A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Rites of the Scythians
Spectacular new discoveries from the Caucasus set the stage for a dramatic hilltop ritual
Russian archaeologist Andrey Belinski wasn’t sure what to expect when he found himself facing a small mound in a farmer’s field at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. To the untrained eye, the 12-foot feature looked like little more than a hillock. To Belinski, who was charged with excavating the area to make way for new power lines, it looked like a type of ancient burial mound called a kurgan. He considered the job of excavating and analyzing the kurgan, which might be damaged by the construction work, fairly routine. “Basically, we planned to dig so we could understand how it was built,” Belinski says. As he and his team began to slice into the mound, located 30 miles east of Stavropol, it became apparent that they weren’t the first people to take an interest. In fact, looters had long ago ravaged some sections. “The central part was destroyed, probably in the nineteenth century,” Belinski says. Hopes of finding a burial chamber or artifacts inside began to fade.
It took nearly a month of digging to reach the bottom. There, Belinski ran into a layer of thick clay that, at first glance, looked like a natural feature of the landscape, not the result of human activity. He uncovered a stone box, a foot or so deep, containing a few finger and rib bones from a teenager. But that wasn’t all. Nested one inside the other in the box were two gold vessels of unsurpassed workmanship. Beneath these lay three gold armbands, a heavy ring, and three smaller bell-shaped gold cups. “It was a huge surprise for us,” Belinski says. “Somehow, the people who plundered the rest didn’t locate these artifacts.”
As he continued to excavate the area surrounding the kurgan, he spotted postholes near the stone box, as though tree trunks had once been sunk in the earth to support a pavilion or roof. Belinski and Anton Gass of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, whom Belinski had invited to participate in the excavation, realized that they had found something far beyond a simple burial mound. In fact, some scholars think the site may have been the location of an intense ritual and subsequent burial rite performed by some of the ancient world’s most fearsome warriors.
From about 900 to 100 B.C., nomadic tribes dominated the steppes and grasslands of Eurasia, from what is today western China all the way east to the Danube. All across this vast expanse, archaeological evidence shows that people shared core cultural practices. “They were all nomads, they were heavily socially stratified, they had monumental burial structures and rich grave goods,” says Hermann Parzinger, head of Berlin’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and former head of the German Archaeological Institute. Today, archaeologists refer to the members of this interconnected world as Scythians, a name used by the Greek historian Herodotus.
Inside a Scythian Burial Mound
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