Gold of the Great Steppe

One of the burial mounds, kurgan, built by Saka culture people in eastern Kazakhstan where a horde of golden artefacts were discovered by archaeologists. Photograph: Megalara Garuda/PA

Although little is known of the lives of the nomadic tribes who over 2,500 years ago roamed the Asian steppe situated in today’s Kazakhstan, the region’s semi-arid climate has provided the perfect temperature and humidity in the ground’s permafrost for the preservation of objects belonging to their culture – rare artefacts from the distant past. Textiles along with artefacts for personal adornment, as well as objects made of gold and gold-leaf that would have decorated horse tackle, are not normally preserved in other areas of the Ancient Near East and Central Asia. However, due to the perfect climatic conditions, archaeological excavations of the distinctive burial mounds, kurgan, that dot the Kazakhstan landscape have brought to light some spectacular finds that are helping academics document the history of these ancient cultures of the Steppes. This exhibition, Gold of the Great Steppe, explores these themes.

Saka Culture of Control Asia

Some of the recent finds from Kazakhstan are currently the focus of an exhibition in Cambridge that explores the Saka culture of Central Asia, which flourished from at least the 8th-3rd centuries BC, which had its roots in East Kazakhstan. Saka was one of the earliest expressions of the Scythian culture that came to dominate the Eurasian steppe from the Black Sea to Siberia. Located in the Altai mountain system, the Saka of East Kazakhstan were a vibrant society who occupied a landscape of wide open skies, rolling plains, and soaring mountains.

For the first time, this exhibition of gold of the Great Steppe places archaeological finds discovered in the last three years by Kazakh archaeologists on a global stage, amplifying voices that often go unheard in museums in the West and giving UK audiences a unique opportunity to see and understand the rich cultural history of a country the size of western Europe. The Saka, a Scythian sub-group of Iranian people, dominated their landscapes with huge architectural burial mounds of ambitious technological construction, burying elite members of their society with their horses and precious gold objects. Most of these burial mounds had been plundered and robbed in antiquity.

However, numerous artefacts have been unearthed during the Covid-pandemic, which underlines the determination of Kazakhstani archaeologists to protect and document their heritage, which is under threat from looting and degradation due to climate change. Since the tribes moved about the countryside with each change of the season, few physical evidences or traces remain of the culture. No centralised city centres or trade routes could be found or documented. Instead, to understand how the nomads lived and died, archaeologists mainly rely on the kurgans, where elite members of the society were interred with their goods and even with their horses.

The First Kurgan Discovered

The first kurgan was excavated in 1969 in southeast Kazakhstan – the Issyk Kurgan at Zhetysu, dating to the 4th/3rd century BC and is located in eastern ancient Scythia, just north of the ancient kingdom of Sogdiana, famous from the earliest days of The Silk Road. This burial mound contained a skeleton, warrior’s equipment, and assorted funerary goods, including 4,000 gold ornaments. Due to the large amount of gold objects found at the burial site alongside the male skeleton, he was called ‘The Golden Man’ and was subsequently adopted as one of the cultural symbols of modern Kazakhstan. The find also affirmed that trade networks went throughout Central Asia and beyond, with these excavated objects helping to place the ancient cultures of Kazakhstan within the network of the wider ancient world in the 1st millennium BC.

The exhibition of gold of the Great Steppe at the Fitzwilliam Museum confirms the studies of these earlier excavations and builds a more detailed picture of Saka culture with the recent finds currently on display. On show in Cambridge are recent finds from three great burial complexes in East Kazakhstan: Berel, Shilikti and Eleke Sazy. The elite burial site at Berel, located in the Bukhtarma River Valley of the Altai Mountains, reveals insights into this long-hidden culture. More than 20 burial mounds at Berel have already been explored, documenting their unique architecture and interior designs. It appears that the ancient inhabitants of eastern Kazakhstan possessed the skills to build stone structures that were capable of withstanding the ongoing permafrost for over two millennia.

The Secrets of Embalming in Saka Culture

The region’s ancient inhabitants also knew the secrets of embalming, which also helped protect the mummified remains of chieftains and nomadic nobility from decay –they were placed in special sarcophagi made from a larch trunk. The burial mounds also appear to have protected the remains of the royalty’s horses. In mound number 11, which contains a larch sarcophagus in a wooden frame holding the remains of a Saka king and of a woman next to him, 13 horses were also discovered.

The relationship between horses and humans has been seen to be confirmed since its earliest origins in Kazakhstan. What is beginning to emerge from the excavations is the evidence of a highly sophisticated culture, one that maintained communication networks and strategic migratory routes. Also evidenced is the fact that the Saka people had a close, almost sacred bond, with their horses. Not an entirely surprising fact, since nomadic cultures throughout the millennia have depended on domesticated animals for both transportation and food. However, archaeological evidence uncovered from Saka burial mounds indicates that horses were treated as divine beings.

The Saka Were Expert Equestrians

The Saka were expert equestrians, often taking their beloved horses with them to the grave and the afterlife beyond. Favourite horses were specially adorned in burials, dressed in elaborate masks, saddle pendants, decorated harnesses, and covers for the mane and tail decorated in gold pieces which transformed them into mythical beasts, or revealed their true spirit. In life, horses were outfitted with saddles and bridles as extravagantly decorated with ornate gold-laden tackle rivalling the rich costumes of their riders, Saka warriors and nobility.

As for the nobles, gold ornaments were sewn in intricate patterns and woven into textiles and attached to diadems or golden headbands that signified royal descent and gracing the heads of the richest tribe members. Metal shaping tools were used to engrave minute and precise details on these golden ornaments with semi-precious stones such as carnelian and turquoise carefully applied as accents.

Dr Zeinolla Samashev, from the Institute of Archaeology, who led the team in 1998 for the first excavation, explains in his book on these early finds that ‘The existence on the Berel burial site of several large mounds with chains of smaller graves around them and other features point to the existence of one of the ethno-political and cultural centres of the ancient nomads there – the creators of the Pazyryk archaeological culture of the Altai mountain area’. Dr Samashev also led the most recent archaeological works undertaken at the site and helped organise the exhibition in Cambridge.

The Shilikti Burial Mounds

The Shilikti burial mounds are located in the Zaysan district, where there are currently more than 200 kurgans from the Saka-Usun period, with 50 designed at belonging to royal or elite families. This valley was one of the first to be explored in the early 20th century. The most sensational finds came from the royal burial mound named Baygetobe. A large amount of gold objects were found during excavation, despite being looted in antiquity. Gold plaques of deer, a golden eagle, a leopard mask, an argali (wild sheep), as well as numerous other objects were unearthed at the site showing it was probably dedicated to a royal figure. Gold jewellery from the Shilikti burial and decorations for clothing are made of high-grade gold and are unique within the Saka-Scythian cultural space.

From Eleke Sazy, the spectacular contents from an extremely rare undisturbed intact Saka burial are on display – it is only the second to be discovered in Kazakhstan after Issyk. In a richly furnished grave, a teenage archer, no older than eighteen when he died, was buried in the same chamber with a younger female perhaps a close relative, aged thirteen or fourteen. While the girl’s remains were heavily looted in antiquity, the grave of the male youth appears to have been protected from being plundered by a rock fall, which shielded him from view and knowledge of his existence for over 2,500 years.

Reconstruction of a Kurgan or Burial Mound

In the Gold of the Great Steppe exhibition, there is a reconstruction of the boy’s burial displays the golden symbols of power and how they were laid alongside him, demonstrating their exceptional preservation. This discovery belies a society where status appears to have been acquired through family ties, where noble youths were afforded rich family burials, and teenagers were buried as warriors. The boy was buried with a massive gold torc around his neck (suggesting his noble origin) and a dagger in a golden quiver beside him. Archaeologist had previously uncovered at the site plates, necklaces with precious stones, earrings, beautifully crafted figurines of animals and golden beads which may have been used to embellish Saka clothing.

These unearthed artefacts of the gold of the Great Steppe have revealed the Saka as a distinctive, complex society, with immense skill, who used an advanced understanding of design, intricate engineering, and technology to produce wonderful artefacts such as thousands of decorative gold micro-beads, just one millimetre in diameter, to be sewn onto clothing, as well as sophisticated weapon-belt attachments that were hinged to absorb the movement of weaponry while in motion on horseback. Archaeologists, over the years, have discovered pieces of gold jewellery, horse harness ornaments, gold appliqué to adorn clothes and costume in the form of decorative gold discs and plaques, animal forms inlaid with precious stones – all these items dismantle the preconception of the Saka people as being the barbaric ‘other’ described by ancient Persian and Greek sources.

Skilled and Noble Warriors

While clearly upholding their reputation as skilled and noble warriors, the objects show the use of highly skilled metalworking techniques, indicating an exceptional level of artisanship that existed in the 1st millennium BC, as well as a deep respect and understanding for the animals of the great steppe – both real and imagined. The craftsmanship was appreciated far beyond the borders of today’s Kazakhstan. Carvings sculpted into the palace walls of ancient Persia depict the arrival of foreign Saka delegations to present Persian kings with trade items. For example, on the façade of the Apadana, a 5th-century BC building at Persepolis in southwestern Iran, a carving depicts a procession of Saka people bringing jewellery and other ornaments as tributary to the Persian king, Darius the First. These new findings now underpin earlier discoveries to show the Saka culture as one of the world’s great early civilisations.

Until 30 January, 2022, Gold of the Great Steppe is at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge,

On 20 October 2021 there is an online lunchtime (1.15 pm) talk, Gold of the Great Steppe with Laerke Recht, Claudia Chang, and Saltanat Amirova, tickets £5. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition