The Republic of Khakassia lies in southwestern Siberia, and is a veritable oasis of the steppe. The climate is so mild that apples and watermelons grow in the summer, at least in some parts. In this bountiful region dominated by mountains, forests, and lakes, archaeological discoveries, some over 100,000 years old, are made by the day.
In the summer of 2021, a number of burial sites were found. Among other things the finds have enabled scholars to bring the ancient to life once again by reconstructing their garments.
“Surprising” as it may sound, the cemeteries were discovered during infrastructure work, on road and rail.
During 2021, research fellow Oleg Mitko of the Department of Archaeological Rescue Work Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS, Novosibirsk and his team excavated seven burials in two cemeteries, Sagayskaya Protoka 7 and Askiz 17, both dating to the Late Bronze Age. The results were published in the journal “Problems of Archaeology, Ethnography, Anthropology of Siberia and Neighboring Territories”.
Among the burials were women who went to their afterlife wearing ornate clothing and bejeweled. Two of the graves yielded unusually rich discoveries, having survived the destructive elements of both nature and looters.
The prehistoric Karasuk Culture of the steppe
As with other cultures in the Khakassian-Minusinsk basin, our knowledge and understanding about the prehistoric Karasuk culture come mainly from graves, as hardly any settlements have been found.
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One reason is that these societies were semi-nomadic, moving around with their sheep, cattle and horses, though they would also practice farming in the summer.
Another reason is that finding prehistoric settlements in Siberia, even in the balmy Khakassian-Minusinsk region, is quite the challenge. In Israel, tells stand out from the landscape, begging for excavation. Not so in Siberia. Ancient settlements that somehow survived the ravages of time, construction and so on are generally subsurface and therefore invisible, while on the other hand, the mound graves are eye-catching.
The excavated cemeteries revealed that from about 3,500 years ago until the ninth or eighth centuries B.C.E., the burials dominating the Khakassian-Minusink basin have Karasuk hallmarks.
While their graves have been found solely within the borders of the basin, their elaborated metal crafts, such as their famous knives, some adorned with animal heads, were found beyond the hollow as well. Either their nomadic range reached far as the Ordos in China, Lake Baikal, and Kazakhstan, or more likely, the objects reached there by trade.
In general, the Karasuks buried their dead in graveyards fenced with quadrilateral stone enclosures made of standing sandstone slabs. Their mortuary process began with building the enclosure, which they would only then “fill”.
Each such fenced enclosure could contain from one to as many as 15 graves. As the stone enclosure got filled or finished its duty, they would be covered to the height of the fence and a new one would be dug next to it and so on and on, resulting in a Karasuk cemetery.
The bodies would be placed either straight in the soil or in box graves – which consisted of lining the pit and covering it with stones. Some, however were interred in “bare” pits with no stones at all. Usually, the most important member was buried in the middle of the enclosure, and around him, more graves were added gradually. The children of the Karasuks were, however, were buried outside the fence.
It seems the graves were not deep. Generally, the deceased was placed to rest about 70 centimeters below the surface, give or take, stretched on their backs and interred with grave goods: Pottery vessels were set by the head, and hefty chunks of meat of sheep, cattle, and horses with a knife or other metal objects were placed by the left leg.
These covered enclosures were much shallower than the usual burial mounds known in Eurasia; hence the soubriquet “Karasuk cakes” in archaeological circles, Mitko told Haaretz.
The pet dogs of the Karasuk
During the 2021 excavation, Mitko and the team discovered that inside one such “Karasuk cake” were four graves, one of a woman, beside whom a dog had been buried. The dog was found in a crouched position with his head facing his human friend. Apparently, their friendship continued in the afterlife as well. The three other graves were severely compromised, with only traces of the remains.
The Askiz 17 cemetery consisted of three “cakes”, two of which were excavated in 2021. One of them had a woman inside – and a child laid to rest outside the enclosure. The lady had been buried according to the usual practice, with chunks of meat, and also a bronze knife.
However, the most exciting finds of the season were the jewelry and garments in the women’s graves, which represent almost all known categories of women’s Karasuk burial costumes.
Next to the lady’s cheekbones in Sagayskaya Protoka 7, the archaeologists found split bronze wire rings, called temple rings, and bronze buttons. Buttons of the same style were also found inside the cranium, among the ribs, and in the area between her arm bones and pelvis, having fallen during the decomposition process. She wore cast bronze statement rings with two stylized petals on both hands.
Askiz 17 featured a different kind of burial style: not simple pits like in Sagayskaya, but pits roofed with massive horizontally-laid slabs and rock fragments.
As in the previous burial, wire-threaded bronze temple rings and buttons were found in the area around the skull and buttons next to her torso. Beneath her skull, the researchers also found cylindrical beads and triangular plates with a rounded tip. The plates had been perforated, indicating that they had been sewn to her headgear. Nothing like that had been found before in the Karasuk context.
Yet more trinkets were to be found. The archaeologist discovered a cast-bronze convex plaque next to her right elbow which was used as a mirror and a large bronze bracelet with a checkered pattern on her right arm. Similar bracelets are known from other Karasuk cemeteries, with different patterns.
The fingers of her left-hand were adorned with four cast-bronze statement rings with two-sided petals, similar to those found in the previous burial, but in much better state, and of far superior quality.
The other graves in the two cemeteries revealed similar burial goods and practices but had clearly been looted. Some had only traces of pottery and animal bones, others pieces of bronze rings and buttons that robbers had, happily, failed to notice. Two buttons were found still fastened together by a leather strap, and on one of the phalanges, signs of copper oxide were traced, indicating the deceased might have been buried with bronze rings – that were probably stolen.
But what did these adornments, jewelry, and garb look like when the women were placed to rest?
Eight years ago, a curator in the Khakassian National Museum created a reconstruction of the Karasuk female funerary costume, based on findings back in the 1960. Before the reconstruction was buried in the museum vault, Mikto had taken photographs of it, which he could now compare with the recent finds from Askiz 17 and Sagayskaya Protoka 7.
Back in his lab, Mitko compared with the photos of the reconstruction with the new finds. The design of the textile is debatable, but the museum staff had accurately reconstructed the ancient costume and accessories.
Some scholars suggest that some of the heavier pieces of jewelry and accessories might have been created especially for the burial and were of little use in everyday life, Mitko wrote in his paper. It is hard to tell; ethnographic data indicates that the rings and bracelets could have been worn in life before being worn in death.
Hopefully, further research and new discoveries will allow the scholars to fully reconstruct how these women looked, in their life, not only in the afterlife. With their dogs.