The Man, the Woman and the Hyoid Bone: From Archaeology to the Burial Practices of the Xiongnu People (Egyin Gol Valley, Mongolia)

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When dealing with past populations, knowledge about burial practices is derived from both ancient texts and archaeological excavations. Usually, the comparison of these two approaches is an important guide to interpretation. In the present study, we discuss the interpretation of a Xiongnu grave. We stress the fact that excavation of a tomb should be extremely detailed, both archaeological and anthropological data being considered.

Burial practices of the Altaic peoples in the Hunnu period, as presented in ancient texts, have already been discussed (Roux 1963). They have been more and more closely defined owing to archaeological researches (Erdelyi et al. 1967; Rudenko 1970; Davydova 1985; Crubezy et al. 1996). The case presented here was studied within the framework of a programme carried out by the French Archaeological Mission in Mongolia, including archaeologists, anthropologists and archaeozoologists. One of the main aims was the excavation of a burial site on a sedimentary shelf bordering the bed of the Egyin Gol river, a tributary of the Selenga, in the northwest of Mongolia (FIGURE 1). The burial site, known as Egyin Gol I, consists of 66 tombs which take the shape of circular tumuli. A global survey was carried out during the 1995 expedition (Crubezy et al. 1996) and intensive excavations started during the 1996 expedition. From 1996 to 1999, we excavated the 66 tumuli which were dated by radiocarbon from the 4th century BC to the 2nd AD, corresponding to the Hunnu period. These tombs are usually individual tombs, deep, and filled with a considerable amount of stone and soil above the lower level. This lower level generally consists of a wooden structure of varying complexity, the constant finding being the coffin, sometimes inside a coffer and accompanied by an offering box, or a niche hollowed out in the pit to contain animal offerings. The grave-goods are generally weapons but jewellery and coffin ornaments have also been unearthed. These funerary structures and the artefacts discovered are perfectly compatible with the culture of the Xiongnu (Erdelyi et al. 1967; Konovalov 1976; Davydova 1985), who were nomadic shepherds (Minajev 1996).


This paper deals with a double burial (EG I, tomb 33) which is dated 113-52 cal BC at 68% probability (PA-1596). Its anthropological and archaeological characteristics raise questions as to the relationship in death between the two deceased.

Organization of the tomb: the pit and its fill Tomb 33 of the Egyin Gol I burial site lies in the southern part of the site, near the edge of a plateau. On the surface it appeared as a rough circle of stones 4.5-5.5 m in diameter.

The tomb had three main levels separated by a stone and soil fill. At 1 m in depth, the outlines of the pit appeared, defined by deep black sediments similar to peat, marked by a stone covering lying east-west. At 1.70 m, a complete cattle skull (bullock or cow) was discovered exactly in the centre of the initial tumulus. The skull faced the west, one half of the jaw laid on the skull and the other in its anatomical position (FIGURE 2). The last covering of stone lay at 1.85 m in depth (FIGURE 3). It was partially missing in the southeast part of the pit, a finding which we will discuss later.


The tomb consisted of a double, asymmetrical coffin which contained the remains of two individuals, 33 and 33A (FIGURE 4). An offering box lay at the eastern end of the southern coffin. The coffins were 180 cm long and 50 cm wide; the length of the offering box was 85 cm. The brims were about 5 cm thick. The bottom of the pit was at 2.15 m in depth. The whole funerary architecture undoubtedly suggested that both individuals had been buried at the same time. In fact, the pit corresponds to the position of the man's coffin and the space corresponding to the woman's one had been hollowed out from the bottom of the pit. …