More than 2,700 years ago, two teenagers were buried side by side in a strange and beautiful landscape. Cradled by low mountains and crossed by streams, the Eleke Sazy valley lies in the easternmost corner of Kazakhstan, not far from the border with China. Here, on a natural ridge rising up out of the swampy terrain, a wealthy family placed their deceased teenage children in wooden coffins, sealed them in a log cabin encased in a stone chamber, and used turf, stones, earth, and clay to construct a huge mound over them, taking care to reinforce the western side, perhaps perceived to be vulnerable to a ritual threat. Boulders from the rivers were carefully selected and used as a crepidoma, or platform, to support the earthen structure. More river stones were chosen for their colouring and were placed in a double ring encircling the mound. As a last act of this great funerary rite, a ditch was dug to enclose the mound. The boy was no older than 18, on the verge of adulthood. The girl, most likely his sister, was around 13-14 years old. We do not yet know how they died, or if they died together. Over time, part of the inner chamber collapsed, and the boy was hidden by stones. When looters broke into the burial mound, they saw only the girl. They grabbed all they could find, stripping her of nearly all her grave goods, and scattering her bones in the process. Miraculously, the teenage boy was left undisturbed until his discovery by Kazakhstani archaeologists a few years ago.
Through careful excavation of the burial mound, Kazakh archaeologist Zainolla Samashev came to understand the stages inits construction, the care taken in the selection of building materials, and the ritual practices that might have been encapsulated within its architecture. Known, rather unromantically, as Kurgan 4 of Eleke Sazy Group II, the mound (or kurgan) harboured a sensational treasure at its core, revealed in 2018: the intact Iron Age grave of this young male warrior of the Saka people, only the second undisturbed burial of its kind to have been discovered on the territory of Kazakhstan. Radiocarbon dated to between 800 and 550 BC, the teenage boy was buried with a combined bow-case and quiver, known as a gorytos, and a type of dagger known as an akinakes. Both are classic weapons of Scythian warriors (both male and female), and these ones were richly decorated with golden ornaments in the so-called ‘animal style’, a fluid and energetic depiction of animals in dynamic poses, their limbs folded under them, heads turned back, with muscles straining mid-movement. What, then, was the relationship of the Saka people to the Scythians? The Saka left no written history of themselves, and so the answer can be found partly in how they were described by other ancient writers who saw them as the barbarian ‘other’, partly in a recent genetic study, and partly in the artefacts they left behind.
The ancient Greeks and Persians gave vivid accounts of highly mobile, horse-mounted warrior peoples occupying the vast Eurasian steppe. In ancient Persian sources, ‘Saka’ is used interchangeably with ‘Scythians’, although ‘Saka’ is generally attributed to the easternmost peoples of the Great Steppe. It remains the term used in Kazakhstan today to describe these Iron Age peoples. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote his Histories. He uses the term ‘Scythians’ to describe those groups occupying the region north of the Black Sea, while also naming many other tribes to the east who wore the same clothes and shared the same culture. Pan-Scythian material culture is remarkable in its geographic scope and longevity; while regional differences are apparent, the homogeneity of social and artistic expression across the different Iron Age peoples of the steppe is striking. They had in common high mobility, horse-riding, shared forms of weaponry including a composite bow designed to be fired while on horseback, and the ubiquitous ‘animal style’ in artistic expression.
New genetic evidence supports Herodotus’ view that there were many groups who shared a common material culture, but who were distinct. A recent study of Iron Age steppe populations was led by Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in collaboration with Kazakhstani colleagues. It revealed that, from complex mixing of populations during the Bronze Age, two major gene pools gave rise to the Saka and other groups to the east in the Altai region, and to the Sarmatians to the west in the Urals. The Saka were among the earliest of these groups to emerge from around 900 BC, a fact that is borne out in the very early dates of many of the kurgans found at the Eleke Sazy cemetery.
The Saka, then, were part of the Scythian world, steppe-dwelling peoples who emerged from their Bronze Age ancestors in the Altai region in East Kazakhstan and southern Siberia. They were also some of the earliest producers of Scythian material culture, expressed in particular through their outstanding goldwork. Recounting the travels of a Greek named Aristeas, Herodotus (Histories 4.13) tells us that he journeyed as far as the land of the Issedones: ‘Above them dwelt the Arimaspi, men with one eye. Still further, the gold-guarding Griffins.’
Could the ‘gold-guarding Griffins’ be the Saka of East Kazakhstan? The Altai region is rich in gold deposits, and depictions of the mythical griffin are found in material from the Eleke Sazy cemetery. We may never know how the Saka or individual Saka groups referred to themselves, however we can explore the messages they give about their beliefs and society through their material culture, preserved in their remarkable burial mounds.
Although Kurgan 4 was built early in the Saka period, possibly as early as 800 BC, the mound joined others that had already been built by elite families, marking the territory of the group who claimed the land. The Saka built many hundreds of burial mounds in the Eleke Sazy valley, arranged in long lines along raised ground. The archaeologists who excavated them believe that some of them may date back to the earliest Saka period in the 9th or even 10th century BC. The Eleke Sazy cemetery is not unique, and many other groups of burial mounds can be found across the territory of Kazakhstan, some rising up to 10m in height, equivalent to a three-storey building. Like at Eleke Sazy, the cemeteries tend to be found in dramatic settings, and show that the Saka had a deep sense of place, staging burials in prominent places to indicate their dominance of the landscape. At the same time, they were deeply in tune with the natural world, evident in their sympathetic portrayals of animal physiology in their art, but also expressed through their sophisticated use of plant and animal resources.
These animal depictions appear on many objects. At Kurgan 4, the teenage archer was buried bearing a rich visual repertoire of symbolic decorations – including animals – on the exquisite gold items which adorned his clothes and weapons. His gorytos and dagger scabbard bore rich ornamentation, made from sheet gold that was shaped over different materials, such as carved wooden moulds, leather, and the dagger itself. These were then decorated using the granulation technique: tiny balls of gold soldered into patterns. In both objects, deer are prominent in the design, their muscles and limbs picked out in granulation, with inlays of lapis lazuli and turquoise to mark their eyes, ears, and feet. Their antlers are exaggerated to form symmetrical patterns on both the scabbard and the gorytos overlays. On the scabbard, however, a snarling predator disrupts the scene. Poised on tiptoes as though halted mid-sprint, its head twists toward the deer. The tension between predator and prey is palpable. Scenes of predation and depictions of predators (such as snow leopards and other feline predators, and bears) and prey (such as deer, antelope, and mountain goats) are a recurring theme in Saka art. Samashev speculates that they might represent an expression of social dynamics among the Saka.
Deer, too, are a key animal in Saka identity. Their use in heraldic designs may indicate a deer cult among the Saka elite, not an entirely alien concept in Britain, where royal deer parks were established from the medieval period. A magnificent set of gold plaques depicting a stag and seven does with inlays of lapis lazuli and turquoise found in the burial were also formed from sheet gold that was shaped around carved wooden moulds. The inlay decoration on the stag is particularly fine, and shows how skilled the Saka craftspeople were in working with a wide range of materials, including wood, gold, antler, bone, and precious stones. The presence of both turquoise and lapis lazuli points to the deep knowledge of the landscape and access to regional trade networks that the Saka possessed. While turquoise is found locally in the Altai region of East Kazakhstan, lapis lazuli is found much further east towards the Lake Baikal region, some 800km away.
Looking closely at and conducting non-invasive analyses on the artefacts from the kurgans of Eleke Sazy and other burial sites is revealing many more hidden details, giving us insights into the social, religious, economic, and artistic lives of the Saka people. Research will be ongoing during the Fitzwilliam Museum’s new exhibition Gold of the Great Steppe, but so far closer inspection of a hefty status symbol around the neck of the teenage archer – a large solid gold torc weighing over 300g – has revealed details invisible to the naked eye. Analysis using a high-powered microscope has found the tiny cracks that appeared while the torc, created from a single gold rod twisted into shape, was under torsion. Microscopic signs of wear on the square ends may have arisen during use in life, or are perhaps more marks left during the manufacturing process.
A non-destructive analytical technique called X-ray fluorescence has also been used to determine the different elements in the artefacts. All the gold artefacts from the archer’s burial were found to have been made from a single batch of unalloyed gold containing only natural impurities. This implies that they were made at the same time, perhaps specifically for burial. The same pattern was detected, too, in a group of six gold deer plaques found in another nearby kurgan, which are identical to those from Kurgan 4. The objects from both these kurgans were made using similar techniques, such as hammering, twisting, bending, and embossing for shaping, as well as granulation and inlays for decoration.
Intriguingly, as well as the golden goods within the archer’s burial in the centre of the mound, a hoard of items was discovered under one of the stones of the crepidoma of Kurgan 4. The gold artefacts from the hoard were fashioned from gold of a different chemical composition. Were they deposited at a later date to commemorate the dead, or perhaps brought in by people paying tribute from afar? The hoard consists of beads made from semi-precious stones, pendants, gold clothing plaques with sewing loops on the back, and, most spectacularly, over 10,000 tiny gold beads, each no more than 1mm in diameter. These would have been sewn on to clothing or shoes to create a shimmering outfit. Astounding in their number and tiny size, they are a testament to the skill of Saka goldsmiths and the many hours of work that were needed to sew every bead into place. These gifts of clothing and jewellery were hidden among the boulders and sealed with a bronze mirror, an item found in burials across the Scythian world. Similar hoards of ornaments from clothing and horse tack have also been found among the stones of other kurgans at Eleke Sazy, as well as other burial sites. Samashev points to the Kazakh custom of zhyrtys, where strips of cloth are given out to participants as part of the funerary ritual, as evidence of the long traditions that may have persisted among the peoples of the steppe.
Easily overlooked amid this array of impressive goldwork in the kurgan are two identical bronze fittings discovered with the young archer. They are hinged at the centre like a horse bit, and were found at hip level on each side of his body, in association with the gorytos and the scabbard. Closer inspection of the rivet placed on each end of the fitting reveals that it fits perfectly into the round hole of the scabbard, a clue to the bronze objects’ use in attaching weapons to a belt. The hinged element itself, still fully functional after 2,500 years, is an indication of the great importance of horses in Saka society. It was designed to act as a stabiliser to prevent the weapons from hitting against the leg while riding.
Horses lived, fought, and died alongside their Saka companions. They were important for transport, milk, and meat. Although not the case at Kurgan 4, horses were very often placed in Saka and other Scythian burials to accompany humans, usually arranged in poses that reflect the animal style, with legs tucked underneath them. They were also outfitted in fantastic costumes, including decorated harnesses, tail and mane covers, and sometimes headdresses in the form of ibex horns or antlers. The importance of the horse to the Iron Age peoples of the steppe can hardly be overstated. In one kurgan at the East Kazakhstan cemetery of Berel in the Altai mountains, the remains of up to 17 horses have been found, each with its own individual outfit. The most elaborate outfits were reserved for the oldest horses, indicating that their long relationship with their human companion was treasured.
Beyond the animal world, plants are also represented in gold in the burials, for example as clothing patches in the shape of four-petalled flowers, or clover leaves. Botany was an important part of life, and study of ancient plant remains and written sources has shown that the Saka had an in-depth knowledge of the medicinal and stimulant properties of plants, and of wild and cultivated plants consumed as food. The ‘Urzhar priestess’, a Saka woman from the 4th-3rd century BC, was buried with a wig made of grasses, a mortar, and a variety of medicinal herbs, such as ferns, known to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and pain-relieving properties. Also in her grave were cumin, thistle, and plantain, used for their bactericidal effect; campion, used to treat poisoning and digestive issues; and cannabis for pain relief. In the wider Scythian world, finds of cannabis seeds with a burner from the Altai cemetery of Pazyryk show that it was used during funerary rituals. The Persians identified Saka ‘haoma-consumers’, imbibers of a concoction made from an unknown plant (hoama) with an intoxicating effect.
Many – but not all – Saka were nomadic pastoralists, herding sheep, goats, and horses between the best seasonal grazing places in the steppe. Their sheep provided the wool they used extensively for the production of textiles, which were often adorned with gold beads and plaques, but they used plant fibres such as flax and hemp too. Recent research in the south-east of the country has shown that they also engaged in agriculture and cultivated millet, wheat, and barley. In East Kazakhstan, at the settlement site of Akbauyr, saddle querns and handstones for grinding grain, and stone hoes have been uncovered, further adding to our understanding of the complexity of Saka economic and social life, and not just as nomads.
Recent discoveries in Kazakhstan and ongoing research into the finds paint an increasingly detailed picture of the Saka’s connections to the natural world, landscapes, and distant sources of luxury materials. The worldview of these ancient people is revealed not through written histories, but through their rich artistic culture, preserved in gold from the graves at Eleke Sazy.
Gold of the Great Steppe runs at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until 30 January 2022. Visit www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk for booking and other details.
The exhibition catalogue is available at https://curatingcambridge.co.uk/collections/books/products/gold-of-the-great-steppe-exhibition-catalogue.
The exhibition is supported by and organised with the Regional Museum of History and Local Studies of the Department of Culture, Archives, and Documentation of East Kazakhstan. The Fitzwilliam received invaluable help and support from the Regional Government of East Kazakhstan and from the Embassy of Kazakhstan in the UK.
The authors would like to thank Professors Zainolla Samashev and Abdesh Toleubayev for their generosity in sharing information about their research.
ALL Images: © Fitzwilliam Museum/East Kazakhstan Regional Museum of Local History, unless otherwise stated.