Libmonster ID: KZ-1571
Author(s) of the publication: Sergei KORENEVSKY

by Sergei KORENEVSKY, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Archeology, Moscow, Russia

The first burial mounds appeared in Eurasia about 6 or 7 thousand years ago, just on the eve of the Iron Age. They were built by numerous tribes such as the Huns, Scythians, Sauromatae, Alans, Polovtsians (Cumans), Mongolians, Celts, Slavs and Teutons, who lived in the ancient times and in the early Middle Ages and who are well known from written evidence. The same custom held independently also on the American continent among the Hopewells inhabiting in the 1st-5th cent. A.D. the northeastern and mideastern parts of what is now the United States, and the Mississippian tribes populating the Midland between the 7th and 17th centuries of the Common Era. This tradition went out of existence only with the spreading of Christianity and Islam, largely in the 10th to 13th centuries.

Kurgan burial mounds are as much a part of the landscapes of Russia's steppe, forest-steppe and forest belts. Many legends haunt these monumental testimonies of bygone ages. Now what is the origin of the word kurgan? The Etymological Dictionary of the Russian Language (Alexander Preobrazhensky, 1959) says it comes from the Cuman kurman, or a fortress. The same interpretation is in the Dictionary of the Russian Language of the 11th-14th Centuries (Nauka Publishers, 1981).

Burial kurgans are the artificial barrows raised over the tomb, sometimes with a ring of undressed stone blocks around them. That's the actual meaning... But if we take The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Old Russian published in 1893 by Izmail Sreznevsky, a Slavonic philologist, ethnographer and paleographer elected to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1851--this dictionary gives several meanings of the kurgan, and does not trace it to the Turkic roots. The author dates the earliest written evidence when this

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word was first mentioned to 1223, the year of the battle of the Russians and Cumans against Mongolians on the river Kalka (Donetsk region today). The Novgorod Chronicles of the 13th and 14th centuries read: Prince Mstislav Udaloi (Mstislav the Bold) of Galicz, crossing the Dnieper with a force of 1,000, routed "the Tartar sentries", whereupon the rest of the troop headed by the chieftain Gemyabek fled "to the Cuman kurgan".

A comment from Nikolai Kostomarov, an eminent Russian historian and writer: "The fugitives hid voivode Gembyak in a hole in some Polovtsian (Cuman) kurgan." This could not be a fortress (for the Cuman nomads had none, and they were enemies of Mongols and Tartars who would never shelter them)-- it was a barrow piled on top of a tomb. So, kurgan could not be borrowed from Turkic dialects: incidentally, in Turkish a burial mount is called höyk, tepe or tumsek.

The word kurgan has come to stay in the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian languages. Other Slavic peoples are using different words standing for a "barrow", "tomb" and the like. West Europeans, who knew well such burial traditions, have other words for that short of "fortress".

In our view the term kurgan is of native, Russian origin that came into being in time out of mind. It is a compound noun with its first syllable, kur being very productive as a stem for nouns, adjectives and verbs related to smoke (we in Russian have such collocations as the kurnaya izba meaning "a hut without a chimney to its stove"; voskurenie, or "incense burning", "fumigation") and also to a sacrificial bird (kuritsa, a "hen"). The other syllable, gan, is the root of the old Russian word gananie ("guessing", "fortune-telling"). We get a curious combination tied in with the burial rite, ritual bonfire and fortune-telling on the sacred mound.

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Burial mounds appeared when man came to be regarded as an individual, not just as an adjunct to a tribe (there had been collective, tribal polyandria, or common graves, in large cemeteries before). Kurgans, the hand-wrought burial mounds, meant eminent domain of a particular tribe. They were revered by many peoples as a space of passage into the land of "the great majority".

In Eastern Europe the first kurgans were raised by tribes (Caucasoids or Aryans) inhabiting steppelands between the Volga in the east and the Dniester in the west as well north of Caucasia in the 5th century B.C. We cannot tell exactly what languages they were speaking, though they had much in common as far as burial ceremonies were concerned: the dead were laid to rest in holes (catacombs) on their back, their legs knee-bent and hands furnished with a plate made of flint; they were supposed to be ready for resurrection and action. The tomb was aspersed thick with raddle. But some tombs had no barrows.

Initially the burial kurgans were not large--about 1 meter tall and 12 to 15 meters across. Next, in the 4th century B.C., giant kurgans made their appearance--as high as 10 and even 25 meters, and 100 meters in diameter. Such giants were piled by tribes of the Maikop archeological culture of the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.*

* Maikop culture, named so for a kurgan near the town of Maikop in northern Caucasia, and explored in 1897 by Nikolai Veselovsky, an archeologists and oriental scholar. This civilization took in a large area of the North Caucasus, in particular, Adygeia, the Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechenia and Ingushetia.--Ed.

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Those people cultivated land, raised cattle, sheep and goats as well as hogs, and they were expert bronze-, silver- and goldsmiths. They lived in small settlements in plains.

The large Maikop kurgans are interesting in many ways. They were built in stages, step by step, and undergone regular repairs when part of the ground subsided. They came to be rebuilt into rather intricate constructions, and their layout shows the ancient builders knew fundamentals of geometry. Giant earth mounds above single burials did not grow overnight. One such giant in North Ossetia, 6 to 8 meters tall and 50 meters across (explored between 1993 and 1996), was raised in two or four stages. But some burials had barrows piled on top rather quickly, just at one go. Their erection involved many hands. Thus, the Great Maikop Kurgan, as high as ten meters, is 36,520 cubic meters big, which means that a crew of 100 had it built in just two or three months.

One kurgan may enclose several burials of different ages and cultures. In Eurasian kurgans, however, we identify the first, primary burial, and secondary, subsequent tombs buried in. So the mound had to be piled up, and it grew ever higher and wider.

The ultimum vale ceremonies and the rites of passage into the other world were closely connected with magic and the faith in preternatural. In Eastern Europe's first kurgans the dead were laid on their back with legs bent in the knee and feet flat on the ground. The ancients must have believed the feet were the seat of the human soul, and therefore even down in the grave they should touch Mother Earth. This supposition is not at all groundless: according to Slav myths, the magic navja bone was home to the foot (navja, the soul).

The cult of raddle was likewise widespread. This red paint symbolized vital vim, blood and resurgence. That is why raddle was aspersed on the burials. The magic of the earth was of special note: black earth sites were chosen for kurgans as a sign of fertility; and yellow clay impregnations stood for the solar canopy of heaven. The artificial mound signified the heavenly spheres. One took care of securing people in the land of the living against the evil effects of the deadman's soul should he rise from the dead. His vault was closed with boards and stones piled up above to keep him in and not let him out and do wrong to his kinsmen. If the crypt was of stone, it was sealed tight.

Since the dead were to go to the land of their forefathers, they were supplied with things vital for the passage and buried together with their bodies (some ritual traditions dispensed with that custom, though). There were certain essential rules in keeping with the pecking order--the hoards of chieftains were more rich. Archeologists picking in a mix of buried items can pass judgement about the level of weapons, crafts and social stratification.

The Great Maikop Kurgan is perhaps the richest--its treasures are in care of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. That mound had a ten-meter barrow above a 5.3x3.7x1.4 m pit, where within a crypt partitioned in three, three men were interred. The largest section was set apart for the chieftain whose head was bedecked with two golden ribbons, and breast, with ornate pentapetalous flowers of double golden foil superb in their workmanship; they probably symbol-

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ized magic plants described in Iranian-Mesopotamian myths as the Tree of Life.

Retrieved from the vault were tools of bronze, weapons and precious vessels flush against the walls. Two silver goblets with chased-in images are on a par with world masterpieces. One depicts a beast--most likely, a boar--rising on hind paws before two Trees of Life growing at the foothills of a mountain country. Two rivers flow into a body of water over there (lake or ocean); stalking below are mighty beasts--a lion, a wild boar, a giant bull... A procession of smaller ani-

* A very popular motif of various myths and legends connoting life universal in its implications, and genesis in the evolutionary sense.--Ed.

mals--cheetahs, mountain billy goats and rams is portrayed on the other goblet, its bottom jazzed up with a flower ornament. So we get a picture of the world.

The mix of magic objects of the Great Maikop Kurgan has four statuettes of bulls wrought of gold and two of silver; they were impaled on pivots during burial rituals. Remarkably, the foreheads of these animals were festooned with festive stripes, their ornaments down; such signs of the Tree of Life were also on the bottom of the goblet with the cheetahs on. A great many embossed figurines of lions and bull-calves were placed above and around the dead body.

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Such objects d'art were related to the Tree of Life cult current in Western Asia as of the 4th millennium B.C. The mistress of that tree was, according to the popular beliefs of the peoples of Anterior (Southwestern) Asia and Sumerians*, Inanna, the goddess of love, fertility, war, passion and discord. Every so often the richest tombs belonged to her priestesses. Could not the Maikop Kurgan be the grave of one of them? Perhaps. But it is much older than Sumerian tombs.

Sensational finds were discovered in 1998 in a burial place believed to be dating to the second century B.C. Its 8 meter kurgan near the town of Ipatovo of the Stavropol Territory was raised above the grave of a Sauromatan** queen 20 to 25 years of age and about five inches tall. The neck of that woman was bedizened with a grivna necklace composed of hoops hasped together. The hasp was furnished with eyelets with a golden needle in. This attire was proof of the royal rank: putting it on in her early childhood, the maiden carried it on lifelong. Other golden objects were likewise unearthed--massive spiral bracelets with heads of animals at the end; and a finger-ring made from a Hellene coin of Alexander the Great times and an inscription on the reverse.

* Sumerians inhabited the south of Mesopotamia, a region between the Tigris and the Euphrates, in the third millennium B.C. The Summerians represented the first civilization out there with a written language.--Ed.

** Sauromatae, Iranian tribes settling down in the third and fourth millennia B.C. in stepplands between the Tobol in the east and the Danube in the east.--Ed.

In her left hand the "Ipatovo princess" held a bowl of wood and sheet gold (fastened with tiny nails) depicting a deer and a griffin (a mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body and legs of a lion). The collections of objects she took into the other world comprised leather clutches with amulets, beads and toiletries (these vanity cases adorned with pearls); a Greek amphora of clay probably filled with wine; a looking glass of bronze, a set of mascots (like a shark's tooth); and a short iron sword sheathed in a scabbard of leather.

Such spectacular finds give an insight into the origins and evolution of the human race that has traveled all the way from beastly creatures to a society of humanitarian values with a sense of personal identity. Archeology is helpful in this regard, particularly, by showing how states came to be. Together with historical ethnology it is studying evolutionary societal models and civilizations, and social structures of the past (e.g., the phenomenon of leadership with a leader, or chieftain, at the head of closed communities of several villages and settlements). Archeology has a magic of attraction to it, just like traveling to the ocean floor or out into space. It is an eye-opening science.


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