Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads


Jeannine Davis-Kimball. "Chieftain or Warrior Priestess"Archaeology, September 1997: 40-41.

Twenty-eight years after what was assumed to be the discovery of a young male Saka chieftain dating to the fifth-century B.C., reviewed evidence suggests that the body was not male, but that of a warrior priestess.

The Issyk Gold Man, as the burial came to be known, was found 31 miles east of Alma Ata (now Almaty) in southern Kazakhstan. Dr. Kemal Akishev of the Kazakh Institute of Archaeology and his colleagues uncovered the sarcophagus which contained the skeleton covered with 4,000 gold ornaments.

Generally, analysis of a skeleton will determine the person's sex. However, bones of the Gold Man's skeleton were broken and fragmented so a reliable determination was not possible. Prof. Orazak Ismagulov, physical anthropologist at the Kazakh Institute of Archaeology, suggested that the skeleton was that of a male after examining only the cranium and a few long bones. (Subsequently, Ismagulov has said concerning the skeleton, that it had been badly fragmented and was in very poor condition at the time of excavation. He also indicated that the skeleton was that of a very small person, and could "well have been that of a female." [personal communication to Dr. Davis-Kimball].)

The body had been attired in boots, trousers, and a leather tunic (caftan) decorated with some 2,400 arrow-shaped gold plaques. Plaques of horses with twisted torsos decorated scabbards that held an iron dagger and a sword. Ceramic, silver, and bronze vessels, a bronze mirror, and flat wooden dishes and beaters for koumiss (fermented mare's milk) were also found in the tomb.

There are many similarities between the Issyk Gold Man's tomb and other warrior/priestess burials. For instance, a conical headress was found in the Gold Man's tomb. It was decorated in gold and was 25 inches tall. Gold-foil depictions of animals were attached to the sides of the headdress. Though believed to be a man's tomb, this headdress reminded the Kazhak excavators of bridal hats passed down through generations to be worn by brides in traditional weddings.

The Gold Man's tomb contained three earrings with turquoise, carnelian and white beads which suggests jewelry not associated with Saka men. The tomb also contained a silver spoon with a slender handle. Carved bone spoons were found in the warrior and priestess burials at Pokrovka and other Sarmatian sites. Similar to the Gold Man burial, the Pokrovka burials also contained bronze mirrors, which are associated with priestesses.

In 1993, the frozen body of a fifth-century B.C. Ukok priestess was uncovered in the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains by Natalia Polosmak of the Russian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk. This tomb contains objects that were also found in the Gold Man's tomb. In the Ukok priestesses tomb was a silver mirror, wooden trays and bowls that held koumiss, and a koumiss beater, which according to Polosmak, was the most sacred object associated with female priestesses. The priestesses clothes were similar to the Gold Man's wardrobe and she wore an elaborate coiffure resembling a conical hat.

The similarities between the Gold Man's tomb with that of other warrior/priestess tombs suggest that the Gold Man was actually a woman. However, unless DNA analyses can be made on the bones to determine the actual sex of the body the scientific fact may never be known.

-Suzanne Lettrick