You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘kurgan’ tag.


The Sarmatians were a confederation of warlike steppe nomads who flourished on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD (the Pontic-Caspian steppe stretches from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea). Archaeologists believe the Sarmatians were an Iranian people who worshipped gods of fire–a cosmology somewhat akin to that of the ancient Persian Zoroastrians.

An artist's reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

An artist’s reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

Perhaps you will notice that I have given Sarmatian culture a somewhat loose date range of about a thousand years, and placed them in a vague—but vast–geographic region approximately the size of North America’s Great Plains. This is because the Sarmatians are indeed mysterious. What is known about them comes from unreliable historical accounts from classical antiquity or from excavations of their kurgans (burial chambers covered with earthen mounds).

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Though built around an ancient Persian kernel, Sarmatian culture seems to have picked up elements from the diverse societies around the Pontic Caspian steppe. Sarmatian artifacts recovered from excavations betray influences from Scythian, Hellenistic, Roman, Siberian, and even Chinese sources. It is quite possible that the Sarmatians did not just pick up ideas from these cultures but assimilated people from them as well. Historians and archaeologists have been arguing about whether the Sarmatians were even a distinct culture at all, or whether it was many different peoples with different histories (hence the use of the word “confederation” in the original description up there at the top). What seems certain is that they were fierce horse-warriors. Some of them raided and traded whereas others settled down and picked up agriculture. Their ways of life endured—as did their political hegemony—until the great upheavals and migrations of the 4th century when they were wiped out/dispersed/intermingled by Ostragoth and Hun hordes.

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

I am going to leave the ins-and-outs of defining culture to anthropologists and instead show you a magnificent Sarmatian artifact which directly illustrates the remarkable syncretism of their world. Here is a Sarmatian diadem which was discovered at the Khokhlach kurgan (which was excavated near the modern town of Novocherkassk). The crown is a principle treasure of the Hermitage Museum–which does not lack for great treasures–but some of the details of its modern provenance have seemingly been muddled by the upheavals of modern Russian history (which seems appropriate).

The golden headdress presents magnificent deer and ibex gathering around a central tree of life. A Hellenic-looking head carved of semi-precious stone has been incorporated as a centerpiece. The piece is studded with pearls and cabochons of amber and garnet. Ornate golden leaves hang down from it as pendants.

The diadem is exquisite, but at first glimpse it seems to exist outside of human culture—like it came from some strange fantasy realm. Only by carefully studying its individual components does it suddenly take on a coherent historical identity of its own. I wish we knew more about the Sarmatians from written sources, but I feel we know a great deal about them, just by looking at this beautiful blended crown.

The Scythians, the wild horse-mounted warriors of the Steppes, sometimes ride onto these pages and off again, back into the billowing mists of Central Asian history.  Their name straddles myth and reality: the Scyths were there at the fall of the tower of Babel.  They were the children of Echidna and Hercules. They lived in a swath of land somewhere from Romania to Korea in a swath of time from 800 BC to 300AD.  They were Europeans with pale skin and blue eyes or Asians with dark slanted eyes.  They were fighters, shamans, traders, slavers, and peerless artisans. To Greeks they were the opposite of Greeks. To the Chinese they were the opposite of Chinese.

But really who were the Scythians? Well we don’t exactly know.  We have some partial answers to some of these questions, but “Scythian” was a word that was used in classical antiquity the same way we use “Gothic” today (indeed–the last Scythians, who played such a role in the histories written by Byzantine historians from the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD were literally Goths).  The word denoted an outlander from the steppes—an ideal of living rather than an ethnicity. Upon the Steppes, in the land the Greeks called Scythia, there were indeed pastoral tribes of equestrian herdsmen (who sometimes turned to war and plunder when circumstances were unusually bad or unusually good) but since they did not write it is difficult to untangle their history.  This society was made up of confederated tribes–which tended to specialize at different tasks (herdsmen, ploughmen, smiths, etc.). However above the other tribes were the warrior elites, the royal Scyths, who according to Herodotus, regarded the other tribes as little more than slaves.  These closely allied elites were formidable warriors. Without stirrup or saddle they rode horses to battle: even while mounted bareback they fought with composite bows laminated together from horn, hood, and sinew.

They don't really look super friendly, but maybe it's just a bad likeness.

The ruling Scythian warriors, or Royal Dahae, were inhumed in spectacular kurgans along with great hordes of treasure.  Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from these archaeological finds (and the rest mostly comes from Herodotus who was probably making a lot of it up).  A kurgan consisted of a great mound of earth over a central tomb constructed of sacred larchwood.  Animal or human sacrifices were draped over the outside of the tomb.  Inside the warrior elite lay in state with hordes of treasure.  Some of the most spectacular treasures known come from Scythian graves (which definitely deserve their own posting) and consist of golden statues depicting sacred creatures like lions, antlered reindeer, and gryphons. Kurgan tombs of the Scythian warrior elite contained weapons, armour, sumptuous clothing (woven of silk, gold, and hemp) and bowls of coriander seeds and cannabis–which was used in purification rituals and shamanistic rites.

Kurgan tombs from the Altai Mountains which stretch across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China

Although the Ancient Greeks might have looked down on the Scythians, numerous modern groups have claimed to be their direct descendants.  Among the peoples who have claimed or currently claim Scythian blood and heritage are the Ossetians, Pashtuns, Jats, Parthians, Poles, Picts, Gaels, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Scots, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and sundry Germans.  Like all such ancestral claims, many of these are disputed by scholars, nationalists, rivals and so forth (although Slavic people most certainly have Scythian ties).  Being American, I am inclined to think that anybody who wants to claim a particular ethnicity or heritage is welcome to do so, but perhaps that is my mixed Scythian blood talking!

Scythian Shield emblem (end of the 7th century B.C. Northern Caucasus from the
Kostromskaia kurgan, Gold)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2019
« Jul