The Pazyryk Kurgans: a Glimpse into the Amazing World of Central Asia in the Iron Age (I millennium BCE)



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I am back from my last travels within the fair island of Ireland. A lot of impressions, ideas, and topics to blog about. Unfortunately, experience shows that while I travel I simply don’t have the leisure to post. As a result, this blog has been sadly neglected. Now that I am back home, however, I expect I will be able to resume blogging at my regular rate (until I go away on another trip…).

The next few blogs will probably be devoted to what I have seen in my recent travels. One of the highlights was a tour of the symbolic landscape in Belfast. Today, however, I want to write about my visit to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg:


(all photos by the author)

The Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest world museums. One can easily spend a week exploring it. I only had half a day, so I focused on the Hermitage collection devoted to the history of Siberian and Central Asian cultures. The rooms housing this collection are located in one of the farthest, and most difficult to reach corners of the Winter Palace (the residence of Russian emperors). I had to follow a circuitous route, which involved going up one floor, wending my way through an endless sequence of luxurious halls, and locating a staircase that would take me down back to the first floor.


There were throngs of tourists queuing up to enter the museum (we bought tickets on the internet, and were able to bypass the line; the additional benefit was the permission to take pictures, as long as no flash was used).


But the Central Asian rooms were deserted – few people were able (or interested enough) to get this far. But if you have an interest in the history of Central Asia (as I do), this was indeed the jackpot.

Most people think of the nomads of Central Asia as rude barbarians, far below the level of civilization achieved by their neighbors, who built the first mega-empires, such as the Achaemenid Persia and the Han China. The facts are quite different. Not only were the Central Asians supreme in inventing the most powerful military technologies of the Ancient and Medieval Eras (primarily having to do with horse-based warfare), they also produced some of the most consequential ideological innovations (including the Monotheism and the Mandate of Heaven). They also produced a very elaborate material culture.

We know this thanks to a peculiar property of burial monuments (Kurgans, or barrows) of the chieftains of the so-called Pazyryk culture (sixth to third century BCE in the Altay region). By chance or design, these barrows suck cold air during the winters and retain it in summers. As a result, the burial goods are permanently frozen, so that the organic materials – cloth, wood, horn, leather – have been preserved until they were excavated by modern archaeologists.

One of the most spectacular finds is the huge felt carpet from the Fifth Pazyryk Kurgan:


This carpet was made with the base of thin white felt (3 mm thick). On top of the base, the ancient masters sewed figures cut from colored felts. The carpet repeats the same scene: a horseman approaches a female deity holding a flowering branch. Here’s the detail showing the horseman:


The chieftain who was buried in the Fifth Pazyryk Kurgan was about 55 years old. His mummy was prepared before burial by removing entrails and brain, and shaving most of his hair.


It’s a bit of a pathetic fate for this man, who clearly was a powerful and respected warrior in his life, to be now a subject of idle curiosity of throngs of tourists …

On the other hand, the chief buried in the Fifth Kurgan was luckier than the one in the Second Kurgan. The Fifth Kurgan’s chief probably died of natural causes (in the last years of his life he had some degenerative disease that limited his mobility). By contrast, the Second Kurgan’s chief was killed by his enemies. His head was cut off and scalped:


Note the vertical cut on his forehead – this was probably the sword cut that killed him. After his death, the victors punched holes in his cut-off head:


They probably used the holes to pass a leather thong so that his head could be hanged from the saddle of his victor. Somehow the relatives/retinue of the vanquished chief were able to recover his head, so that he could be buried with appropriate honors in the Second Kurgan. There is clearly a great story here – for someone like Neal Stephenson to flesh out (no pun intended).

Incidentally, all noble chiefs were elaborately tattooed:


Another fine example of Pazyryk art is the saddlecloth from the First Kurgan:


It uses a similar technique to the one in the great felt carpet. However, the Pazyryk artisans also knew how to make true woven carpets. The oldest pile carpet known to archaeologists was made in Altay between the sixth and third centuries BCE:


Finally, I’ve got to include a picture of at least one horse mask:


Lest the readers think that Iron Age Central Asians only excelled at ornamental arts, I should point out that they had very skillful weapon-makers (e.g., bowyers) and blacksmiths. They also had a remarkable grasp of mechanical arts, as illustrated by the four-wheeled cart, made from birchwood, found disassembled in the kurgan:





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Gene Anderson

Yep, it’s amazing stuff. The “barbarian” label is due to two successive waves of prejudice: first, the Byzantines in the west and Chinese in the east got out the war propaganda saying these guys were just uncouth nomads, and, second, Enlightenment and Victorian historians in the western world then added their own prejudices against “backward” and “nomadic” societies. The result has been surprisingly persistent misrepresentation.

Peter Turchin

Lev Gumilev, a Russian historian of Central Asia, called it “The Black Legend” (how the nomads were denigrated by the agrarian people).

rick tendys

Thank you,…..worth waiting for
You know what really confuses me is that those brilliant forward thinking communists
in Cuba China Nth Korea etc (dare I say Aust)…..did NOT wipe out that evil
memorial of ….art, intellect and the hermitage………the modern muslims would have
cleaned it up with a 25 gun salute and sleep soundly as having done allahs work
well hell man he is a busy body (….??…….)..we have to help him…
hey man any god who creates a universe needs all the help he can get

Peter Turchin

Sadly, the Bolsheviks did sell off some of the art collected by the Tsars. Don’t remember how that affected the Hermitage.

Jack Pedersen

There are two things that continue to amaze me, having lived in the Republic of Tyva at the time of the major Scythian discoveries of Arzhaan. Firstly the east-west extent of that culture from at least Tyva to at least Bilsk in Ukraine, a scythian city covering 40 sq km,, and Tillia Tepe in between. Then as a linguist the revelation that the Tocharians of the Gobi region spoke a western indo-european language and were apparently caucasians, says something about our blinkered view of mainstream history. Revision needed!

Peter Turchin

Indeed, during the Iron Age the whole of the Great Steppe looks highly culturally unified. The Hunnu (Xingnu, Hsiungnu) have essentially the same material culture as the Scythians many thousands of kilometers to the West. One of the best recent summaries is Chris Beckwiths’ Empires of the Silk Road – check it out, if you haven’t read it already.


I visited the Hermitage more than once and have never seen this amazing collection:(
If I ever happen to be there again, I will make sure to reach the Pazyryk rooms

Peter Turchin

Well worth the visit. My photographs caputre only a tiny fraction of what’s there.


Scythian Ice Maiden – Indo-Europeans in the Altai. BBC


Chariot Eastern Altai, Pazyryk Burial Mound 5 5th-4th centuries BC


There is an interesting sequel of The Lord of the Rings, titled The Last Ring-bearer, written by K. Es’kov, a Russian paleontologist. Its idea is that Tolkien’s book is an epic story written by peoples of the western Middle Earth and skewed in the same way as Black Legend-skewed history of Central Asia. In reality, Mordor was just a different civilization, sacked and then vilified by its conquerors. In the sequel, a few valiant orcs try to save Middle Earth from evil elves’ domination. An English translation has been recently published online somewhere.

Igor Demić

You shouldn’t have posted this vdinets, now I’m hooked! And I don’t have time to get hooked on fiction right now 🙂 The author writes great prose and the idea is great (how come I didn’t think of that?).
I searched the author a bit. I read something about him being an anti-evolutionist. I hope I misread that. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation.


You are welcome. No, he isn’t an anti-evolutionist as far as I know.

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