Did Russian Archaeologists Really Discover a New Ancient Culture?

Do you ever find yourself performing a task only to find that someone—possibly even you—has already done the work? Something similar happened to a team near the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, in 2018. While construction workers were flattening land in preparation for a new cemetery, they discovered that they were on the site of a 2,000-year-old tomb. What are the chances? Now, scientists from the Siberian Federal University claim that the tomb holds evidence of a new, previously unknown ancient culture. But does it?

According to the story, first published in Haaretz and now making the rounds on archeological news websites, the discovery took place as workers bulldozed a mound (30m in diameter) that, at the time, they believed to be a natural hill. They quickly discovered that it was not and, since 2021, Dr. Dimitry Vinogradov and his team have been excavating the site.

The tomb itself is roughly 2,000 years old and features a large rectangular pit, lined with wood and inlaid with a birch bark carpet. When it was in use, the tomb likely had a roof, but the bulldozing of the site destroyed all evidence of it. Inside the tomb were the remains of fifty people, who were interred alongside their most prized belongings. Archeologists found bronze axes and daggers, knives, mirrors, needles, bronze plaques, beads, and ceramic containers for food. One plaque showed an image of a stag—a popular ancient motif in Siberian Scythian art.

These are likely to have been objects that people would have been supposed to need, and use, in the afterlife.

Vinogradov and his team believe that the grave was likely a family tomb used over successive generations. The discolored soil that surrounds it suggests that, at some point, the tomb was sealed and set ablaze. It would then have been covered in soil to create the burial mound (known as a kurgan) typical of the region.

The archeologists argue that the tomb is evidence of a previously unknown “Scythian-type culture” that flourished in the second-first century BC They call this transitional culture “Tesinian,” adapting a term originally coined by historian Mikhail Gryzanov. Gryzanov developed his theory while excavating a site in the Minusinsk Basin and Russian archaeologists link it to Tagar culture. It’s a bold claim and a fascinating discovery, but it is also one that deserves some scrutiny.

To begin with we have to begin with the Scythians themselves. Who were they and on what basis is this new culture being compared to them?

The Scythians—who left no writings of their own—were a nomadic equestrian people who flourished from the seventh to the third centuries BC and spread their influence all over Central Asia from China through Siberia to the northern Black Sea region.

Almost everything scholars know about the Scythians—including their name—is drawn from ancient Greek, Assyrian, and Persian literature. Perhaps the most vivid description comes from the fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that no one who attacks the Scythians escapes unscathed. Scythians were known for their remarkable mobility as well: Herodotus added that you cannot find the Scythians unless they want to be found. Both male and female Scythians were well-known for their physical endurance and remarkable ability to endure a rugged lifestyle lived on horseback and in frigid temperatures. Together, their migratory habits and tough character traits intimidated other peoples. Herodotus called them “invincible”, and the historian Thucydides agreed. The Scythians defeated King Darius of Persia and at one point even reached the borders of Egypt.

For a people who could vanish seemingly without a trace, they left a huge impression in the memory of their neighbors. In her book The Amazons Stanford historian Adrienne Mayor excavates the ways that the Scythians informed ancient Greek ideas about the mythical Amazons. Even today the ideal of a warrior horse-riding people lives on in Game of Thrones. George RR Martin has written that he based the Dothraki on an “amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures” and a number of historians have pointed out the similarities between Dothraki and Scythians.

Archeologically speaking, and like most nomadic groups, the Scythians are difficult to pin down. Most of the data about their lives comes from the tens of thousands of burial mounds they left throughout the Eurasian steppe region. Some remains reveal that some of them were heavily tattooed, and various forms of evidence suggest that they used cannabis (and later alcohol) to protect them from the cold.

These are generalizations, however, that obscure a lot of differences as well. Mayor told the Daily Beast that the name Scythian is a “handy collective name” that refers to “myriad diverse tribes” that were “loosely connected, constantly moving, and intermarrying.” Each of the groups that made up Scythian culture, she added, had its “own customs, languages, histories, etc, but similar styles of warfare, clothing, weapons, equipment, burial practices, and artistic motifs.” In other words, when we talk about the Scythians, we are already talking about a loosely arranged group that had diverse traditions and customs even if they shared a love of horses, warfare, itinerancy, and burial customs.

The second thing to note is the problem of the evidence. The top of this burial bound was sliced ​​off before the modern excavations meaning that the scientists involved are missing a great deal of information about the tomb. Even the estimate of the burial mound’s diameter is based on an analysis of old photographs. As Mayor pointed out to me, this is not an isolated discovery. Scholars are aware of roughly 150 burial mounds in the Krasnoyarsk region that were destroyed during urban development projects in the 20th century. This means that a great deal of comparative information has been lost. In addition, there’s much we still don’t know about this new discovery. Peer-reviewed studies take a great deal of time in archeology, but basic details—for example, the gender of the remains discovered at the tomb—have not been released to the broader academic community.

Looking at the evidence that we do have, it’s easy to see points of commonality between the newly excavated burial and other known practices. Certainly, Mayor said, the bronze plaque with the antlered stag is reminiscent of distinctive Scythian-style animal art in kurgans from Ukraine and Kazkakhstan. Mayor told me that, “The burial of several bodies in a kurgan mound with timber walls is like kurgan burials across the steppes.” Many of the same grave goods are found in the other burial mounds. “The only difference with the newly studied kurgan is that the bronze weapons are miniature replicas.” This might be accounted for by the high value of weaponry at the time. It is correct to say that Tagar culture was known to have burned the remains of its dead, but cremation and burial was widely practiced and varied in meaning over time within the same region and culture.

Is the discovery evidence of a new culture? Well, “previously unknown” is a strong statement that requires more research. Given everything we know about the many permutations of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples who lived and intermarried with one another across this vast region this might not even be the right question.

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