Ancient empire collapse seen in violent injuries in nomad graveyard

Analysis of a 2,000-year-old cemetery in Siberia may provide a unique look at political unrest beyond China’s Great Wall.

Thursday, September 24, 2020,
By Andrew Curry
Archaeologists noted a diamond-shaped injury—likely from an arrowhead—on the skull of a young male buried at ...

Archaeologists noted a diamond-shaped injury—likely from an arrowhead—on the skull of a young male buried at Tunnug 1 in Siberia some 2,000 years ago. Researchers believe the physical injuries seen at the Tunnug 1 cemetery may reflect internal chaos on the steppe following the collapse of the Xiongnu empire.

Photograph by Trevor Wallace

The collapse of an ancient nomadic empire may have set off centuries of violence across the Eurasian steppe, and now archaeologists believe they have discovered a cemetery of victims from this little-understood period.

For the past four years, a joint Russian-Swiss team of archaeologists has been excavating a kurgan, or burial mound, in the Russian republic of Tuva in southern Siberia. Known as Tunnug 1, the kurgan is one of the earliest and largest built by the Scythians, a nomadic culture that dominated most of the steppe between Europe and Asia beginning around 1100 B.C.

As the archaeologists dug into the mound’s southern edge, they encountered a collection of more recent burials dating to between A.D. 100 and 400. The researchers weren’t expecting any big surprises, just a good opportunity to take a closer look at the diets, burial customs, and life expectancy of these later steppe nomads.

A partial view of the Tunnug 1 cemetery on the Siberian steppe. Archaeologists worked through autumn 2019 with the hope that frozen groundwater would make excavations easier. Instead, they had to pump frigid water from beneath a thick layer of ice in order to dig the site.

Photograph by Trevor Wallace

But as Marco Milella, an archaeologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, and his colleagues examined dozens of skeletons from Tunnug 1, they were shocked. “I’ve never worked with a skeletal population characterised by so much violence,” says Milella. “It wasn’t completely surprising at first, but then we found another one, and another one. A lot of these people were exposed to violent interactions … and the evidence was not just on adult males, but also in kids.”

In a paper published recently in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Millela and his colleagues use more than 100 skeletal injuries to paint a picture of a steppe society steeped in violence. Out of at least 87 people buried in the small cemetery, more than 20 had signs of trauma on their bones, including cut marks, holes made by arrowheads and sword points, and crushing blows. The victims ranged from young children to an old woman, but most were pre-teens and adults. (The legendary Amazon warriors were fearsome female fighters from ancient Scythia.)

Five iron arrowheads from Burial 33 in the Tunnug 1 graveyard. They were likely stored in a quiver that has since decomposed over the millennia.

Photograph by Trevor Wallace

A return to chaos

This evidence for violence could help explain events that took place far from the grasslands of southern Siberia. The people buried in the cemetery lived during a time of profound change. A few centuries before, the region was part of an empire of nomads called the Xiongnu, whose marauding expeditions to points east and south prompted Chinese emperors to begin building the Great Wall of China. Chinese writers at the time marvelled at—and scorned—their nomadic neighbours.

“It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature,” Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote contemptuously in the first century B.C., just a hundred years before the earliest Tunnug 1 burials.

When the Xiongnu empire collapsed around A.D. 100, chaos swept the steppe. Rather than attack the nascent Chinese empire, the region’s warriors turned on each other. “What we see in this [Tunnug 1] sample is probably the decline of political stability in the area in the wake of the decay of the Xiongnu Empire,” says excavation director Gino Caspari, an archaeologist at the University of Bern.

A middle-aged man was buried at Tunnug 1 between A.D. 100 and 300. Later investigation determined he had chop marks on his vertebrae. An iron vessel and ceramic pot buried beside him would have contained food offerings for the afterlife.

Photograph by Trevor Wallace

'Repeated, intentional violence'

By carbon dating the bones, archaeologists showed the Tunnug 1 burials spanned centuries, beginning around A.D. 100. Rather than a single battle or massacre, they seem to represent the results of raids or small-scale fighting over a long period of time.

“This suggests internecine warfare—tit-for-tat, reprisal violence,” says Christopher Knuesel, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux, who was not involved in the study. Nonetheless, he says, the prolific violence stands out, particularly in a cemetery that was in use for centuries.

“It’s the kind of thing you usually find in mass graves,” Knuesel adds. “To have this with individual burials is a very unusual combination.”

The true number of violent deaths was likely much higher, as injuries can be deadly without leaving marks on bones. Bioarchaeologists, who specialize in the analysis of ancient skeletal remains, estimate that for every skeleton found with visible damage, another three were killed in ways that left no traces on their bones. “What we observe on the skeleton is an underestimation—a lot of lesions don’t leave a trace on the skeleton,” Milella says.

In fact, researchers found iron arrowheads lodged among the unmarked bones of several Tunnug 1 skeletons, suggesting they had been shot into soft tissue and exposed when the surrounding flesh decayed.

Researchers also found the remains of men and boys with cuts on the front of their spines near their necks—yet without wounds to their arms and upper body typical of hand-to-hand combat or self-defense. The combination suggests that their throats had been slit, either during a gory execution or as part of a violent ceremony. “At least part of these features are likely to be related to ritualised killings,” Milella says. (See how a golden Scythian artifact reveals drug-filled rituals—and confirms the claims of an ancient historian.)

'They weren’t just brutes'

Violence may have been commonplace among these steppe nomads, but previous excavations have shown that they were also compassionate. Digging at a similar site in Tuva in the 1990s, Eileen Murphy, an archaeologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, also found indications of trauma and violence on many skeletons. But, she says, the remains that stood out were those of people who received long-term care.

“There was lots of evidence for people with disabilities in childhood surviving to adulthood,” says Murphy, who was not involved in the current study. “There’s a caring aspect to people on the steppes. They weren’t just brutes.”

That later groups were still laying their dead to rest in a Scythian burial mound built 1,000 years before their time also “speaks to a certain continuity,” Milella observes. “The kurgan itself was used for funerary purposes throughout. It’s likely to be a special, symbolic spot. It’s fascinating if you think about the time span involved.”

And during the time span of the Tunnug 1 burials, in the first centuries A.D., the collapse of the Xiongnu empire created powerful ripples that reached other empires in both Asia and Europe. Half a world away, Roman writers recorded warlike tribes emerging from Central Asia right around the same time. The onslaught of Goths, Alans, and Huns pressing west eventually pushed the Roman Empire to the point of collapse.

The new findings of violence at Tunnug 1 may provide a plausible motive for the nomad migrations. “In the third and fourth centuries you have movements of people all over the place,” Knuesel says. “Perhaps one of the reasons they come sweeping out of the steppes is it’s very unstable where they are.”

A Tuva shaman makes offerings and asks for assistance from ancestors at the opening of the excavation season at Tunnug 1 in 2019. Local Tuvinians generally have a mix of animist and Buddhist beliefs.

Photograph by Trevor Wallace
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