapeum,modern day Kerch; and in the west we find other Greek colonies such as Chersonesus. These colonies and many others dominated the coastlines.

The hills in the peninsula interior were occupied by the Scythians. These Scythians were from the later period of their culture, and descended from the classical “barbarian” nomads known from the classical sources. In fact they were nomadic no more: the Late Scythians were sedentary tribes who built settlements and practiced agriculture and left us with many crypt-type rich mass burials on the site.

Later, in the first century C.E., the Opushki graveyard saw the influx of new burial traditions typical of the middle and late Sarmatian cultures.

The Scythians and Sarmatian cultures were not the only Indo-Iranians burying their dead in Opushki. In the 3rd century C.E., new cultures arrived.

The field school digging in OpushkiCredit: Igor Khrapunov

One was a wave of Indo-Iranian tribes that hadn’t been seen before in Crimea, also arriving from the east: the Alans.

Enter the Alans

A sword typical of the Alan burials in Opushki, CrimeaCredit: Igor Khrapunov

Evidence of the Alans’ arrival includes an innovation in burial practice, explains the lead archaeologist at the cemetery, Igor Khrapunov. These newcomers buried their dead in dug-out crypts different from the previous cultures, and introduced a unique rite involving a certain type of sword, in which cuts were made on the blade itself, next to the hilt.

The swords themselves were common in the ancient world, but here the marked swords were placed on the shoulders or heads of the deceased, a ritual found only in the northern Caucasus and the Crimea area.

The name Alan (or Alani in Latin) appears on the pages of history for the first time in the 1st century C.E. Greek and Roman texts identify them as one of the Sarmatian tribes - a confederate of nomad Indo-Iranian tribes originating in the Ural mountains and the Volga.

From the 4th and 3rd century B.C.E., the Sarmatians began migrating west into the Scythian territories, including in eastern Europe, and the northern Caucasus, where they supplanted the Scythian cultures. The Alans were one of those Sarmatian tribes. We hear of them for the first time in the 1st century C.E. Even the Jewish historian Josephus mentioned the Alans, calling them a “Scythian” tribe living in the northern Black Sea areas - "Now there was a nation of the Alans, which we have formerly mentioned somewhere,15 as being Scythians." (Jewish Wars book 7, ch.7.4).

By the 3rd century C.E., the Alans had become stronger and more dominant and also spread westward, crossing the Danube to the territories of the Roman empire.

Closeup of carnelian style breast pendantCredit: Denis Corneev

But their dominance would be challenged in the mid-3rd century C.E. by a new wave of incoming barbarians, this time Germanic tribes. Their presence in Crimea is attested by cremation urns with goods typical of their culture. (“Barbarians” is of course the terminology used by the Greeks and Roman for the tribal peoples living in the north, who didn’t speak Greek. To the ears of the classic world their language sounded like Brrbrrr, hence the onomatopoeic nickname.)

These Germanic tribes, including the Goths, arrived from the Baltics and Poland. They conquered the northern Black Sea area, including Crimea. And they split the Alan tribes in two.

Some of the Alans remained in place. Others went to explore new territories in Europe, west of the Danube, and crossed the strait of Gibraltar into North Africa.

Aerial view of the excavated Opushki necropolisCredit: Igor Khrapunov

Then come 375 C.E., a new, even fiercer force arrived. With the Hunnic invasions, the eastern Alan tribes were overcome. Some moved west and some assimilated, eventually founding the medieval Kingdom of Alania in northern Caucasus in the 9th century, which lasted until the 13th century, when the Mongols destroyed it. The people living in northern Caucasus area known today as the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania are believed to be their descendants.

Historical evidence for the Alans in Crimea itself is scarce, and had consisted mainly of one inscription from the second or third century C.E. found in the Panticapeum necropolis telling about the Alans’ arrival. But archaeological discoveries help us reconstructing the historical gaps. In 2021 the archaeologists excavating the graves in Opushki made a number of stunning discoveries, farther supporting their thesis of the Alani presence, and when they arrived.

The jewelry found in the crypt, OpushkiCredit: Denis Corneev

Jewels in the polychrome pre-Hun style

In the summer of 2021, a burial dug-out crypt with a rectangular entrance tunnel and a dromos, an underground corridor, was unearthed. This type of burial crypt in Opushki is considered to be of the northern Caucasus origin.

Within, four bodies were entombed, apparently at least two women and a child, according to the initial data. They were laid to rest with jewelry, all embedded with carnelian gemstones: a pair of golden earrings, three silver bracelets with gold leaf-embossing, and two rectangular pendants made of silver, plated with embossed gold leaves with geometric designs.

One pendant was found on the woman’s chest and another on the child’s chest.

Closeup of the gold earrings inlaid with cornelianCredit: Denis Corneev

This type of adornment is called polychrome pre-Hun, or late Roman polychrome. It is familiar in the areas from the northern Caucasus to the Danube and was quite popular among all – the Romans, Greeks, and barbarian tribes. High-status people, Roman officers, and auxiliary warriors adorned their helmets, swords, and horse harnesses in such manner from the second half of the 3rd century to the first half of the 4th century C.E.

In Crimea, however, so far this style has been found only in the context of jewelry.

Each item of ornament was unique, and was specifically made to be one of a kind. Most likely, the archaeologists believe, the carnelian jewelry was crafted by Greeks; Khrapunov thinks the ones found in Crimea were made in the Bosphoran Kingdom for the elite.

Most of this jewelry was found in burials of children and women, never men. Since kids don’t have enough deeds to confer such treasures upon them, Khrapunov says – evidently it was inherited, indicating that inheritance was common in the Alani culture.

Little did they know that 1,500 years later, these elite children and their trinkets would see the light of day and glory once again, thanks to children playing games with human bones. The bones came from the bodies of their neighbors in the cemetery of Opushki – until the grave robbers arrived.

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