It’s the summer of 2018, and Dr. Zainolla S. Samashev is back in the remote mountains of eastern Kazakhstan. Since 1998 the archaeologist has been excavating kurgans – heaps of stone and soil associated with burials dating back more than 2,500 years. But while Samashev and his team have made some stunning discoveries over the years, what they find this summer is utterly astonishing.
It was a people known as the Saka who had created the elaborate kurgans. The Saka were Iranian nomads who lived throughout eastern Eurasia from around the 8th to the 2nd century B.C. And although their precise history remains murky, it is believed that the Saka were closely connected with another ancient people: the Scythians.
Both the Scythians’ and the Sakas’ origins can be traced back to earlier peoples called the Karasuk and the Andronovo. The Karasuks’ time was some 3,500 years in the past, and they lived in Eurasia. The Andronovo, meanwhile, inhabited central Eurasia during the Bronze Age from around 4,000 years ago. And like the Saka, both the Karasuk and the Andronovo peoples buried their dead in kurgans.
Now one key archaeological site that has painted a picture of the Saka civilization lies in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, not far from the Kazakh border. Here, the first of a series of kurgans were uncovered by the archaeologist M.P. Gryaznov in 1929. These particular kurgans are now known as the Pazyryk burials.
During the late-1940s the archaeologist Sergei Rudenko excavated another four kurgans at the Pazyryk site. And despite the fact that tomb robbers had previously raided the graves, the researchers nonetheless uncovered some fascinating artifacts. These finds included woven carpets, cloth saddles and, most spectacularly, a four-wheeled chariot standing almost 10 feet tall and dating back to the 5th century B.C.
The best known of the Saka discoveries at the Pazyryk site is, however, the kurgan containing the mummified remains of the Princess of Ukok. This mummy has otherwise become known as the Siberian Ice Maiden, and it was excavated by the archaeologist Natalia Polosmak in 1993. Amazingly, the Ice Maiden and her tomb date back more than 2,400 years.
Having been preserved by permafrost, the princess’ remains were discovered in phenomenal condition. And arguably the Ice Maiden’s most startling features are the elaborate tattoos covering much of her remains. These tattoos depict strange animals that merge into intricate floral patterns – and which are clearly distinguishable.
As we can see, then, a range of discoveries have already taught us much about how the Saka once lived. But the finds keep on coming – and in 2018 Dr. Samashev and his team presented the archaeological community with yet another. When they made the discovery, the researchers had been working in the Tarbagatai Mountains, not far from Kazakhstan’s border with China, in the vicinity of the Eleke Sazy plateau.
More specifically, the team were in a valley working on one of the roughly 200 kurgans that have been found in the area. But this particular kurgan was truly special. You see, inside the burial site were the remains of two teenagers from around 2,700 years ago.
And judging by the grave goods that had been buried with them, these were no ordinary adolescents. The kurgan’s own discoverer has certainly suggested as much, as a number of media outlets have reported. Yes, Dr. Samashev, who is the director of the Margulan Institute of Archaeology, claims that the two discoveries are the remains of some rather important figures.
“A large number of valuable finds in this burial mound let us believe a man and a woman are buried here – the reigning persons or people who belonged to the elite of Saka society,” Dr. Samashev is quoted as having said. The female is thought to have been around 16 years old when she died, while the male had apparently been no more than 19.
The young man was buried with a torc – a kind of inflexible necklace – made from gold. And he had also been laid to rest with weapons. These include a dagger fashioned from gold and bronze and a quiver coated in gold and containing bronze-tipped arrows.
Both bodies had also been interred in fine clothing decorated with golden beads and appliqués. An appliqué is an embellishment in which one material is laid to cover another. And in this case, the appliqués were in the shape of large-antlered deer heads.
While the man’s grave was seemingly intact, though, the young woman’s had at some point been looted. Yet even so, all in all the graves were found to contain around 3,000 artifacts, many of which were made from gold. Samashev and his team in fact uncovered many jewelry items, including bell-shaped earrings and necklaces set with precious stones. The treasure trove also contained golden chains, plates and plaques.
The scientists in addition noted the level of skill that must have gone into making these exquisite pieces. For the golden beads covering the teenagers’ clothing, for example, skilled artisans had used sophisticated micro-soldering methods. And it is believed that employing such refined technique would have been highly unusual for this era.
Politician and former Kazakh prime minister Danial Akhmetov further believes that these discoveries hold great significance for understanding the heritage of his country. Quoted in the Daily Mail, Akhmetov said, “This find gives us a completely different view of the history of our people. We are the heirs of the great people and great technologies.”
Unfortunately, though, many kurgans have been looted over the years. Some were emptied during the 19th-century reign of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. But despite such thievery, there may be many more treasures yet to be unearthed from the ancient era of the Saka people.
Prominent Kazakh archaeologist Yerben Oralbai was reported by the Daily Mail as saying, “There are a lot of burial mounds here, and the prospects are very large.” And as more evidence of the sophistication of the wandering Saka has been uncovered, a rethink of attitudes towards historical nomads has been sparked.
In a March 2012 article, The New York Times addressed this very issue. According to the piece, as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, nomads were seen as inferior by those who lived in settled communities. But modern archaeologists have been challenging this stereotype.
The opulent riches found within Saka kurgans indicate that these people were far from inferior to city-dwellers. Indeed, the sophistication of their jewelry and their mastery of complex technologies call for a re-evaluation of how they are perceived. Past considerations of nomadic peoples may now be outdated. And the micro-soldering techniques of the Saka – as exhibited in the two teenagers’ graves – suggest the need for a rethink.