The kurgans of the Scythians dot the Eurasian steppes from Mongolia to the Balkans, and through Ukraine and on to the Black Sea. It is from the artifacts uncovered in the kurgans that archaeologists have learned much about Scythian life and art.
A massive kurgan was discovered in Stavropol, a territorial district in Southern Russia, by workers clearing the way for a power line project. Stavropol-based archaeologist Andrei Belinski began excavating the kurgan, called Sengileevskoe-2, the summer of 2013, and his finds prompted authorities to keep the site a secret until now.
Solid gold artifacts, including two bucket-shaped vessels, three gold cups, a heavy finger ring, two neck rings, and a gold bracelet were unearthed. In all, the artifacts when cleaned, weighed about seven pounds (3.2 kilos). “It’s a once-in-a-century discovery,” says Anton Gass, an archaeologist at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin. “These are among the finest objects we know from the region.”
The excavation of Sengileevskoe-2
When the excavation of the kurgan began, the archaeology team didn’t have great expectations of finding much because it was apparent the kurgan had been looted some time in the past. But after several weeks of digging, the team came across a thick layer of clay.
After careful digging, underneath the clay they came across a large rectangular chamber lined with broad, flat stones. Inside the chamber, the team found a 2,400-year-old treasure the looters had missed. “It was definitely a surprise for us,” Belinski says. “We weren’t expecting to find anything like this.”
Once the residue was removed from the gold vessels, ornate decorations, showing great detail were revealed. One vessel shows an old bearded man slaying young warriors. The other vessel shows griffons, mythological creatures ripping apart a horse and a stag. The bleak background depicted on the vessel led Belinski to think this was a representation of the Scythian underworld. Inside the vessels, Belinski discovered a black, sticky substance. Samples were sent to a forensics laboratory for identification.
The images on the vessels are an exciting find. The vessel depicting the shoes, haircuts and clothing of the old man and the warriors is amazingly lifelike. “I’ve never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians,” says Belinski. “It’s so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn.”
The bastard wars, according to Herodotus
Gass thinks the vessel depicting the old man slaying young warriors is a representation of the “bastard wars” as described by the Greek historian Herodotus. As Herodotus tells the story, the Scythians were engaged in a 28-year war with their neighbors. the Persians. When the Scythians finally returned home, they found intruders in their tents.
They were the bastard children of the Scythians lonely wives and their slaves. Gass believes the slaughter that ensued was important enough that it was described in detail on the vessel. Herodotus writes that the grown bastard children went forth to engage the returning warriors, and many lives on both sides were lost.
Herodotus writes: one Scythian warrior turned to his fellows, saying: “What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice- lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”
Belinski believes the vessel has a more metaphorical meaning. This could be a representation of the power struggle that occurs when a ruler or king has died. “When a king died, there was chaos,” he says. “The spirit world was upset by the death of the king, and order had to be born anew.”
The Scythian cult of the dead and the use of cannabis and opium
The black, sticky substance inside the vessels was cannabis and opium residue. For Scythians, cannabis was an important part of the death ritual when a leader died. First, the body was cleaned and dressed. Then, the leader’s body was taken around the region where he ruled for 40 days so that everyone could pay their respects.
After the leader’s body was buried, Scythians would purify their bodies by erecting small tepee-like structures. A fire was made inside the structure, and when red-hot coals were left, hemp seeds were either thrown on the hot coals or put into vessels and set on the coals.
The vapors produced were intoxicating, and the out-of-body experience supposedly cleansed the soul and mind. Herodotus, in about 450 BC writes, “when, therefore, the Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp, they creep under the cloths and put the seeds on the red-hot stones; but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud.”
It has long been believed that these “hemp rituals” were nothing more than a myth, but it is a fact this ceremony did occur. In 1929, Professor S. I. Rudenko and his team of archaeologists were digging some ancient ruins near the Altai Mountains, on the border between Siberia and Outer Mongolia. They unearthed a 20-foot deep trench about 160 square feet in size.
Around the trench, they found the skeletons of horses and inside the trench was the embalmed body of a man and a large cauldron filled with the residue of cannabis seeds. It is interesting to note that the sacrifice of a horse was considered the most “prestigious” sacrificial gift to their pantheon of seven gods.
The central portion of the burial mound was finally excavated in full last fall. The team found additional trenches around the kurgan, but due to political tensions, the excavating has been put on hold. “It’s like a detective investigation. We don’t understand it all, not immediately,” says Gass. “We need to keep digging.”