Since 2006 the South Altai team of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (SB RAS, Novosibirsk) has been carrying out archaeological studies in North Mongolia. This region is appealing to archaeologists because new discoveries in this little explored part of Central Asia may help resolve many of the key problems of Ancient and Medieval History. One of these problems is the birth and existence of the nomadic Xiongnu empire, which left an imprint on the history of Eurasian nations. Currently, scientists reconstruct the history of Xiongnu mainly from Chinese written sources and, hence, reflect, voluntarily or not, what Chinese people thought of their neighbors and enemies. That is why we cannot yet draw objective conclusions about Xiongnu. Archaeology may help shed light on the true history of Xiongnu, which can be reconstructed only by comparing and analyzing data from at least two types of sources—written and archaeological ones. However, there are little archaeological data on Xiongnu. Therefore, great importance is attached to elite mounds, which may be regarded as a quintessence of culture.
This book is dedicated to the results of 2009—2012 studies carried out at three mounds belonging to Xiongnu nobility. All the three mounds are located within the Noin-Ula burial site in the Suzukteh valley, which fact is reflected in the book title. The materials of mound 20, which was the first to be excavated by the Russian–Mongolian expedition in 2006, were published by Polosmak, Bogdanov, and Tseveendorzh . That book begins with the study by T. I. Yusupova on P. K. Kozlov’s expedition of 1924—1925, which discovered this unique burial site at Noin-Ula [Polosmak et al. 2011, pp. 9—47]. Therefore, we shall not dwell on the history of archaeological works at this site and refer the reader to a very interesting review containing a lot of new information.
The first chapter gives a detailed description of the mounds. The surface structure of Noin-Ula mound 11 had a size of 15.5 × 13.5 m. The depth of the burial pit with four steps was almost 6 m. The size of the upper part of the burial pit was 5 × 6.5 m; that of the lower part was 2.5 × 3.5 m. The mound was surrounded on three sides with trenches, the appearance of which is associated with a deficit of ground to fill the burial pit and build the surface grave structure. In ancient times the burial site was robbed, and no wooden structures were preserved. All the findings were discovered on the floor of the burial pit. Apart from ceramics, a fragment of a jade plate, and bronze ornaments for clothing, archaeologists found scattered skeletal bones and a skull. These remnants were analyzed by Dr. Sci. (History) T. A. Chikisheva, who found that they belonged to a young woman.
The size of Noin-Ula mound 22 was 18 × 21 m; the length of the dromos was 17 m; and the depth of the burial pit was 16 m. The burial pit also had four steps. At the level of the fourth step, archaeologists discovered a Chinese yao che chariot. On the bottom of the burial pit, there were remnants of a wooden burial structure, which was destroyed by robbers in ancient times. The remnants consisted of an inner and outer burial chamber (the outer log construction was 3.35 × 5.20 m in size and 1.4 m in height; the inner one was 2.15 × 3.10 m in size and 1.1 m in height) mounted on the floor. The inner burial chamber contained a coffin, with the coffin cover lying next to it. The coffin was empty. All the findings were discovered in the corridors between the inner and outer burial chambers and on the floor of the inner burial chamber. Archaeologists found ornaments and horse harness items, fragments of a felt floor carpet, numerous fragments of silk clothing and embroidered silk used to decorate the coffin, fragments of an umbrella, fragments of a lacquer table and tableware, jade plates, small gold jewelry, costume details, woolen pants, numerous fragments of woolen textiles and fur items, etc. The burial also contained bone fragments of the buried person.
The size of Noin-Ula mound 31 was 18 × 20 m; the length of the dromos was 14.5 m; and the depth of the burial pit was 13 m. Two wooden burial chambers were found on the bottom of the burial pit. The outer chamber was 5.5 × 3.5 m in size and about 1.4 m in height; the inner one was 3.5 × 2.1 m in size and no more than 1 m in height. The inner burial chamber was found to contain remnants of a coffin broken by robbers and scattered bones of the buried person. The findings also included jade plates, an agate pendant, lacquer tableware with hieroglyphic inscriptions, and an embroidered woolen curtain.
A comparison of the burial rituals at the above mounds with the mounds explored by Kozlov’s expedition reveals that, although there are some minor differences between the burial structures at Noin-Ula, all of them are surprisingly uniform in their inner and outer design.
The second chapter analyzes features of the Xiongnu elite burial sites, including coffins and auxiliary items. It is stressed that the large-scale earthworks performed to build these structures and the large depth of the burial pits is evidence that the builders must have had the necessary experience and tools. The engineering support of these projects was likely provided by Chinese specialists, many of whom were present at chányú headquarters and, in general, on the Xiongnu territory. The burial sites of the Xiongnu chányús and their close associates, which were constructed in the Steppe at the crossroads of ages, bear resemblance to those of Qin and early Han nobility. However, compared with the latter, even the largest Xiongnu mounds are only minor structures, which could strike the imagination of nomads only, not the Chinese, who had already created the Qin Shi Huang burial complex, Mawangdui mausoleums, tombs of the Han emperors, etc. In other words, it is only in relative terms that the demonstration Xiongnu graves can be considered luxurious. Xiongnu’s resources for mound building were negligible compared with those available to Han. The burial complexes of the Xiongnu chányús and their associates are the most visual manifestation of the unbridgeable gap separating the two civilizations at the time of their greatest power and opposition.
The third chapter is dedicated to the description and analysis of the auxiliary items. The objects from the Xiongnu burial complexes at Noin-Ula will be analyzed in the second part of the book, which is dedicated to the results of the related interdisciplinary studies. The third chapter provides a detailed description of the chariot and horse harness items including wooden fragments of saddles, metal ornaments of horse harness, and braids that proved to be associated with the horse harness; lacquer tableware and other lacquer items, jade articles, and personal items (gold jewelry, beads, tortoise studs, bronze and silver ornaments for clothing, and a mirror). It is noted in the conclusions section that all the objects found in the mounds were mostly gifts of the imperial court. This is evidence of a high status of the people buried in the large Noin-Ula mounds, suggesting that these people were closest associates of chányús.
The fourth chapter describes and analyzes one of the most remarkable objects discovered at Noin-Ula: the embroidered woolen curtain that was found in mound 31. Information is provided about the conditions and exact location where the textile was found and on the degree of preservation of the item. A description is given for the fabric and the characters and plot embroidered on the several surviving curtain clothes. The author concludes that the fabric used as a base for the embroidery was likely of Syrian origin and was designed for tunics. The fabric was likely sewn in curtain clothes and embroidered in the north-western India, and the plot and characters imaged in the embroidery might reflect the culture and religion of the Indo-Scythians (Sakas) and Indo-Parthians. The item dates back to the time when the Greek Bactria had already been defeated by the Yuezhi and the Kushan Empire had not yet arisen.
The book is illustrated with many original photographs reflecting the works at the burial sites and serving as an important source of independent information. The illustrations are also designed to reflect, as fully as possible, all the categories of findings.
The excavations carried out by the Russian–Mongolian expedition in 2009—2012 were supported by the Russian Science Foundations (the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and Russian Foundation for Humanities), Gerda Henkel Foundation (Germany), and Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.