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Section: Ethnography
Ancient Buried Treasures of South Siberia

Ancient Buried Treasures of South Siberia

“This must be a part left in the field after a repair and then ploughed deep into the ground,” thought Semion Alekseevich as the share of his plough, drawn by a Kirovets, dug up something bulky. All of a sudden, ribbons of dazzlingly white birch bark spread out like a fan on the black clods. “What on earth is the birch bark doing here, in the steppe?” Semion Alekseevich got out of the tractor, gripped two massive ears sticking out of the ground and pulled hard… It was a huge cauldron made of red bronze”

A buried treasure… this luring and exciting word conjures up a horde of romantic, though predictable, images: pirates, Captain Kidd, a chest of gold… Archaeologists and historians are also attracted by buried treasures which they call caches and define as a set of accumulated valuables concealed in the ground.

World and national archaeology ranks ancient caches among most interesting and informative archaeological and historical sources. Dozens of them were found in the vast expanse extending from the Middle Yenisey to the Upper Ob: the Iyus, Kosogol, Znamensk, Novo-Obintsevsk and the cache on the Chernaya Rechka, near Tomsk, among them. The most ancient caches found in South Siberia date back to the Mesolithic epoch, but much more common are the caches belonging to the era of metals, especially to the early Iron Age.

Treasures of the Chest

To make a discovery, you have to be able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary or the routine. The Iyus cache was found in the 1970-s by Semion Fefelov, a worker of the Iyus sovkhoz (abbreviation for “Soviet farm”) based in Khakassia, when he was tilling the field next to a small lake called Sarat. When, a few days later, they asked Semion Alekseevich what had urged him to come up to the place where the cache was, he said, unexpectedly, “birch bark.” There was something to be surprised at, however.

That sovkhoz field, located 30 km from the village of Iyus, had been ploughed for many years. When the share of the plough drawn by a Kirovets, the tractor driven by Semion’s son Vladimir, unearthed a cumbersome metal object, Semion Alekseevich didn’t pay any attention. A few minutes later, though, ribbons of birch bark dazzling white against the black earth caught his eye, and his tractor hauled to a stop next to that strange thing. The bronze cauldron that Semion Alekseevich pulled out of the earth contained over a hundred of various objects, including a dozen of bronze plaques with intricate patterns, part of a leather bag and something that looked like the remains of the birch bark container whose parts were scattered over the ploughed field…

The cache consisting of numerous bronze art objects of the so-called Tagar Epoch (8th–3rd centuries B. C.) was, in fact, a predictable discovery. All the area around Sarat Mountain, countered by the right bank of the Bely Iyus River, abounds in various relics of the past: burial grounds, rock carvings, places of funeral feasts, etc.

The east side of Sarat Mountain houses one of the best-known rocky astro-sanctuaries which is named the Saratsky Sunduk (“The Sarat Chest”) by the local population. Sarat Mountain belongs to the singular natural area called the Sunduki (“Chests”), whose borderlines are mountains and taiga of the Kuznetsky Alatau, and steppes as well as swamps and lakes lying between the Iyus and the Yenisey rivers. Numerous rock sanctuaries and picturesque rocky temples discovered in the Sunduki suggest that the valleys of the Bely Iyus and Cherny Iyus Rivers in the place where the rivers leave the ridges of the Kuznetsky Alatau must have been the largest cult and religious center of North Khakassia at the end of the Tagar Epoch (5th—1st centuries B. C.).

Sacred goods

The Iyus cache is a collection of bronze objets d’art unique in its scope, variety and degree of preservation. It was this cache that revealed the true function of delicate bronze plaques, products of art casting; such artifacts were found earlier as well. Most of these plaques had been identified as belt-plaques, which made the researchers focus on the manner in which these plaques had been fastened on garments. As for the question of who could have been the owners of those belts, most researchers merely supposed that those people had held a particularly high position in the social hierarchy.

The peculiar Iyus collection of bronze art objects joined by very well preserved leather belts gives strong evidence that these objects were part of the sacred apparel of a primitive priest. Indeed, they were sewn or suspended on a garment but their function was not limited to attaching laps or belt ends. Like the metal objects worn by Siberian shamans, whose costumes are now exhibited by ethnography departments of museums, the Iyus art objects had a special meaning. The bronze plaques personified the spirits and their voices (when one plaque was struck against another), fronts of celestial bodies, and especially of the ever variable — dying or resurrecting — moon.

Strictly speaking, the Iyus finding is not a cache but the outfit of an early priest designed for his acts of worship which must have been performed next to the sanctuaries-temples similar to those discovered around the Iyus settlement. Among the Iyus collection was a baton de commandement crowned with the figurine of a mountain goat, which indicates that the Iyus priest must have belonged to a very high rank of ancient cult worshipers. The ancient people believed that such a sacred crozier-baton de commandement worked as a wand and had the power to transport its owner to the places where only the chosen were allowed: to the fathomless depths of the blue sky, the abode of good spirits, and to the vast abysses of Abaddon, the world of the dead.

The world reflected in the akinak

Among the most important articles of the Iyus collection was a bronze dagger — the akinak. Its guard (shaft-blade) is made in the form of three-dimensional bifacial protomes (the “protome” is the Greek for the “front part”, the “sculptured front part of an animal”) of a wild boar’s head, while the crown of the shaft is in the form of three-dimensional figurines of panthers. The zoomorphous decorum of the dagger is such that, in order to see it properly, one has to hold it with its point up. This does not happen often with the thrust weapons of the Scythian time: as a rule, daggers decorated in the Scythian-Siberian animal style should be placed point down (as if put in the sheath at the belt) so that the shaft’s decorum looks right.

The length of the shaft of the Iyus dagger is related to the length of its blade as the Golden Section. Moreover, the same proportion is observed for the shaft with the crown and the blade with the boars’ heads, the height of the crown’s orifice and the height of the animals, the dimensions of the panthers (the length of the two bodies) and of the orifice, the length of the two boars’ heads and the width of the shaft.

The dagger’s decorum has a number of distinguishing features. First, the figures of the fighting animals do not make up a single scene of the mortal grabble of implacable foes, so typical of the Scythian-Siberian animal style. The animals are distinctly separated by the shaft and are placed at different levels of the dagger. Second, the animals are not postured in the usual way: the boars are militarily holding their heads up while the panthers are looking down, which is not characteristic of predators; it may be argued, though, that the panthers are tracing their prey and getting ready to attack.

Third, the spatial location of the animals is also original: the three-dimensional figurines are given in a specific horizontal projection. The boars’ protomes sharing the ear (one for the two of them) are shown simultaneously from the two sides, the right and the left; the bodies of some panthers overlap about two-thirds with the bodies of the neighboring predators. This placement of the animals results in the effect of movement: as you revolve the dagger contrariwise, the figurines of panthers appear to be moving one after the other, which probably reflects the eternal circulation of predators. On the other hand, figurines in the upper part — the boars’ heads — are static.

To perceive the dagger’s decorum correctly, you should hold it point up. The panthers then carry the heavy burden of the tubular orifice, shaft’s socket and the shaft itself. Hittites and Assyrians often decorated column foots of their temples and administrative buildings in a similar manner.

The image of the feline predator, which for ancient Indo-Iranians personified the so-called Lower World, makes meaningful the position of the boar’s head. The boar, which physically and stylistically combines carnivorous and ungulate features, is an intermediary between the Lower and the Upper Worlds. The Iyus dagger is decorated in complete agreement with this logic.

The boars’ heads are placed in the middle part of the dagger, above the shaft resting on the bodies of the two predators. The protomes are known to be closely related to the cycle of solar worshiping and sacrificing performed in the Middle World, the world of the people. The protomes were often identified with the vessel, the riton, whose origin traces back to the cut off head of a sacrificed animal. Thus, according to this idea of creation, the guard — the boars’ heads — signify the Earth, the abode of people and animals, while the crown — the panthers’ bodies — signifies the Other World, the abode of the dead, spirits and evil forces.

It is quite possible that the Upper (Celestial) World was embodied by the main part of the weapon, its triangular blade darting upward. For Indo-Iranians, Zervanists and Zoroastrians, who worshiped the Light and the Good — embodiments of the single deity Ahura Mazda — the blade could have symbolized a tongue of flame, the fire, the primordial deity and the Sky. This world, regulated by the Creator and embodied in the dagger thrust upward by the chastening hand, must have been the weapon in the eternal battle against the Dark and the Evil, personified by Ahriman.

The semantic interpretation of the dagger also reveals similarities with Mithraism, a later Oriental religion widely spread in the Hellenic world in the last centuries B. C.

The cult daggers of Siberia

In the south of West Siberia, only three daggers similar to the Iyus one have been found. One of them, found by accident in the vicinity of the village of Kamenka, the Yenisey Province, is kept in the collection assembled by I. A. Lopatin in late 19th century. The second dagger was part of the Burbinsk cache found in 1958 and was handed over to the Tomsk Regional Studies Museum by R. A. Uraev. And the third, found by chance in the Minusinsk trough, was bought by N. P. Makarov for the Krasnoyarsk Regional Studies Museum in 1996.

All the four bronze daggers must be related to the cult places of the south of West Siberia and are sure to date back to the early Iron Age. This hypothesis is based on a number of facts described in the archaeological and written sources of the Scythian Epoch.

For example, in the cultural layer of the Scythian settlement Cheposh-2,

which had been located in the middle reaches of the Katun, an altar made of slate plates and arranged in a circle about 1 m in diameter was discovered. In its north-eastern part, among bones, there was a bronze dagger whose point had been broken in the ancient times. Typologically, this dagger was similar to the Iyus one and its analogues.

Another similar bronze dagger, which was part of the ritual complex of the 5th–3rd centuries B. C., was found in the estuary of the Malaya Kirgizka, in the Tomsk Cis-Ob area. At the crest of the dune, in a pit, a bronze cauldron was mounted. The cauldron and the pit around it were filled with carbonaceous soil. The dagger and burnt bones may indicate that offerings were made there and that, similarly to the Altai altars mentioned above, they were connected with the fire. These ritual sites show a number of similarities: location at the highest point of the area, size of the cult site, placement of bronze articles in the north-eastern part of the altar, and burnt bones.

This is how Herodotus described Scythian sanctuaries located in the northern Cis-Black Sea area: “In every district, at the seat of government, there stands a temple of Aries, whereof the following is a description. It is a pile of brushwood, made of a vast quantity of fagots, in length and breadth three furlongs; in height somewhat less, having a square platform upon the top, three sides of which are precipitous, while the fourth slopes so that men may walk up it. Each year a hundred and fifty wagon-loads of brushwood are added to the pile which sinks continually by reason of the rains. An antique iron sword is planted on the top of every such mound, and serves as the image of Aries.”

In particular, placement of the ritual complex at the highest site of the surrounding area symbolizes connection with the World Mountain in the Indo-Iranian mythology, widely spread in the world of Siberian Scythians. Both the Iyus and Cheposh daggers were found in the vicinity of mountains — tangible images of creation; and a copper or bronze knife (dagger) had been an indispensable attribute of offerings to a god of high rank since the beginning of time.

The story of the Iyus cache

From the point of view of chronology, it is the dagger, along with the zoomorphic tubular crown of the baton de commandement, which is the most ancient component of the Iyus cache. Its special semantics leaves no doubt that it was the basic building block of the collection which triggered accumulation of other cult articles. Like other caches of the Chulym River area, the Iyus cache was formed as a set of ritual attributes dating back to 5th — 1st centuries B. C., prior to the devastating invasion by the Huns. The time of the Iyus collection is attested by the bronze plaques with bulls and dragons.

The specific locations where the so-called Tagar bronze — cauldrons, daggers, plates — was found suggest that all these objects had been attributes of ancient ancestral sanctuaries of various ranks, situated in the Khakassian steppes, in the Mariinsk-Achinsk partially wooded steppe, and in the Chulym River area. It is known that in the first half of the 1st millennium B. C. a large Tagar bronze cast center was formed in the Middle Yenisey valley. In the early Iron Age, the high quality Tagar bronze products — cauldrons, knives, daggers, pendants, mirrors — became very popular throughout Siberia, including northern taiga areas. However, the highest concentration of Tagar bronze cast items was found in the Chulym River basin, which is a consequence of the ancient trade-route passing through this area and connecting various regions from the Middle Yenisey to the Upper Ob.

Since it took the minimum of 300 to 500 years to form caches, detailed studies of their locations and relative chronology, as well as analyses of the materials provide unique information on the history of the material and spiritual culture of the peoples who inhabited South Siberia in the Scythian and Hunno-Sarmatian times. Moreover, the discovery that took place on the banks of the Iyus has allowed us to penetrate into the most sacred and top secret area — the intellectual world of the ancient people with their remarkable ideas of the universe and themselves.

It goes without saying that the highly complicated studies of caches can succeed only if every tiny detail is taken into account. From this point of view, it is a good thing that the Iyus cache was discovered by S. A. Fefelov, a true and disinterested lover of the past. The archaeologists were also very lucky as they came to possess not an incomplete and partly lost collection, which is often the case, but a complete set of an ancient priest’s outfit and sacred objects, up to the smallest bead. And this is a real buried treasure that a true scholar will not exchange for any pirates’ treasures…

Photos of the museum exhibits by V. Kavelin (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, SB RAS, Novosibirsk)

Drawings of the dagger by A. Borodovsky (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, SB RAS, Novosibirsk)

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