Towards a Refined Chronology for the Bronze Age of the Southern Urals, Russia

Article excerpt


The prehistory of the Eurasian steppe region has become a renewed area of interest following the opening of the political borders of the former Soviet Union and an increasing level of scholarly interaction between east and west. This has led to much greater discussion of developments such as the emergence of Proto-Indo-European and its relationship to the Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian languages, the use of domesticated horses for traction and mounted warfare, and the appearance of chariot technology and its diffusion within the steppe zone (Renfrew 1987; Kuz'mina 1994; 2002; Shnirelman 1996; 1999; Lamberg-Karlovsky 2002; 2005; Kuznetzov 2006). Nevertheless, theories regarding cultural change and interaction and the movement or migration of prehistoric populations necessitate precise and absolute dating of archaeological patterns, without which the discussion of any diachronic cultural development in the past loses substance. This is currently one of the primary concerns in steppe prehistory.

This article presents the results of a project focused on establishing an absolute chronology for the Bronze Age of the southern Ural Mountains region in north central Eurasia (Figure 1). The project also connects with other radiocarbon dating results that have been obtained in the adjacent regions of the Volga-Don and Western Siberia in recent years (Kuznetzov 2003; Matveeva et al. 2003; Gorsdorf et al. 2004). These initiatives are providing a more solid chronological basis for interpreting the social, cultural and technological developments that occurred in this area in the late prehistoric period.


The southern Urals Bronze Age

The Ural Mountains have always provided an important geographical and cultural link between the regions of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Western Siberia. The Urals contain abundant mineral resources including the ores of copper and other metals. This region also has been frequently, if problematically, connected with Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan language developments believed to have emerged during the Bronze and Early Iron Ages (Napol'skih 1997: 142-52; Koryakova 1998).

Western scholars have become especially interested in the region since the discovery and excavation of the Sintashta cemetery and settlement in the 1970s, which produced very early evidence for spoke-wheeled chariot technology and complex fortified settlements (Gening et al. 1992; Anthony & Vinogradov 1995). The excavation of the Arkaim fortified settlement in the late 1980s and early 1990s also led some scholars to argue that these sites contributed to a unique 'proto-urban' steppe development, represented by 22 fortified settlements and associated cemeteries constructed during the Middle Bronze Age (Zdanovich & Zdanovich 2002). The investigation of these sites over the past decade has stimulated great curiosity and debate over their seemingly high degree of social, political and technological complexity (Boyle et al. 2002; Jones-Bley & Zdanovich 2002; Levine et al. 2003).

In response to the need for a more coherent absolute chronology for the region, a collaborative radiometric dating project was established between Oxford University (UK), the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (UK) and Southern Ural State University (Russia). Through this project, 40 organic samples were obtained from 16 Bronze Age sites including settlements and cemeteries (for location, see Figure 1, inset). The absolute dating of these sites provides the first comprehensive survey of its kind to be undertaken in the Urals region.

Cultural developments in the southern Urals

The predominant theoretical framework for understanding prehistoric developments in the Eurasian steppe region has been that of culture history. While this has produced an abundance of archaeological terminology, it nevertheless represents a crucial starting point for investigating regional variation and broader patterns of socio-cultural development and change through time. …