Funeral Practices and Animal Sacrifices in Mongolia at the Uigur Period: Archaeological and Ethno-Historical Study of a 'Kurgan' in the Egyin Gol Valley (Baikal Region)

By Crubezy, E.; Martin, H. et al. | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Funeral Practices and Animal Sacrifices in Mongolia at the Uigur Period: Archaeological and Ethno-Historical Study of a 'Kurgan' in the Egyin Gol Valley (Baikal Region)


Crubezy, E., Martin, H., Giscard, P. -H., Batsaikhan, Z., Erdenebaatar, S., Verdier, J. P., Maureille, B., Antiquity


Funeral practices in central Eurasia

Our knowledge of funeral practices among the ancient peoples of central Eurasia comes mainly from written documents (Roux 1963), and also from archaeological findings (Gravilova 1965: Konovalo 1976), including the famous excavations of S.I. Rudenko and M.P. Griaznov (Rudenko 1970) at Pazyryk and those of B.M. Mozolevs'kij (1979) at Tolstaia Moguila. Recently, since excavations have recommenced in the Altai (Polosmak & Van Noten 1995), and as the frontiers of China and Mongolia have opened up, an increasing amount of archaeological evidence has become available.

One direction of research concerns the relationship between man and animal during the last millennia. Funeral practices had a privileged place within this relationship (Roux 1963) because of their collective and ceremonial nature, which found its highest expression in the funeral feast. During these feasts, animal sacrifices often took place on an extensive scale. As late as the middle of the 19th century, Atkinson (1860), present at the funeral of a Kirghiz prince, witnessed the sacrifice of 100 horses and 1000 sheep. Similarly, at Pazyryk, S.I. Rudenko and M.P. Griaznov uncovered in the first kurgan the bodies of 10 horses killed by a thrust from a round, pointed dagger and deposited outside the funeral chamber. These sacrifices reached their greatest extent in the 'royal' kurgan of Arjan, dating from the 8th century BC, where the remains of more than 160 horses, in full harness, were discovered (Bokovenko 1994).

Apart from the actual sacrifices, the relationship between man and animal during these ceremonies could be complex. In the mid 18th century, Gmelin (1751-1752) drew attention to the union of the living and the dead during these feasts, where the horses were sometimes partly eaten and partly buried in the tomb. Any attempt at detailed reconstruction of funeral practices (Roberts 1989; Duday et al. 1990) risks coming up against such elements, almost impossible to interpret in the absence of ethno-historical data. This is the point we develop here, taking for example a kurgan of the 9th century AD, excavated in the valley of Egyin Gol, Mongolia [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], by the first expedition (1994) of the France-UNESCO Permanent Archaeological Mission in Mongolia.

The site, archaeological and historical context

The present study is part of an international research project on the origins of the Mongol people, launched by UNESCO at the request of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Prospection and soundings were thus carried out in 1994 at various burial sites in the valley of the Egyin Gol river, an affluent of the Selenga, which flows into Lake Baikal [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Excavations are now being carried out in the 20 km of the Egyin Gol valley upstream from its junction with the Selenga. The most important burial sites are composed of several graves to more than 50 kurgans and they range from to the Bronze Age until the period of Gengis Khan (13th century AD). However, there are some isolated kurgans, most of which seem to belong to the Bronze Age period with the exception of the one discussed here (EG IV-2) which is, for the moment, unique in Mongolia.

EG IV-2 is isolated in the centre of a small dry valley, (49 [degrees] 31[minutes]42[seconds]N, 103 [degrees] 19[minutes]47[seconds]E, altitude 920 m), at right-angles to the Egyin Gol river. It revealed a mongoloid woman of middle age, and rather robust build, whose height was probably around 160 cm (Maureille et al. 1994). Her skeleton was determined (Ly-6860) to 1185[+ or -]45 b.p calibrated to between AD 731-964 (maximum probability AD 882, 830, 790). The grave goods were somewhat atypical [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] with the possible exception of an earthenware spindle whorl fashioned from a sherd of the bulge of a large vase. The designs on the whorl, incised before firing, suggest an Uigur origin, which does not contradict the dating. …

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