In 2006, over 80 years after the successful diggings by P. K. Kozlov’s expedition in Noin-Ula (Mongolia), a joint Russian-Mongolian team examined one of the biggest burial mounds preserved – tumulus # 20, according to P.K. Kozlov’s plan.
The mission we assigned ourselves was to dig the tumulus by hand in order to observe its structure in every detail, following, step by step, the way taken by the builders of the “tsar” grave. Well-known as the Noin-Ula tumuli are, there had been no plans of them – in the 1930s, the requirements imposed on archaeological excavations were somewhat different, and the mounds (except one) were explored using test pits. Also, we had an opportunity to draw on our previous experience of investigating the Pazyryk burials with their preserved organics and study the new materials using the methods of natural and exact sciences, which increases manifold the monument’s information value and the validity of historical interpretations.
Starting, in 2006, this big project on investigating the high-born Xiongnu tumuli at Noin-Ula in the mountains of Northern Mongolia, we realized what kind of findings the diggings could produce — lacquerware, textile, wood, metalware, and nephrites — and were ready for their immediate conservation and further restoration. However, the conditions in which the ancient mortuary gifts found themselves in the 20th Noin-Ula mound were such that we had to break our stereotypes of dealing with material. The impermeability of the double burial chamber made of pine logs, located 18 meter deep (the deepest of all the chambers excavated at Noin-Ula) had been disturbed by ancient grave robbers, who had got inside by cutting through the ceiling. The burial chamber gave way under the pressure of tons of puddle clay and stones and folded up like a house of cards. All the things found in it were damaged, to a greater or lesser degree. That was not it though. There was water inside the burial chamber. It had contributed to the conservation of the lacquer artifacts and, to a certain degree, preserved the textile — the high antiquity things that practically never reach us. At the same time, the water had washed out and drew inside the burial chamber fine light-gray clay and coal, layered between the walls of the burial chamber and the burial pit with a view to making it waterproof and safe. This viscous aggressive mass covered and soaked everything contained in the burial chamber, all the things that accompanied the buried person, causing irreparable damage to them. The textile has suffered the most. Fragments of carpets, curtains and clothes were extracted from the mound together with clay; actually, these were lumps of clay with textile, which could hardly be seen. In the field, the things were prepared for transportation to Novosibirsk. For each group of artifacts, the most favorable environment was created so that they would not suffer during travel. For instance, lacquer and wood needed a moist environment whereas metalware had to be kept dry. In this condition, all the unique artifacts traveled from Ulan-Bator to our research institute.
Primarily, the main tasks were preservation of the materials obtained as a result of excavations, their irreproachable conservation and further restoration. To cope with them, a team of highly skilled researchers-restorers was required. The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS has had such a team since the study of the Pazyryk monuments based in Gorny Altai (the so-called “frozen” graves). It was then that the invaluable experience of dealing with textile and wet wood was gained. However, even that was not enough. The collection excavated from 20th Noin-Ula mound was incredibly complicated to handle. This was attributed to the composition, condition and number of the artifacts found. Among the things discovered some were absolutely new to us, like lacquerware. The only person who has had an experience of working with ancient lacquer was V. G. Simonov, head of the Oriental Lacquer Department with the Grabar All-Russia Scientific Art Restoration Center. In order to fulfill a large amount of high skill work on the restoration of the unique and complicated material in a short term, we addressed Russian leading experts N. P. Sinitsina (State Research Institute for Restoration) and V. G. Simonov. Greatly interested in this rare, ancient material, they offered us their valuable disinterested help with the textile and lacquer restoration. Thanks to the restorers’ efforts, the artifacts made of organic materials have been saved. The research and restoration work completed, the artifacts were returned to Mongolia.
The study of Xiongnu burials, even if they were plundered like the Noin-Ula tumuli were, is of critical importance. Similarly to any oral society, the Xiongnu society needs archaeological explorations, which provide an inflow of fresh, original, and diverse data, opening completely new pages of ancient life. The most informative among these explorations is study of the “tsar” mounds as these accumulate the whole variety of artifacts once existing in the culture and intrinsic to it.
Looking into the Xiongnu “tsar” tumuli, we come to the conclusion that virtually the entire rich content of these burials was borrowed from other peoples and cultures. The graves of high-born Xiongnu are filled with things mainly made in the Han China and Parthia, as well as in Roman provinces.
Let us turn to the artifacts discovered in the grave of the 20th tumulus. All the horse harness and caparison is a direct borrowing. An elementary analysis of psalia (cheek-pieces) and front bridle-straps (copper covered with gold and silver amalgam) found in the 20th Noin-Ula mound has confirmed that they are Chinese, the same as the custom of suspending a dense fringe (a breast-collar) made of horse hair. Of special interest are, according to S. I. Rudenko, decorative silver plaques depicting animals, which were first discovered in the Noin-Ula tumuli. Recent findings make us believe that the silver plaques, used by the Xiongnu as horse harness adornments, were also produced in China. They were made for nomads but were common with the Chinese as well. Similarly-shaped plaques are frequently found in the Han graves of China and Northern Korea. By now, there is quite a diverse collection of them. Among these plaques, the Noin-Ula ones are the westernmost.
Practically all the Xiongnu tumuli contain artifacts made of nephrite or, more commonly, their pieces. The Noin-Ula tumulus is not an exception. Using nephrite in burial rituals during the epoch under consideration is a Chinese tradition. It goes without saying that nephrite was used by the population of Pribaikaliye (Cis-Baikal) and Zabaikaliye (Trans-Baikal) regions as far back as in the Neolithic times. What matters here is the context of these findings, and the meaning and role of nephrite in burial rituals. In ancient China nephrite was believed to prevent putrefaction of the body and as such was more valuable than gold. This is why it was found in Xiongnu burials.
Lacquer dishes and other lacquerware are indispensable for rich Han graves. These are true valuables indicating their owner’s status and luxury, gifts to a chanyu from the emperor’s court. For the first time ever, lacquerware discovered at the 20th Noin-Ula mound has been examined by exact science methods. The entire technological process of its production has been reconstructed, the composition of all the components used in making lacquer dishes has been determined, including the composition of the lacquer itself. Hieroglyphic inscriptions found on two cups have been deciphered. These inscriptions have made it possible to define the exact time when the cups were made, namely, 9 BC.
The exterior of the walls of the pine coffin from the 20th Noin-Ula tumulus were covered with red lacquer. A light chariot, discovered in the burial pit, was lacquered as well. Also found in the burial were fragments of the saddle’s wooden part with lacquer traces on it. All these things were produced by Chinese craftsmen.
In addition, the tumulus contained numerous pieces of various silk fabrics — embroidered, polychrome, and solid-colored — coming from Han workshops. Some of these pieces belong to China-cut clothes, while others served as horse trappings, woolen carpet decorations, and as coffin covers so as to wrap all the objects but in the grave, following the Chinese custom.
Small golden ornaments with turquoise granulations and inserts, present in all big Xiongnu tumuli, can also be attributed to China. The ultimate composition testifies to the same source of native gold from which the ornaments discovered in the 20th Noin-Ula tumulus were made. Found in the 20th tumulus is the largest, up to now, fragment of an embroidered wall picture, which can be referred to Parthian culture. This shows a cult scene participating in which are men wearing Iranian costumes.
The question of who was buried in the 20th tumulus is even more difficult to answer because there is no anthropological material, which is common for all high-born Xiongnu tumuli. The mortuary gifts of the mound defiled in the ancient times provides no conclusive evidence either.
The only find verifying that there had been a person buried in this grave has been six teeth. Their pronounced specific features allowed T.A.Chikisheva to conclude that they had belonged to a young woman of the anthropological type similar to that of the modern population of Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and West India. It is possible that buried in the 20th tumulus was a woman, a wife to the chanyu.
If we look at Xiongnu culture through the content of high-born burials and burial rituals, we can see what their likes and preferences were and identify what was in demand among the flow of western and eastern goods. Why these goods in aprticular is a different question, as well as the role and importance of foreign artifacts in a nomadic culture. In this book, we have made an attempt to answer these questions, though a lot yet remains to be explored.