Beiram Excavation Report

The Beiram Kurgan in western Mongolia was surveyed in 1996 and again in spring 1999. It is an isolated mound at the top of a mountain pass (ca. 9,000 feet), between two near identical ridges named Beiram and Beiram East. The architectural configuration of the unexcavated mound is similar to Saka burial mounds in southern and eastern Kazakstan and many be dated to between 500-300 B.C. Although no other archaeological excavations have been done in the Mongolian Altai Mountains, we assumed that the mound probably contained a burial and that quite possibly the remains would be frozen as the mound is located in permafrost. The excavation was begun in early June 1999 and completed in early August of the same year. Excavations indicated that the mound was especially constructed as a cultic site. The artifacts found above Level 6 indicate there could have been a hiatus in the occupation of the area between ca. 200 B.C., until the arrival of the Turkish peoples, probably ca. A.D. 600 and there is some textual evidence to support this theory. Thousands of offering found in the Beiram mound, such as astragal and sheep scapula, are undated but probably have been cultic offerings for millennia. Less numerous artifacts are dated by analogy and come from the Mongol period (ca. 1400) to present times.

This appears to be the first cultic site of this period that has been excavated. Dr. Liu Engoe from the Urumchi Institute of Archaeology in Xinjiang, China he had found three Saka cultic spots in the Tien Shan Mountains, but they were not excavated (personal communication). Unfortunately, I do not know their configuration. The people who constructed the Beiram Mound devoted a tremendous amount of energy in excavating a pit which was then covered within the delineation of the circular mound. The mound was covered with four distinct layers of stone interspersed with soil and elaborated with logs radiating from the outer edge to the center. Just gathering the building materials–huge quantities of fields stones and tons upon tons of river stones brought from 15-20 kilometers away on the other side of the west ridge, and trees from the groves that lie kilometers downhill–took tremendous energy and planning. Whatever offerings they made–and they probably included liquid libations (milk and/or koumiss,fermented mares’ milk) to the gods for rain, baby animals, and baby people, as well as offerings of wood, bone, stone, glass, iron, copper, bronze and possibly brass–the rituals must have been performed in a similar fashion as they still are today. The ancient nomads obviously had a specific plan in mind for the mound construction, basing the architectural plan on that used for burials. Although we have little knowledge about the actual people who nomadized in these high Altai valleys during the summer, it is quite apparent that they were well organized and that their chieftain (or a powerful priestess) had sufficient power and influence to inspire a construction systematically carried through.

Excavated from Pokrovka, the small wood-carved animal (to the right), possibly represents a deer. It is the single artifact excavated from the Beiram Kurgan, that on stylistic grounds, relates the construction of the mound to the Saka period (500-300 B.C.). The carving has strong analogies with artifacts from the Sailygeme Kurgans located to the northwest in the Russian Altai Mountains (V.D. Kubarev. Kurgans of Sailygema. Novosibersk:, Nauka,Siberskoi Otdelemie, 1992. Kurgan 30 Barburgazy I, Ill. page 183 #17, text, pp. 132-133.)

The information from the excavation of Beiram cultic site has immensely augmented our knowledge of the Saka belief system., The excavation report with photographs and a schematic of the mound follows.

Continue to the next page for the complete report with illustrations.