Archeologists are hard at work, digging into the land exposed by the draining of a large reservoir in the Russian Republic of Tuva in southern Siberia. They find something of great interest: the grave of a woman buried some 2,000 years ago. But what completely throws the researchers is the object that they find in her tomb. Intrigued by this discovery, they decide to call the woman Natasha.
The researchers found the woman’s skeleton in a burial ground called Ala-Tey at the bottom of the Sayan Sea. This is a massive man-made reservoir on the Yenisei River which feeds the huge Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam. This powers Russia’s largest hydro-electric generating plant. Every year in May the reservoir empties for a couple of months, allowing archaeologists to explore its sandy floor. This has led to it being dubbed the “Russian Atlantis.”
The necropolis at the bottom of the Sayan Sea has proved an abundant source of fascinating archaeological material. Graves there date right through from the Bronze Age up to the time of Genghis Khan. The particular grave we’re describing was discovered in 2016. It’s been confirmed as being up to 2,137 years old, dated via Chinese coins attached to a belt worn by the woman which were first created in that year.
The Tuva Republic, also known as Tyva, is part of the Russian Federation, and it lies at the very heart of the Asian continent. The territory is encircled by mountains and forests in all directions except south where the steppes and deserts of Mongolia extend. Various peoples have occupied this land over the centuries, certainly back to the Bronze Age.
The land is rich in archeological remains from a range of different civilizations including the Scythian, early Turk, Mongol and Xingu peoples. Prehistoric settlements, fortresses and cemeteries are to be found right across the rugged landscapes of Tuva. In ancient times, this was a busy crossroads for migratory peoples and traders, making it a key location.
Some 2,200 years ago, around the time the woman dubbed Natasha whose grave we’ve already heard about lived, the region was a stamping ground for the Xiongnu people. They were nomads and came to hold sway over vast portions of central Asia, challenging the power of surrounding peoples including the Han Chinese. Under the leadership of Modu Chanyu, the Xiongnu controlled the area of Tuva circa 200 B.C.
Modu Chanyu is credited with founding the Xiongnu Empire. He came to power in 209 B.C. by the ruthless expedient of murdering his predecessor Touman, who happened to be his father. Touman, it seems, had never been that keen on Modu, packing him off as a hostage to the rival Yuehzi tribe. Touman then attacked them, hoping this would provoke the Yuehzi into murdering his son in an act of revenge. Unfortunately for him, the ploy failed.
Indeed, Modu managed to escape from captivity and his father felt compelled to reward him with command of a 10,000-strong cavalry force, a move he would later have cause to regret. In preparation for getting rid of his father, Modu ordered his warriors to shoot first his own horse and then the pretender’s favorite wife, with any who wavered being summarily executed. Next he commanded all his loyal followers to shoot at Touman. A hail of arrows killed Modu’s father, securing his succession.
So politics was a rough and ready trade during the era that our woman Natasha was buried in the Ala-Tey cemetery more than 2,000 years ago. In fact, we have no idea what involvement she had in court affairs of her day, if any. But she seems to have had some importance, judging by the quality of the goods buried with her. And the cemetery where she lies is recognized as a highly significant site.
Speaking to The Siberian Times newspaper, Dr. Marina Kilunovskaya of the St Petersburg Institute of Material History Culture said, “This site is a scientific sensation. We are incredibly lucky to have found these burials of rich nomads that were not disturbed by (ancient) grave robbers.”
What’s more, the discovery of Natasha’s well-preserved grave is not the first significant find that has been made in the exposed bed of the Sayan Sea, or the Sayan-Shushenskoe Reservoir to give it its full name. It’s an unusual site for archeology because of the fact that the land beneath the reservoir is only exposed for three of four weeks each year during May and June.
Apart from that short period in late spring and early summer, the Ala-Tey site is covered by water to a depth of some 50 feet. So the archeologists have to work quickly to uncover the secrets of the ancient cemetery. And the Ala Tey burial ground is not the only such site that is revealed for only a brief period every year. There is also a second cemetery at the reservoir, which is called Terezin.
Like the Ala-Tey burial ground, the Terezin cemetery dates from the Xiongnu era more than 2,000 years ago. This site is set on the sands surrounding the reservoir and it seems that it has been degraded by the erosion caused by the movement of the water. The first discoveries there, human bones and stone graves, were actually protruding from the reservoir’s shores.
However, the researchers were pleased to find that this cemetery, like the Ala-Tey one, had not been looted in ancient times as so many sites like this were. The graveyard extends for about a mile along the edge of the Sayan Sea. But despite the extensive damage from erosion, a Russian Geographical Society dig in 2018 did uncover some complete graves.
Some 30 burials have been excavated at Terezin during the brief annual interludes when investigation is possible. One of those was of a woman whose body had become partially mummified. This was as a result of the incredibly precise masonry of her coffin, with the stone slab on top of it fitting so snugly that the body below had been partially preserved.
At the Ala-Tey cemetery, archeologists have uncovered roughly 90 graves. With this sample of some 120 burials from the Xiongnu era, experts have noted some interesting findings about the social structures of the time. One of those is the striking differences between male and female burials. The women, it seems, were buried with markedly more opulent grave goods.
The researchers reported that the items found in male graves tended to be of considerably less value than the goods found in the female burials. Both men and women were often accompanied by fairly mundane items such as knives and ceramic pots. But the women tended to be buried with items of much more apparent value than were the men.
Artefacts found in many of the women’s graves but not in the men’s included elaborate belts with buckles fashioned from bronze or jet, Chinese mirrors and jewelry such as gold earrings. Other items that have been uncovered in female interments include an exquisitely crafted multicolored glass pendant and Chinese coins. One girl had been buried with a small Chinese bell made from bronze.
But of all these accessories buried with the females, it is the heavy belt buckles that have attracted the most attention from researchers. The most commonly found buckles are fashioned from bronze and often have elaborate openwork patterns and motifs. Others are made from carved bones and there are some that consist of a single piece of jet.
The actual belts were made from woven fabric or leather and featured elaborate adornments. These decorations included stone discs, Chinese coins, cowrie shells and miniature bells. As well as geometric patterns, the buckles had a variety of motifs including one with a pair of bulls or possibly yaks. Another sported two camels and one buckle fragment depicted a horse.
The archeologists found the belts just in the position on the skeletons that you’d expect, around the waist area. Burying women in these belts was clearly a part of the funeral rituals of the time. Researchers speculated that the belts, as well as acting as funeral attire, may have been worn at wedding ceremonies. Evidence for the idea that these belts were worn in life as well as in death came in the shape of damage that some of the belts and buckles had sustained.
Other commonly found grave goods present only in female burials included Chinese-style mirrors. Although Chinese in design, most of these mirrors dating from the second and first centuries B.C. are actually locally-made facsimiles. In fact, male graves also included some intriguing items that were buried with their occupants. But they were quite different in nature from the goods found in female burials.
Some of the male graves did include belts but their buckles were much less ornate than those included in female burials. These men’s belts had buckles made from iron rather than bronze or jet. One feature of male graves that struck the researchers as unusual was the almost complete absence of any weaponry in the male graves.
At both the burial grounds at Terezin and Ala-Tey, only a handful of the male graves included men who were probably archers. These graves, two in Terezin and five at Ala-Tey, included archery equipment such as bows and arrowheads. Perhaps these were some of the men who killed Touman on the orders of his son Modu Chanyu.
Another intriguing set of items among the grave goods found by the archeologists were enigmatic pieces of pottery. These small ceramic pots were found in all graves, whether the occupant was a woman, man or child. They consisted of a small pot divided into two chambers, featuring a hole in the base of the structure. The researchers speculated that these may actually have been lamps which were perhaps lit as part of the funeral ceremony.
The researchers theorized that these strange ceramic jars may actually have been lamps. Perhaps, the archeologists speculated, these lamps, found on the surface by the graves rather than in them, may have formed part of the funeral ceremony. It’s possible they were lit up once the deceased had been committed to the ground.
The actual graves showed a wide variety in structure without any clear correlation between the type of person interred – man, woman or child; rich or poor. Some coffins were made of stone, others were wooden, and some burials consisted of nothing more than holes in the ground. The Ala-Tey burials had one distinctive but unexplained characteristic. There, all the men were buried with their arms along the side of their bodies while the women’s arms were arranged across the breast, waist or shoulders.
As we’ve seen, what was apparent to the archeologists were clear gender distinctions evidenced by the variations in grave goods. There’s no doubt that the female graves were appreciably more lavish than the men’s. By contrast, an earlier people who preceded the Xiongnu in Tuva, the Scythians, had typically buried men with more lavish grave goods than women.
But this Scythian practice had apparently been flipped by the Xiongnu so that it was the women who had the more extravagant items in their graves. The researchers speculated that this Xiongnu change in burial practice might indicate that women in that society had a more elevated social status than those in Scythian times.
However, the researchers were cautious about this theory about Xiongnu women’s status. As they noted, in the societies that existed at this period in Eurasia, women typically tended to wear more elaborate clothing and adornments than men. But what certainly seemed to be the case was that some of the women in the two cemeteries were wealthier than others.
The differences in wealth were indicated by the disparity in the opulence of the grave goods. And these variances may well have been mirrored in different levels of social position within the hierarchy of Xiongnu society. At the moment, this is a largely theoretical assumption, since we don’t currently know enough about this 2,000-year-old society to make entirely firm conclusions.
Nevertheless, the researchers have made some tentative attempts to identify just who these Xiongnu people interred at the Ala-Tey and Terezin cemeteries were. They believe they were probably nomads who were affiliated with the various peoples who made up the Xiongnu confederation. They may have reached the region of Tuva from the most northerly parts of China as the Xiongnu expanded their lands.
This putative migration would neatly explain why the grave goods included such items as Chinese coins. And the Chinese-style mirrors, even if locally-made, would also indicate influences from previous locations the Xiongnu had inhabited before settling in Tuva. The time period from which the cemeteries date, the second to first centuries B.C., has been confirmed by testing material from the graves with accelerator mass spectrometry technology.
And this era, some 2,200 years ago, fits in with what we know about the history of the Xiongnu people. At that time the Xiongnu, who may have been warriors or settlers, would have traveled along the well-trodden route northwards that leads to Tuva. There they displaced or absorbed the earlier inhabitants, the Scythians.
Ancient history aside, some of the graves have offered very human insights into the lives of the Xiongnu individuals, making them easier to relate to as fellow humans. In 2016 archeologists excavated one grave in which the female occupant was richly attired in silk robes. Proving that archeologists have a sense of the romantic, they chose to dub her “Sleeping Beauty.”
At first, the researchers believed that “Sleeping Beauty” might have been a priestess, but further investigation of her grave and its contents actually made it more likely that she was a leather worker. Another grave also contained a female employed in artisanal craft work. This second woman was buried with a sewing kit and a spindle, indicating she had been a weaver in life.
But the most startling find of all was undoubtedly one of the belt buckles with which so many of the Xiongnu females had been buried. Some seven inches long and four inches wide, it was in the form of a solid rectangle of jet, inlaid with gems and mother-of-pearl. And it had the look of something not more than 2,000 years old, but rather distinctively contemporary.
This belt buckle was in the grave of Natasha, whose light-hearted naming by the researchers we described earlier. Speaking to The Siberian Times in September 2019, archeologist Pavel Leus (who has been working on Tuva sites since 1991) said, “‘Natasha’s burial with a Xiongnu-era iPhone remains one of the most interesting at this burial site.”
And there’s no doubt about it. A cursory glance at this jet belt buckle can easily bring to mind a modern smartphone. But of course, Leus was speaking with his tongue jammed firmly into his cheek. Sadly for those of us who would like to believe in the possibility of time travel, the artefact found with Natasha is not actually an iPhone. It is without doubt an ancient belt buckle.
Despite those moments of levity, the archeologists face a real challenge in their efforts to rescue as much evidence as they can from the two cemeteries at Russia’s version of Atlantis. With only a few weeks to work each year when the Sayan-Shushenskoe reservoir is drained, they truly have their work cut out.