National Geographic : 2003 Jun
Last summer, in the second season of excavation, I watched day after day as the team cleared rock across the 90-yard width of the kurgan. I'm accustomed to seeing archaeolo gists wield small tools: trowels, knife blades, artist's brushes. But this job required muscle. Chugunov and company hired a hundred young laborers; pop music blaring from their radios was punctuated by the scrape of shov els and the thud of rocks heaved into dump trucks. As the kurgan diminished, a small mountain of spoil grew beside it. Many more burials were discovered in the mound, some beneath the stone, some secreted within the slabs. At summer's end the total stood at 26. Amazingly, not one had been ransacked by looters. "In Siberia that's unique," said Chu gunov. "Archaeologists have opened about 30 monumental kurgans like this one in Siberia, but never have we found a whole burial complex undisturbed." From recovered grave objects the archaeolo gists concluded that half the burials were non-Scythian. Turk ic nomads who began arriving in later centuries often chose existing kurgans as the final resting place of their own kin, burrow ing shallowly into kurgan surfaces. Scythian burials-Chugunov counts 12 plus the king's grave-were found in scattered sites beneath the kur gan's sprawl. Though not rich in goods, they contained clues to the quality of Scythian life in a time frame little known to scholars. Said archaeologist Nagler, "This may be the most informative of all the Scythian kurgans ever excavated." RUTHLESS WARRIORS who used their victims' skulls as drinking cups-that's how the Greek historian Herod otus described Scythians. Most scholars believe they belonged to an Iranian language group. Though they left no written record, "from ancient sources we know the names of several 126 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2003 tribes, and they seem to be Iranian names," Parzinger said. "They were different groups, but they had the same way of life and similar burial customs." Thus, to scholars "Scythian" doesn't mean a united people but numerous tribes with a shared culture. One of the major cultural markers is the depiction of animals in art. Fish tattoos have been found on the frozen bodies of Scythians in the so-called Pazyryk burials in the Altay Moun tains southwest of Tuva, and the Arzhan-2 trove includes several golden fish. Moreover, Arzhan's thousands of small feline figures have counter parts in the lions depicted on some of the most exquisite Scythian ornaments ever found, in kurgans near the Black Sea. Scythians who flourished there in the fourth century B.c . were in contact with Greek colo nies (Herodotus may have learned about Scythians in travels to some of those colonies) and evidently the Scythians commissioned Greek smiths to fashion golden goods. Twenty burial mounds rose within my gaze as I looked one evening across the Valley of the Tsars from a kurgan 25 feet high and ten miles from Arzhan-2. In Scythian times the valley must have teemed with horsemen and their flocks. The later Turkic arrivals, whose descendants are the largest group of Tuvans today, also pastured sheep, goats, and horses among the mounds. As recently as two decades ago there would have been many animals and probably several people in my sight, for state farms grew grain and kept large herds in the valley. But today the Valley of the Tsars is a lonely realm. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, nearly all the farms-heavily subsidized by the government-also foun dered, and many residents moved away, abandoning hay mowers and plows to rust in the fields. On this evening I could see, far off, only one small band of cattle.