From the dawn of history, people been obsessing over our mortal nature. Some cultures tried to preserve the appearance of life for their dearly departed, for instance through mummification. Others disposed of the dead more completely, for example by cremation.
Yet others approached commemoration through manipulations of the remains, such as secondary burial which was common throughout the Middle East since prehistory. In any case the passage to the afterlife was usually marked by ritual, often involving burial with grave goods to serve the dead in the next world.
Each culture found unique ways to mark the evil day, according to their perception of life and death and the journey one must take to reach to the other side. The ancient Egyptians even wrote manuals to instruct the living on their next phase.
Throughout the years, archaeologists, digging up the monuments of the dead and studying the clues left by the ancients, have strived to envision and reconstruct these elusive rituals. Now an extraordinary artifact found in a Bronze Age grave in Siberia, which the archaes suspect may be nothing other than a prehistoric amulet, may shed rare light on the thoughts and perceptions of our ancestors regarding the path to the afterlife.
In southern Siberia, in the fertile Minusinsk basin, home to multiple cultures over history, a cemetery known as Kazanovka 1 from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age was excavated in 2020. It is associated with the Tagar people, one of the most prominent cultures of the ancient Siberian steppe.
The Tagar culture is named after an island in the Yenisei River, and was the dominant archaeological culture in the Minusinsk basin in Khakassia from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age, i.e., from approximately the eighth to the third century B.C.E. It was preceded by the Bronze Age Karasuk culture and itself came before the Tashtyk culture, and existed in parallel with the more famous steppe culture, the Scythians in Crimea and the northern Black Sea.
The Tagars were first recognized back in the 18th century, at the very birth of Siberian archaeology. Previously called the “Minusinsk kurgan culture”, it was renamed “Tagar” in 1929.
- Archaeology Site Reveals What First Early Humans in Eurasia Encountered
- Kids Playing With Human Bones Reveal Ancient Cultures of Crimea
- Russian Archaeologists Reveal ‘Karasuk Cake’ Burials in Siberia
- Graves of Rich, Powerful Women Found in Lost City of Herodotus
More than a thousand Tagar burial mounds have been excavated; dozens of settlements; hundreds of petroglyphs have been found – and thousands upon thousands of bronze items, many of which are displayed in the Khakass National Museum in Abakan.
But never before, in such an early Tagarian context, had the archaeologists found anything like the artifact discovered in a salvage dig, carried out ahead of infrastructure works by Evgeniy Bogdanov from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS Novosibirsk, Russia, under the leadership of Anton Vybornov.
An enigmatic artifact
The last season revealed a large burial ground consisting of 16 stone enclosures, organized in rows at the foot of a mountain in the Minusinsk Basin. The construction techniques, spatial organization, and other burial features are characteristic of the early Tagar culture.
The most exciting find of the season was unearthed in one of the graves of Kurgan (burial mound) no. 15.
Kurgan no. 15 contained two enclosures fenced by vertically-positioned sandstone slabs. The main enclosure contained four graves: three adults in the middle of the mound, and one child in a corner. Two other children from the same period were buried in a smaller enclosure added to the outside.
Two of the graves in the center were roofed by logs and capped with rectangular-shaped flagstones. The southern of the three central graves contained a very different burial, not only above the ground but also below. This was of a woman.
The mourners dug a 2.5-by-4.45-meter pit and built a step-like border around the perimeter, on top of which big stone slabs were laid. A horse skull was placed on the grave cover, and the gaps between and around the slabs along the step were covered with small flagstones. The woman’s body was found a meter beneath the surface.
She had been placed on her back with her head to the west, her arms stretched out by her body and her fingers slightly curled. Pottery vessels were placed by the body, a circular bronze mirror with the remains of a leather case was found next to her pelvis, and bronze plaques and pins were laid next to her right shoulder.
In an apparent contuinuation of mortuary rituals in the earlier Karasuk culture, Vybornov tells Haaretz, the woman was laid to rest with chunks of meat as well as the carcasses of a calf and sheep, next to which lay a bronze knife and an awl inside a leather case. Other sheep bones were found around her body as well.
But the most exciting find in the grave was next to the woman’s right elbow. Its purpose is exceptionally enigmatic, but the archaeologists suspect it was an amulet.
The upper part was an X comprised of threaded tubular bronze and cap beads interspersed with carnelian beads. The lower part was also made of bronze tubular beads, with white argillite beads. A boar fang hung from this lower part.
And in the center, between them, the archaeologists detected shreds of what may have been a silken cloth bag, and a fragment of human rib bone.
Other burials in the region have beads, animal bones, fangs of boars or musk deer, and bird claws. It is also worth noting that similar amulets have been found in the basin, almost always been found in association within female burials.
Rituals generally involve “special” items. The human bone in the amulet buried with the woman could theoretically have been ascribed with magical or some other special purpose and played a role in the mortuary ritual.
In later phases of the Tagarian culture, archaeologists have found evidence of rituals involving manipulation of human remains. Two examples of this were found in Kurgan no.2: a human rib bone was found inside a big pot in one grave, and in another grave, a human carpal bone was found in a small vessel.
Vybornov finds this very interesting, he says. Ethnographic parallels might shed some light on these ancient practices. The Yukaghir people, for example, living in in the Kolyma river basin in the far northeastern regions of Siberia, were documented at the end of the 19th century has having a tradition of dissecting the body of a shaman into amulets.
Something similar might be one of many or similar explanations for the human bone found in the Tagarian burial, Vybornov surmises.
Even though the Tagar culture is one of the most studied of all the southern Siberian cultures, much remains to be learned about them, especially about their rituals and use of funerary costumes, Vybornov says. Unhappily, that is largely because so many Tagarian burials have been looted. Also, the post-depositional conditions are not the friendliest for preserving organic and delicate materials.
Thirdly, many of the sites have been excavated hastily in the course of salvage works, without methodological documentation, leaving delicate garments thousands of years old overlooked. When, after millennia, beads are found scattered around the body – it’s hard to know what their initial place was, making it much harder to know what part of the costume or body they adorned.
Meanwhile Kazanovka 1 brought us a glimpse at the magical world of the ancient Siberians. Hopefully, further investigations and excavation of Tagarian and other burials will help us venture into the ancestors’ minds and gain a better understanding of how they perceived life and death, and the relationships between them.