Kurgans and Nomads: New Investigations of Mound Burials in the Southern Urals

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The village of Shumaevo (in the Tashlinsky district in the south-west Orenburg region) lies at the boundary between the Kazakhstan Steppe and the south-west end of the Ural mountain chain (Figure 1). The area also lies on the boundary between Europe and Asia and has long provided a corridor between them for nomadic peoples. It is of outstanding archaeological interest due to the number and diversity of its archaeological sites and monuments. The Ural foothills are enriched by deposits of workable stone, copper and iron, while the steppes were favourable for the development of specific strategies of cattle-breeding (Merpert 1974; Morgunova 1995). In recent decades, archaeologists have been revealing the significance of these sites for the study of social and economic change, and demonstrating that the peoples of the steppe played a far more important role in the formation of European and Asian civilisations than had been previously appreciated (Merpert 1976; Chernykh 1992; Morgunova 1995).


The broad sequence shows how the social and economic emphasis changed from a sedentary to a nomadic mode. A productive economy appeared in the Eastern European steppe during the Neolithic period, in which domestication near to settlements was combined with hunting (Tsalkin 1970). In the Eneolithic (Copper) Age, and especially at the beginning of the Bronze Age, people became increasingly mobile. The Early Bronze Age Yama (or Pit-grave) culture is considered to be the first and the most ancient nomad culture (belonging to the late fourth-third millennium BC). The nomadic life of the population is deduced from the absence of settlements, the prevalence of wheeled transport and the composition of herds, which featured only horses and small cattle (Shnirelman 1989). In the Eneolithic period, raw metal was imported ready to use from the Balkans (Ryndina 1998). But the people of the Yama culture on the territory of the Pre-Ural steppe were the first to exploit the local Kargaly copper ore deposits (located in the southern part of the Orenburg region) and thus are considered as the earliest metal-workers in this part of the world (Chernykh 1992).

Several scholars assume that the population of the Yama culture can be equated with one of the most ancient branches of Indo-Europeans (Merpert 1974; Gimbutas 1978). The origins of the funeral rite under earth mounds (kurgans) are also associated with the Yama culture (Figure 2). This rite is also a characteristic of Indo-Iranian cultures and again for the Turkic nomads who appeared in the region at the beginning of the first millennium AD (Table 1).


New cemetery excavations

The burial-mounds in the village of Shumaevo stand on the edge of the terrace above the river Irtek, a tributary of the Ural River. They are grouped in two cemeteries, Shumaevo I (Figure 3) and Shumaevo II (Figure 4), with one large isolated burial mound, N2 (see Figure 2). The mounds vary in diameter from 12 to 45m and in extant height from 20cm to 3m. In 2001-2002, a campaign was carried out in both cemeteries that employed a full range of scientific techniques and some methods of inquiry that were quite new. Sixteen burial mounds were excavated, from which 68 burials were recovered.


As is often the case, the majority of the early mounds, belonging to the Yama culture, proved to have few grave goods, although fragments of artefacts sometimes survived (for example wood from wagons, see below). We therefore applied intensive scientific methods to characterise soils, botanical remains, human bone, animal bone, metals and pottery. New methods developed included 'biomorphic analysis', the definition of macro- and micro-remains of vegetation and other organic materials (leather and wool) in context within the graves and the buried soils beneath the mounds (Golyeva 2001). These palaeoecological assemblages allowed us to assign a cultural association to each burial and deduce their overall sequence. …