The Emergence of the Tagar Culture

Article excerpt


The early nomads of Eurasia, whom ancient writers called Scythians and Sakas, occupied the great Eurasian Steppe from the beginning of the first millennium BCE. The Scythian culture is well known from the excavations of numerous rich, elite barrows north of the Black Sea, but their theatre of action actually stretched from Hungary to the Great Wall of China. In the steppe zone of Central Asia a number of cultures of the Scythian-Saka type appeared at this period, for example, the Aldy-Bel', Maiemir, Tasmola and Tagar cultures. The Tagar culture, which succeeded the Karasuk culture in southern Siberia (Legrand, above) belongs to the earliest stages of the Scythian group, and is dated to the ninth-eighth century BCE (Sementsov et al. 1998; Vasiliev et al. 2002; Bokovenko et al. 2002).

This paper studies the sequence of the Tagar culture in the Minusinsk basin in southern Siberia. It is a sequence which shows how mobile horsemen emerged from their Bronze Age background to dominate their region and spread their culture many thousands of miles westwards into Europe.

Early investigations

The earliest archaeological discoveries in southern Siberia dating to the Scythian period are associated with the Russian incursion into the Siberian steppes in the early eighteenth century. The Russian emperor, Peter the Great, sent the first academic expedition headed by D.G. Messerschmidt (1721) to Siberia and ordered the investigation of barrows. In 1722, the first barrow to be scientifically excavated on the Yenisei River belonged to the Tagar culture. Subsequent expeditions, headed by G.F. Miller (1733-1744) and P.S. Pallas (1770) conducted scientific excavations, made artefact collections and described outstanding monuments from different periods.

The nineteenth century was characterised by extensive studies of local enthusiasts such as P.K. Frolov, N.M. Martyanov, D.A. Klementz and others who supplemented the archaeological collections of local museums. In the 1920s, professional archaeologists (S.A. Teploukhov, S.V. Kiselyov, M.P. Gryaznov and so on) explored many more archaeological sites of the Sayan and Altai mountains and elaborated their cultural chronological system (Teploukhov 1929; Kiselev 1951; Gryaznov 1968; 1969; Chlenova 1967; 1992).

Climate and resources

The Minusinsk Valley is located in the southern area of the Krasnoyarsk district and the Republic of Khakasia (Figure 1). The bottom of the valley, originally covered with bunchgrass steppe vegetation, is at a height of 300-350m and surrounded by the high Sayan mountains. The modern climate is continental with a mean annual temperature of about 0[degrees]C.


In 2001/2 a joint expedition by the Institute for the History of Material Culture and Dutch scientists carried out environmental investigations in the region, targeting the lakes of Kutuzhekovo and Shushenskoe in the Minusinsk valley and the two White Lakes in the Uyuk valley in Tuva. They used pollen analysis and geochemical methods to study lake deposits, along with archaeological and radiocarbon data. The results of these investigations testify to climatic development in that region during the first millennium BCE, continuing changes that began in the Bronze Age. A cool phase occurred during the eleventh-ninth centuries BCE, when increasing humidity reached a maximum, followed by a warming trend (Figure 2). Both the pollen record and the geochemical data show a pronounced shift to humid climatic conditions at the start of the early Iron Age (Kulkova 2003). The significant increase in humidity and the slight temperature rise in the steppe that occurred about the first millennium BCE probably became widespread. This has been well traced from western Central Asia to western Siberia (Levina 1996), and probably stimulated movement of some nomads across long distances. This change in climate was progressive, not static, as assumed by Khazanov (1984/1994). …