Inhumation and Cremation in Medieval Mongolia: Analysis and Analogy

By Crubezy, E.; Ricaut, F. X. et al. | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Inhumation and Cremation in Medieval Mongolia: Analysis and Analogy


Crubezy, E., Ricaut, F. X., Martin, H., Erdenebaatar, S., Coqueugnot, H., Maureille, B., Giscard, P. H., Antiquity


Introduction

The sites presented in this paper are located in northern Mongolia, and specifically in the Egyin Gol valley near the Egyin Gol river, (Figure 1), some 20km upstream from its confluence with the Selenge, which flows into Lake Baikal. The valley has a continental climate with an average annual temperature of-1[degrees]C. Precipitations are light (300 to 400mm a year). Because of its relatively high altitude (885m), the valley is snow-capped from mid-November to April and ice thickness on the Selenge reaches 1.8m during this period. However, the valley, being relatively narrow and oriented west-east, is well protected from northerly winds and can offer abundant summer grazing to a significant population of nomads.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

During the Xiongnu period (fourth century BC--second century AD), the influences in northern Mongolia clearly came from the south (Rudenko 1970). For the period from the third century AD to the unification of the Mongolian tribes under the rule of Genghis Khan in 1206, it was more complex. At this time the area was occupied by Turko-Mongolian tribes, which would later either become the Turks who moved to the west, or stay and unite under the rule of Genghis Khan (Schiltz 1994; Bourgeois et al. 2000).

Until recently, the funerary practices of Eurasian nomads in this historical period were mainly known through written documents (Roux 1963) and accounts from travellers (Schiltz 1994) or ethnologists (Harva 1959), while archaeological studies focused essentially on older periods, principally the Stone and Bronze Ages. In recent times, with the opening of the Chinese and Mongolian borders, archaeological studies are reviving in the Altai region (Bourgeois et al. 2000; Francfort 1996; Polosmak & Van Noten 1995; Shamashev 2000). However the early written accounts remain of great value for interpretation, particularly of burial practice (Crubezy et al. 1996a; 1996b; Murail et al. 2000). In the present study we make extensive use of the major study by J.P. Roux (1963) of the burial customs of prehistoric and medieval Altai.

Written documents report four types of funerary practice for the early historic period: bodies could be buried, cremated, left exposed to wild beasts or in trees (Roux 1963). Burial rites could also extend over some considerable time. Exposure could be followed by the collection of bones and their subsequent burial. In the case of cremation, if some sources explain that bones were collected from the pyres, others imply that the bones may have been left in situ. For example, the Chinese source of Pien-yi-t'ien, dating to AD 552-556 (Pelliot 1929) reports that for Mongolian populations: 'the horse ridden by the deceased, as well as his clothes and everyday objects, are cremated at the same time as his body; ashes are collected and the body is buried during particular periods'. By contrast, the Soue Annals (AD 582) simply state that 'the dead are cremated on the battle fields' (Julien 1877).

From these sources, it emerges that a tomb containing unburned remains could result from a primary or secondary burial, and a tomb containing burned remains could result either from a primary burial where bones are left in place (a practice known as bustum) or from a secondary burial where burned bones are moved a distance from the pyre (known as ustrinum). The factors influencing these various practices are largely unknown. From travellers' accounts it seems that practical constraints, notably the hardness of the ground in winter, could have inhibited the digging of graves, and some archaeological studies seem to confirm this theory (Schiltz 1994). However, we have now shown that during the Uighur period, burial could be practised during the winter season (Crubezy et al. 1996a). It is thus clear that other factors, cultural and religious in particular, also played a part. Indeed, cremation was the dominant practice in the Khirghiz culture while in some other cultures burial and cremation seem to have coexisted. …

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