Face Music - Archaelogy - Eurasia & Central Asia

Archaeological finds of steppe cultures of the Eurasian and Central Asian Area

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

Bronze Age – until 1200 BC

The “invention” of Bronze occurred in the 3rd millennium BC. The roots of the Bronze Age lie in the precurring Neolithic era, in which the people were already partly familiar with metalwork. They confined themselves to native (purely occurring) metals like gold, silver and copper. Bronze in contrast is an alloy, consisting of 90% copper and 10% tin, and it is much harder than copper. The transitional period leading to the Bronze Age is also called Copper Age or Eneolithic (Copper Stone Age) in some regions (see map sketch).

Findings in archaeological excavations of the latter half of the first millennium BC in kurgans and settlements in the
Ustyurt Plateau (1) have lead to certain realizations. Artwork with ornaments and cult objects allows us to recognize a relationship with a Zoroastrian-influenced culture with mythical heros in anthropomorphic sculptures (sancruary). Warrior funeral and tamgas (2) point to settlements of Sarmatic tribes (3) that settled here from the 5th century BC until the 4th century AD. They also lived in the steppes between the Don and the Volga.

  • (1) The Ustyurt Plateau or Ust-Urt-Plateau (highland) is an extensive desert and steppe plateau in Central Asia. It belongs to the lowlands of Turan and lies between the Caspian Depression and Lake Aral in the countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan und Kazakhstan.
    see: map sketch - map sketch2)
  • (2) Tamgas: A kind of mark to identify the owner of an item or the belonging of cattle to a certain clan; it was most often used as a cattle branding or stamp.
  • (3) The Sarmatians were a confederation of clans of Iranian riding peoples that migrated east to Central Asia and are first mentioned in antique writings dating to 513 BC. They fought together with the Scythians against the Persian king Darius I.

    - more information on the tribes see “History of the Equestrian Nomads

Despite the fact that some finds in the kurgans from the Bronze Age can not be clearly assigned, the majority of this kind of funeral site is assigned to the Sarmatian clans. These also settled in today’s Kalmyk Steppe (see: map sketch) on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea, in the steppes of the region close to the Black Sea and at the western end of the Caspian Sea, also at the Ural river and in the North Caucasus in the Eurasian steppe belt (see: map sketch)

The found textiles show a method of processing in their structure which uses spun thread, whose raw material was produced from plants and wool. This kind of textile of the steppe culture was not meant for everyday use, instead it had a social and religious role in the community that was pointed to in the ornaments. The Sarmatians knew how to weave with simple aids such as a board, heddle frame and shuttle. With these they could weave horizontal and vertical patters (pattern). This kind of simple work tool was used to create colorful ribbons. Later they developed a loom (looms). Braided mats were produced to use in the building of light houses or as fences for young cattle. Mats were also used as blankets or beds. They knew how to weave baskets and how to produce ropes and jute bags. Weaved items and fur was used to make clothing or bags. They were familiar with the felt technique and carpetmaking. Woven and braided burial objects were found in their funeral sites, often the walls and awnings were decorated with such items. The clothing worn for the interment was specially made. Today, the same patterns are used in the weavings, the braiding and felting technique and carpetmaking in Central Asia and Siberia. But back then, they concentrated on the production of meat and milk and agriculture to guarantee a stable supply of food.

- more information: Ornaments of the Turk-Mongolian tribe (carpets, cloths, ceramics, handbags, tools etc.)

A quickly growing population forced the keeping of animals to be increased to guarantee the food supply. In the settlement there was only a certain amount of space for pastures. The lack of natural resources forced the population to change its systems. The precious use of nearby pastures was no longer enough. There had to be a development towards increased mobility to find new pastures. Wild horses were domesticated for transportation to follow the herds. Larger sheep herds ensured the textiles. Herds with shepherds had to be able to go on long trips to new feeding grounds and also to go to higher regions. In the winter, pastures in lower regions were preferable, where food could be found underneath the thin layer of snow. Transportable dwellings were developed – prototypes of the yurt or the ger. Archaeological sites have revealed horse bridles with crossbars. These changes were more quickly adopted in regions that were economically more highly developed and had production centers and trade relationships. New technologies also led to different lifestyles in a previously settled community that concentrated on cattle breeding and agriculture. A climate change forced them to change and led to the first great migration. From the 18th unteil the 15th centuries BC the climate became increasingly warmer and wetter and led to floodings that forced these communities to migrate. Harnesses found in archaeological excavations point to the development of riding. The first riding warriors protected settlements and their wandering herds. But these are not to be found before the 2nd millennium BC, as is proven by the dates on finds from warrior funerals. New discoveries confirm that bone and woodwork, the production of pots and products made of metal were already known in this region. Metalwork was not made at first, these were probably imported by traders. Modified metal that was found at the Ural river has great similarites with finds in the Caucasus and in the Anatolian region. But these did not arrive there before the late 3rd or early 2nd millennium BC. Iranian clans from Anatolia and Northern Syria (from the Middle East) probably immigrated to the southern Ural. They mainly settled in the Transural and along the Belaya River. Similar styles were also found in the ceramics, the stone products and the metalwork for handicrafts, tools and weapons in the Dnjepr region up to the Ural, that mainly relate to the ornaments of the Syrian-Anatolian cultural region. The work was done in workshops at home and made important progress in the processing of Bronze. They were the first to use arsenic in the smelting of metals. Handicraft was created from pure copper. The Iranian clans settled in the Volga Ural region, where there was plenty of copper. Settlements and centers with metal handicraft products and their trade is described in archaeological writings. In the region of the Dnjepr up to eastern Kazakhstan, such finds have been made. The first smelting huts for mass production were found in Trans-Caucasus.

Horses were originally not domesticated and bred for riding. They were used for transportation purposes or as a source of food and were sacrificed in ritual ceremonies. During the funeral rites they pulled a chariot (chariot). A first use of such a two-wheeled chariot was in Mesopotamia during the time of the
Hittites (1), as can bee seen in their writings. The invention of horse harnesses and chariots in the steppes is proven by finds. In the beginning, they were not stable enough and could only be used as a sign of prestige in the funerals of warriors as an escort into the other world. The first horse-drawn chariots and spoke wheels and the horse driver stood in it with the warrior. They were not only used for battle but also for hunting and races. In the funeral ceremonies they accompanied the dead into the Upperworld and were also used as burial objects.
Carts (transport wagons or ox carts with two or four wheels) were vehicles that were originally only pulled by oxen or cattle (ox-cart). They had stable wheels, sometimes spoke wheels, and were only used for the transportation of people or goods.

- funeral rites chariot: 0102

Wheeled vehicles (pushcarts with two wheels) were used, but they were less suitable for the damp climate with lots of rain, because of which the paths were often only traversable on foot. In Egypt or Mesopotamia these carts were considerably more common, since it was drier and flatter and this kind of transport vehicle and two-wheeled carts could therefore be put to better use. In addition, this highly complexly organized community had already previously used extensive trade routes with roads. This kind of two- or four-wheeled wagon was also found in graves of the Sumerians of the first half of the 3rd millennium. Drawings with depictions of Sumerian two-wheeled chariots from their early days show chariots drawn by four horses or a horse-drawn catapult (onager) with a standing driver. The wagons show similarities with those described in the Hittite texts about royal funeral rites. In the second third of the 3rd millennium BC, this kind of wagon burial rites also took place in the Caucasus and Ural. Finds in graves with wheeled vehicles point to the fact that these were probably used soon after the invention of the wheel and well into the Iron Age. It may be assumed that these vehicles – those with four wheels as well as those with two – were first created as a transportation aid into the Otherworld as burial objects, so that the dead could reach the world of Yama the warlord and only later used as a means of transport.
  • (1) The Hittites were a people that spoke an Indo-European language and created a world empire in the 2nd millennium BC in today’s Anatolia. They originally settled in Bulgaria and Ukraine’s Black Sea region in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. They used various scripts. While the official diplomatic correspondence and the palast archive was written in the Assyrian (Accadian) cuneiform script, the numerous rock reliefs and official inscriptions were written in hieroglyphics that, as we know today, are Luvian
In the late New Stone Age (Neolithic), a first change from settlers that bred livestock and cultivated the land to a shepherdic lifestyle had occurred. The fast growth of the population and the climate change played an important role and led to these new lifestyles. The migration with large herds of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs to new pastures arose in the Danube plain and all the way to the Pontian Steppe (see map) and to the Caspian Sea. Animals played an important role in the lives of nomadic clans, in their mythology and the development of cults. The transport with covered wagons with wheels that were pulled by four oxen was an important prerequisite for a first mobile form of the keeping of herds, and with it an early nomadic lifestyle developed. The processing of copper in huts and the knowledge about the construction of such ox-carts (ox-cart) contributed to the change from a settled lifestyle to a nomadic lifestyle. The new technique in copper workmanship led to mass production and made transport necessary, which necessitated trade routes. The newly created craft led to a series of creations: tools, weapons, axes, chisels, spears and arrowheads made of metal. A result of the fight over metal and ore deposits was the building of fortresses to protect such metal mines. At first, the walls of simple houses were made of wood and earth, but now they were also reinforced with stone slates. Many funeral rites were developed that are called Indo-Iranian, which are conveyed via early scriptures. They originate from a time before theses groups or peoples split up and went their separate ways. The Holy Book of the Parsi (1) was established anew by the religious reformers, the Zoroastrians, with references to earlier practices of the Indo-Iranians.

  • (1) As descendants of Persian immigrants, the Parsi-Zoroastrians of India are part of the religious tradition of Zarathustra. The corpses are not burned or buried but instead laid out in the sun in Towers of Silence, so as not to dirty the four elements of fire, water, air and earth. Four days of rituals follow, which serve the prevention of contamination and support the soul in its separation from the body and its upcoming travel into the Otherworld. These rituals are closely related to the cosmic battle of good versus evil, the duality of purity and impurity and an extensive immaterial world of spirits.
  • One text describes: “Agni (fire god) shall not burn the body or devour it in flames. His skin shall not be consumed, nor his flesh. He shall not be touched, the earth shall not smother the corpse. Don’t just bury it in the earth, wrap it up, as a mother would her son in the hem of her skirt. Corpses may not be buried before they are mauled by bird or dog. But before one buries the body in the earth, it must be embalmed in wax.”
Two kinds of interments can be verified in this time: cremation and burial. In an Indo-European burial, the skeleton was buried in a bent position, many were wrapped in cloth. There are several indications for the practice of excarnation. Cremations were not found, but large fire pits next to graves point to sacrifices to the fire god Agni. This fire god played an important role in the Iranian culture. Signs of fire practices, in which priests sacrificed animals to their gods, were found in separate graves. This proves the practice of animal sacrification. Cremations developed outside of the Iranian world, for which there are explanations. Cremations were used when a plague threatened to stop the spread of the epidemic. Fire burials, in conjunction with inhumations, were first found among Indo-European peoples, and it is assumed that their origin lies in Africa. In the early Bronze Age only one-time interments with sacrificial rituals were conducted and often the graves contained more than one skeleton. In such secondary graves, the dead are left to their own devices, they resemble a cemetery with individual mass graves. Kurgans were more of a monument for a person that signal the importance of this kind of funeral. The graves are filled with valuable objects. Animal sacrifices were important in this time. Women’s graves did not contain any animal sacrifices. In Brahman texts (1) and in Vedic writings (2) the descending order of sacrificial offerings for people is described: horse, cow, sheep and goat. The Hittites (2nd millennium BC) describe rituals for human and animal sacrifices in their writings. Homer’s texts and writings from the Germanic world offer countless examples of sacrificial rituals of humans and animals. These were common in the Indo-European community and were often practiced. Finds point to the fact that they became increasingly popular in the Indo-Iranian culture.
  • (1) Brahamanism was a precursor of Hinduism, it is the religion that dominated in India from approximately 800 BC until 500 BC.
  • (2) The Vedic culture is the oldest high culture of humanity. The Vedic culture produced an expansive opus of writings, called the Vedas. Their name comes from the Sanscrit word “veda” that means “knowledge”.
    The goal of Vedic literature is to lead humans to spiritual enlightenment, and the culture on which these writings are based gives people the ideal qualifications to reach the so formulated goal of human life.
Another change from a settled to a nomadic peoples occurred in the late Bronze and early Iron Ages.

This transition to a nomadic lifestyle was induced by a number of factors, that speeded up a change of the previous economic forms of settled organization. Because of the climatic aridization (drier climate) there were several changes: The availability of water for pasture farming and agriculture was no longer adequate and the cultural surroundings changed because of technological developments in the metal production sites and the arision of trade and the ensuing transport. It is also possible that flooded pastures in a preceding period were the reason for the search for new sources of nourishment and the migration with herds and wheeled vehicles were promoting factors. It is rather unlikely that new kinds of pastures, i.e. in the vicinity of sources or large areas in the vicinity of forests led to new lifestyles.

A second redistribution occurred due to a migration of the clans towards the north into more profitable forest steppe areas. The arrival of the clans with a nomadically influenced tradition from the steppe of Central Kazakhstan in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age lead to a turning point. The settled population redistributed itself within the tribal areas, and part of the population changed to a nomadic lifestyle, while the rest of the population continued a settled lifestyle and remained true to old traditions of artisanry, animal breeding and agriculture. In the Transural Steppe and the nearby forests and in the steppes between the Ural and the Tobol River, settled communities continued to exist in settlements with strong fortifications that protected them from attacks. A part of the settlements was large and had centers and houses that were built deep into the ground. A second kind of smaller settlement with dispersed houses that were only built above ground can also be found in this area. The buildings were usually built in one row along the riverbank. The buildings were not normally close to each other. A prat of the settlements was situated on high ground (islands) in the flooded areas that are still flooded today. It seems that the inhabitants did not live in these settlements for a long time but remained only for a short period and then migrated on. Animal husbandry and farming were part of their economy. These are proof of a first agricultural development. In the households one can find mainly pottered pots and tools made from the bones of pets. Objects made of metal or jewelry were atypical for the peoples of the steppe and the forest-steppe in the south. Findings from this time include knives, daggers, sickles, sleeves and wedges as well as chisels, axts and woven mats. As regards the non-metal artifacts it is worth mentioning that harnesses are a proof for the fact that horseback riding already existed. As far as weapons are concerned, only arrowheads (double-bladed sleeve-like arrowheads made of bronze) were found. The shafts were made of bone. From this time, burial sites comprised of smaller graves and individual kurgans for important people can be found. In contrast to the preceding era, these were often situated on mounds close to riverbanks, but nevertheless a great distance from the riverbed. There are traces of fire in some kurgans. The skeletons were flexed and the orientation differed. It is commonly assumed that a great number of skeletons in this flexed position are characteristic for later burials but this can’t always be proven by facts. Grave goods are very scarce, most had ceramic vessels that were only seldom ornamented. Bronze belt buckles with a loop on the reverse side for tools were found. It is therefore impossible to differentiate chronologically between the materials from the final stoges of the Bronze Age and those of the transition to the Iron Age. One could be tempted to think that in the southern region of the Transural there were only few burials and kurgan ceremonies were reserved for especially important people. It is generally known that many early cultures tended to concentrate on the passage into the Otherworld instead of engaging in death cults. As previously mentioned, the material culture of the Transural population shows clear traces of outside influences from all the regions in the north, the steppes and the rather remote areas of the Far East. A
Karasuk tradition (1) was predominant from East Kazakhstan to the Altai Mountains and the actual Altai during the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. One can tell that a settled lifestyle remained preserved in the forest-steppes and the South Taiga areas. It is therefore assumed, that the Transural population was the most important component in the development of an early nomadic culture. Seasonal economic management was predominant in the Ural steppes, in Northern Kazakhstan and in the Transural. It seems probable that the possibilty for a settled lifestyle was preserved in Central Kazakhstan and the lower Volga region and therefore the possibility for agriculture was exhausted much earlier. The herds were kept close to the settlements at first and findings only point to a slowly beginning nomadic keeping of herds. It is also possible that only a small part of the inhabitants of such settlements stayed and retained a sedentary lifestyle and bred animals in the neighboring pastures.

The Andronovo culture is an archeological culture prevalent in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC in South Siberia and Central Asia (2100 – 1400 BC).

Its territory ranged from the Caspian Sea in the West to the Yenisei River in the East and comprised both the southern area of the Siberian forest steppes and the Central Asian steppes. Due to these vast dimensions, it can be divided into several regional groups who still share some important cultural features (see map). The name is derived from the city of Andronovo, where multiple crouched burials (see picture) were found amply decorated with ceramics. These finds were characterized by fret ribbons, hatched triangles, zigzag ribbons and herringbone patterns (see picture of the vessel). So far, mostly small settlements were found, which were rarely embattled with walls and trenches. Most of the houses were deepened pillar buildings, in which high regional variation can be observed. From the economic point of view, it is proven that husbandry played an important role. There is some evidence for hunting and fishing, while agriculture is implied by respective equipment found but could not be proven without doubt so far. In some regions, there was ore mining as well. The tombs show somewhat high diversity. Typically, the dead were burned or buried in a crouched position. In most of the territories a low kurgan was built above one or more tombs. The culture is generally counted to the Proto-Iranian family of languages. Its people are often described as the inventors of the spokewheel chariot (around 2000 BC).

It is impossible to precisely define the enormous geographic extension of this group. In the West, it crosses the territory of the almost simultaneously occurring
Srubna culture (2). Towards the east it extends into the lowlands of Minusinsk (Krasnoyarsk Region) and thus covers part of the territory of the Afanasevo culture (3) that appeared earlier. Other settlements are dispersed far south, such as in Kopet Dag (Turkmenistan), in Pamir (Tajikistan) or in Tian Shan (Kyrgyzstan). The northern border is about where the Taiga starts in the south. South of Oxus (Amu Darya River) no more burials from the Andronovo culture are found, neither are there many finds south of Bactria.

In South Siberia and Kazakhstan the Andronovo culture was followed by the
Karasuk culture (1500 – 800 BC), which is referred to as non-Indo-European on the one hand, and as Proto-Iranian on the other hand, while being alien to both. At its western borders, the Andronovo culture was merged into the Srubna culture, which developed south of the Abashevo culture. In Assyrian archives, the earliest records of people from the Andronovo region are found, i.e. the Kimmerians and the world of the Saka and the Scythians, who, after the breakdown of the Alexeyevka culture, began to emigrate to Ukraine and to Anatolia via the Caucasus from the 9th century onwards, to Assyria in the late 8th century, and, possibly as Thracians and Sigynnae even to Southern Europe. Herodotus locates the land of the Sigynnae beyond the River Danube north of the Thracian grounds, while Stabo believes them to reside close to the Caspian Sea. However, both refer to them as Iranians.

- more information on the tribes see “History of the Equestrian Nomads

Some scholars believe that the Andronovo culture cannot be associated with the Indo-Aryan culture or with Mitanni, as it emerged only later and there is no evidence of cultural exchange (such as burials of warriors or characteristic wood-frame constructions) with India (“
Indus Valley Civilization”) or Mesopotamia. Archeologists are “having a very hard time developing a theory on the expansion from northern regions to the north of India”, adding that the routes of emigration “brought Indo-Iranians as far as Central Asia but did not lead them to the Medes, the Persians or the Indo-Aryans (see map).

  • (1) The Karasuk culture (named after the Karasuk, the left side arm of the Yenisei) was prevalent in the area around Minusinsk in today’s Khakasia in South Siberia towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC.
    The settlements most often consisted of less than ten dwelling pits that were arranged around a central square. It can not be ruled out that the settlements may have only been used seasonally. The economy was probably dominated by animal husbandry; this is concluded from animal bone finds from the settlements. Further findings show that bronze and copper metallurgy was practiced.
  • (2) The Srubna or Timber-grave culture was a Late Bronze Age (18th to 12th centuries BC) culture. It is a successor of the Yamna culture, the Catacomb-grave culture and the Abashevo culture and occupied the area along and above the north shore of the Black Sea from the Dnieper eastwards along the northern base of the Caucasus to the area abutting the north shore of the Caspian Sea and crossing the Volga river to come up against the domain of the approximately contemporaneous and related Andronovo culture.
  • (3) Excavations that can be attributed to this Afanasevo culture (see map) are found mainly in the area of Minusinsk in the Krasnoyarsk region in southern Siberia, in Tuva, which is south of that, and in the Altai Mountains, but also abundantly in western Mongolia, northern Xinjiang and eastern and central Kazakhstan. In addition, there may be some connections to Tajikistan and the Aral Sea area (3500 and 2500 BC).

The Sintashta culture is a Bronze Age archaeological culture dated to the period 2100–1800 BC.

The earliest known chariots have been found in burials on the eponymous archeological site of Sintashta, and these settlements are also remarkable for the intensity of copper mining and bronze metallurgy carried out there, which is unusual for a steppe culture. Because of the difficulty of identifying the remains of Sintashta sites beneath those of later settlements, the culture was only recently distinguished from the Andronovo culture. It emerged from the interaction of two antecedent cultures. Its immediate predecessor in the Ural-Tobol steppe was the Poltavka culture, an offshoot of the cattle-herding Yamnaya horizon that moved east into the region between 2800 and 2600 BC. Several Sintashta towns were built over older Poltovka settlements or close to Poltovka cemeteries, and Poltovka motifs are common on Sintashta pottery. Sintashta material culture also shows the influence of the late Abashevo culture.

The first Sintashta settlements appeared around 2100 BC, during a period of climatic change that saw the already arid Kazakh steppe region become even more cold and dry. The marshy lowlands around the Ural and upper Tobol rivers, previously favoured as winter refuges, became increasingly important for survival. Under these pressures both Poltovka and Abashevo herders settled permanently in river valley strongholds, eschewing more defensible hill-top locations. The Abeshevo culture was already marked by endemic intertribal warfare; intensified by ecological stress and competition for resources in the Sintashta period, this drove the construction of fortifications on an unprecedented scale and innovations in military technique such as the invention of the war chariot. Increased competition between tribal groups may also explain the extravagant sacrifices seen in Sintashta burials.

The Sintashta economy came to revolve around copper metallurgy. Copper ores from nearby mines (such as Vorovskaya Yama) were taken to Sintashta settlements to be processed into copper and arsenical bronze. This occurred on an industrial scale: all the excavated buildings at the Sintashta sites of Sintashta, Arkaim and Ust'e contained the remains of smelting ovens and slag. Much of this metal was destined for export to the cities of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC - see map) in Central Asia. The metal trade between Sintashta and the BMAC connected the steppe region to the ancient urban civilisations of the Middle East for the first time: the empires and city-states of Iran and Mesopotamia provided an almost bottomless market for metals. These trade routes later became the vehicle through which horses, chariots and ultimately Indo-Iranian-speaking people entered the Near East from the steppe.

The people of the Sintashta culture are thought to have spoken Proto-Indo-Iranian, the ancestor of the Indo-Iranian language family. This identification is based primarily on similarities between sections of the “Rig Veda”, an Indian religious text which includes ancient Indo-Iranian hymns recorded in Vedic Sanskrit, with the funerary rituals of the Sintashta culture as revealed by archaeology. However, due to its origin as a creole of different tribes in the Ural region, it is probably inaccurate to describe the Sintashta culture as an exclusively Indo-Iranian ethnicity.

Grave findings from this Eurasian area are curated in the State History Museum in Moscow.
© Albi – February - December 2011– English translation by Hermelinde Steiner - March 2012