The Center for the Study
of the Eurasian Nomads





Excavations Pokrovka, Russia, 1995

Jeannine Davis-Kimball*

The Kazakh/American Research Project, Inc., directed by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Archaeology, lead by Leonid T. Yablonsky, completed its fourth successful year of excavations at Pokrovka, Russia.

Map of the Eurasian Steppes

This season thirteen kurgans in three cemeteries were excavated revealing 36 burials pits containing 42 skeletons. The burials date to the Sauromation Period (6th-4th centuries B.C.), and the Early Sarmatian Period (4th-2nd centuries B.C.), the Middle Sarmatian Period (1st century B.C-1st century A.D.), and Late Sarmatian Period, (2nd-3rd centuries A.D.). Excavations during the 1995 season proved to be rewarding as many additional details of the Sauro-Sarmatian cultures were revealed. Because of a severe drought which had affected the entire steppe region from southern Siberia south through the Kazakh steppes where Pokrovka is located, foliage in pastures and cultivated areas was close to the ground.

Starting Work (84 k)

In the Pokrovka region grain was harvested unusually early. It was thought that all kurgans in cemeteries 01 and 02 excavated during the 1994 season. However, the denuded fields revealed additional kurgans in both cemeteries. In addition, two other Sauro-Sarmatian cemeteries were discovered bringing the total cemeteries to 11 in the Pokrovka region. Only one cemetery, number 10 was surveyed.

Opening the Kurgan (92 k)

During the excavation season paleo-sol studies were conducted by a team of specialists from the Institute of Paleo-Sol and Photosynthesis Studies, Pushchino (Russia) on the kurgans. Dr. Yablonsky aged and sexed the skeletons at the site. Dr. Philip Walker, Anthropology Dept., University of California, Santa Barbara, is currently conducting bio-archaeological studies to determine the presence of disease and illnesses. He is also analyzing teeth to establish growth patterns indicating periods of famine among the population.

The most notable burials of the 1995 season are briefly described below.

Cemetery 01

Cemetery 01 was located on the first terrace above the Khobda River. The Sarmatian nomads who had constructed these kurgans maintained a canonical burial ritual belief system which included deep pits, often embellished with a podboi (a side niche) or an extensive catacomb construction. The hard soil and the deep pits in this cemetery have made excavating very labor intensive. It was assumed that all the kurgans in the cemetery had been excavated at the close of the 1994 season. However, because of the drought and low ground cover four additional kurgans were discovered. They provided new and interesting insights into the Cemetery 01 nomadic cultures.

Of the four pits in Kurgan 05 two were exceptional. Being Indo-European the Sauro-Sarmatians adhered to several burial practices often associated with Zoroastrianism. One custom was to lay the deceased on organic material protected from the soil. Burial pit 01 in this kurgan followed this tenant to a certain point and then completely abandoned the practice. An elaborate sarcophagus within a podboi was constructed from wooden planks, plastered with fine clay, and lined with grass which was also strewn over the floor of the entry pit. However, before the deceased was placed into the sarcophagus on the grassy bed, an elaborate "pillow" was constructed over the south half of the sarcophagus from surface soil. A very old male was laid on this pillow in an almost sitting position. Both the fact that the deceased was laid directly on soil surface and that he was in sitting position is unusual and currently without explanation.

Skeleton with "Pillow" (112 k)

The tomb architecture in Burial pit 04 was unique as two podboi niches had been cut into the sides of a deep catacomb and two male warriors each in their 40s at the time of death were interred simultaneously one in each niche. Later a third male was buried at a higher level in the entry chamber. The unusual double-podboi architecture and internments are the first such recorded burial rituals at Pokrovka.

Burial 01 pit in Kurgan 07 contained the first Middle Sarmatian interment at Pokrovka. Placed diagonally in the square burial pit, the mortuary items revealed the first evidence of a Sauromatian working with metallurgy. A small iron crucible containing slag and a number of minerals were included among the offerings. Flint scrappers and a stone hammer dating to the Neolithic Period also found in the burial may have been part of his tool kit or antiquities he found when searching for ores. Dating the burial is based upon a large fragment, including the entire bottom and sides of a Roman Period red-slipped bowl.

Kurgan 11 was robbed shortly after the burial. When the robbers grabbed the arm of the deceased to pull him aside, the limb came loose from the socket. It appears that in fright they threw the entire arm out of the burial pit where it was discovered because all the arm bones were in anatomical position on the opposite side and near the surface of the kurgan.

Cemetery 02

Cemetery 02 is located on the second terrace above the Khobda River and stretches along the top of a low prominence for approximately 1.5 kilometers. The Late Sarmatian male burial in the south sector of Kurgan 11 was discovered early in the season making it possible to excavate the mound. Although robbed, it undoubtedly had been very rich as a small gold rosette plaque and a fibula were recovered. This burial appears to be similar to that of Kurgan 09 excavated in 1994 (also robbed) from which over 300 gold artifacts were recovered.

Gold Rosette and Fibula (100 k)

Near the end of the season six additional kurgans with very low profiles were discovered in Cemetery 02. As this cemetery was particularly rich, revealing Sauro-Sarmatian female warriors and priestess as well as traditional male burials with iron weapons, the remaining kurgans should be excavated next season before this material becomes irretrievable.

Cemetery 07

Cemetery 07, located on the second terrace above the Khobda River to the southwest of Cemetery 02, was first opened and also completely excavated during this season. Originally thought to contain 11 kurgans, only four of the low mounds belonged to the time of the Early Nomads. The remaining mounds were associated with the 19th century Kazakh settlement and cemetery which also contained the ruins of several brick mausoleums. The Kazakh mounds were not excavated. Judging from the fact that the vast majority of the Early Sarmatian burials in Cemetery 07 were placed in very elaborate architectural constructions with only a minimal amount of mortuary offerings, it would be safe to assume that they belonged to a different cultural group than those who were buried in Cemetery 02.

Kurgan 09 was notable as it contained nine burial pits with 13 skeletons plus four votive pits each containing animals bones. Defining the perimeter of the kurgan required additional trenches as a modern dirt road had eroded the mound along the south and east sectors. The first Early Sarmatian tool found at Pokrovka in Kurgan 09, a pick carved from deer antler and notched at one end to hold a wooden handle (now lost), was excavated from the mound soil. Its tip had been broken in antiquity

Pot with wooden lid (84 k)

The most unusual burial pit, 02, contained four skeletons interred sequentially. Skeleton 01, was completely disturbed when skeleton 02 was interred. Skeleton 02 had been cut through the legs and lower torso by skeletons 04, (the third burial in the pit) whose feet, rib cage, and head remained in anatomical position. Skeleton 03, the last placed in the pit, was laid adjacent to skeleton 04 but at a slightly elevelated level. The first millennium Indo-Europeans frequently reused kurgans for later burials but they only rarely placed multiple burials in the same pit as found in this instance.

Multiple Burials (180 k)

Kurgan 01 was also unusual as a child of approximately seven years was buried with a male. A whetstone was found through the eye socket of the child.

Cemetery 10

Cemetery 10, located SSE of the village Pokrovka and in a cultivated field , was discovered this season. Several kurgans in excess of 20 m in diameter with a height of approximately 0.5 m were noticed after the grain had been harvested. Upon closer inspection smaller kurgans were also apparent. The field was carefully surveyed and 97 kurgan in two groups, more or less systematically arranged, were recorded. Four kurgans were opened as test pits. Probably because these kurgans had such low profiles none had been robbed.

Kurgan 01 in the north sector revealed the remains of a Late Sarmatian Period Hunnic male with deliberately deformed skull. This was the second recorded Hunnic burial in the Pokrovka cemeteries. Subsequently, kurgans 02-04 were excavated in the south sector of Cemetery 10. These three kurgans were constructed during the Sauromatian Period, and two were reused during the Early Sarmatian Period. In Kurgan 04 the Early Sarmatian burial pit was placed west of the Sauromatian burial pit containing a male in horseback riding position.

In Kurgan 02 the Early Sarmatian burial pit had cut though a Sauromation burial pit leaving only the lower legs in anatomical position and artifacts adjacent to the feet. The middle aged female in Kurgan 03, also dated to the same early period, was in horseback riding position. Both females had accoutrements that identified them as belonging to the special Sauromatian social status of "priestesses of the hearth."

The vast number of kurgans in a single cemetery, such as found in Cemetery 10, is extremely rare among Early Nomad remains. The data from these burials could reveal new and important information particularly concerning the Sauromatian Culture.

For further infomration:

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads
1607 Walnut Street
Berkeley, CA 94709
Phone: 510-549-3708

FAX: 510-849-3137