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Section: Archaeology
The Kurgan for the Moon-faced

The Kurgan for the Moon-faced

"Years, people and nations
Go down the drain forever,
Like running water."
Velimir Khlebnikov

Before the 20th century, this nomadic people was known only from the Chinese chronicles. Until now the issue of Xiongnu ancestors and origin of the Xiongnu ethnos remains debatable

Before the 20th century, this nomadic people was known only from the Chinese chronicles. Until now the issue of Khunnu ancestors and origin of the Khunnu ethnos remains debatable.

According to the Chinese chronicles, as early as in the mid 3rd century BC the Khunnu made successful raids on the frontier areas of Chinese kingdoms. Northern Chinese kingdoms built walls to protect themselves from the Nomads, which Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of united China, joined into a single defense structure known in Europe as the Great Wall of China. 

Between the 3rd and 2nd cc. BC, the Khunnu state – the first nomadic empire of Central Asia which was over three hundred years old – achieved the status comparable to that of the famous Han Empire. Until recently, the western world has only been interested in the Khunnu inasmuch as they were ancestors of the Huns, cruel conquerors who invaded vast territories from the Volga to the Rhine in the first half of the Common Era.

The Khunnu only began to “take shape” at the turn of the 20th century, when burial grounds of some grand Khunnu people were discovered in the Noin-Ula mountains, northern Mongolia. The world perceived remnants of awesome silk fabrics and silk-faced felt carpets, lacquer and ceramic artifacts, gold decorations and silver horse harness… Artistically made pieces were testimony not only of the life led by the Khunnu but of the close links connecting the ancient eastern and western civilizations.

Noin-Ula treasure

The Noin-Ula kurgans, which later became famous, were discovered by chance in 1912 by the Russian technician of a gold mining company A. Ya. Ballod. Most successful were archaeological excavations of the burial grounds conducted in 1924—1925 by the expedition headed by the well-known Russian traveler and explorer P.K. Kozlov; he attributed the graves to the Khunnu. 

In 2006 a joint Russian-Mongolian expedition inve¬stigated the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan dated last years BC or early AD. The diggings lasted over five months, from May to October, and were very hard work: in order to make our way to the burial chamber located at a depth of 18 meters, we had to take to pieces four stone ceiling structures and bail out tons of water. 

The burial chamber built from sawn pine timber was crushed and filled with ground waters and fine clay, and the sarcophagus was staved to splinters. Nevertheless, all the things appeared to be intact except the buried person(s) – the kurgan had been broken into (or desecrated, to be more exact) back in the ancient times. The burglars cut a small hole in the pine ceiling and pulled out the dead body (or bodies). 

The finds came up to the most optimistic expectations: remains of a Chinese chariot and rich horse harness, embroidered woolen and silk fabrics, lacquered dishes, masterly made silver and gold jewelry… The felt carpet faced with wool covering the chamber floor held the most surprising find: seven human teeth from the lower jaw bone. In fact, those were not the teeth but their well preserved enamel cases. 

Revenge on the dead

Why was this find so important to us? A problem of Khunnu archaeology is virtually total absence of anthro¬pogenic material from the burial places of the society’s elite as opposed to the burials of regular Khunnu. The main reason for this is desecration (profaneness) of graves in the ancient times. 

These acts of vandalism focused primarily on the persons buried. For instance, we know from Chinese sources that “during the reign of Chzhao-di Chanyu* the Wuhuan were gradually getting stronger and dug the graves of Khunnu chanyus to avenge on Modu Chanyu” (citation from Bichurin, 1950, p.144).

Profaners of the Noin-Ula tombs pursued the same goal – revenge. Lacquered wooden sarcophagi that held the dead bodies were always broken open. The corpses of the buried people (or what was left of them) and the jewelry and weapons the dead were wearing must have been dragged out of the graves by those who knew why they had to penetrate that “kingdom of the dead” risking their lives. 

What happened to the remains of these people is only a guess. For example, in the 70s of the 2nd c. BC, the Khunnu making a pact with representatives of the Chinese court were known to drink sacrificed blood mixed with an intoxicant beverage from a cup made out of the skull of the Yuezhi chief killed by Laoshang Chanyu. Since the Scythian times, profaning enemies’ graves had been one of the main symbolic acts performed by nomadic winners in their fight for power and land. 

The result of this barbarian practice was that in Noin-Ula only fragments of bones were found in the kurgans of the Khunnu nobility, and not in all of them. By today, even this scarce anthropological evidence has been lost. 

Alien blood

Because of the extreme scantiness of human remains from the burials of Khunnu aristocracy we have much more information about the anthropological type and physical appearance of the Khunnu Empire’s common people than about those who ruled them. Knowing not only all the Khunnu chanyus but often their wives and other relatives by name, we have no idea of how they looked. 

The burial chamber of the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan situated 18 meters below the ground hid numerous objects that accompanied the deceased to the afterworld. These included gold and turquoise decorations, and remnants of silk and woolen clothes 

Written Chinese sources indicate that in its heyday the Khunnu Empire concluded a treaty of “peace and kinship” with the Han Empire, and their rulers called each other brothers. It meant that Chinese princesses were given in marriage to chanyus. All in all, four Han princesses became chanyus’ spouses, two of them were wives to Modu, the founder of the Khunnu Empire, and the other two were married to his son and grandson. The latest of these marriages took place in 135 BC; and a century later, in 33 BC, Yan of Han, the eleventh emperor of the Han dynasty, bestowed on the Khunnu ruler five beauties from his harem. One of them became the chanyu’s favorite wife and gave him sons. 

Sometimes it happened the other way round: thus the captive Chinese general Li Lin, who defected to the Khunnu and became governor of the “Khagias land” (Khakass-Minusinsk Hollow), was married to a daughter of Chanyu. These and other facts attest that the Khunnu elite had a good share of Chinese blood. 

The Khunnu could have had repeated contacts with the representatives of the Roman Empire. It is known, for instance, that Roman legionaries headed by Crassus and defeated in the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC were taken captive and sent to Parthia’s eastern boundary to do military service. Some of them became part of the troops of Chzhi-Chzhi Chanyu, who made alliance with the Parthians. With the help of the Roman legionaries sent to him, he built a camp-fortress in the valley of the Talas River. Roman infantrymen organized in a “fish scales formation” protected the fortress gate against the assault by the Chinese (Dubs, 1957). The Khunnu lost the battle, however; Chzhi-Chzhi was beheaded; and the fate of the Roman legionaries remains unknown

Han China’s influence on the Khunnu is supported by abundant archaeological evidence. Excavations of Khunnu nobility’s burial kurgans have produced a lot of Chinese things whose list practically coincided with the well-known registers of gifts the Han Empire used to send to the Khunnu: chariots; silks; silk cotton wool; things made of lacquer, gold, and jade; clothes; grain; etc. Burial rituals of the Khunnu elite copied Han’s burial practices. Chanyus’ headquarters had a lot of Chinese counselors, who encouraged Chinese traditional culture and even writing system to penetrate the nomadic environment. 

It should be noted that not just the elite but the whole of the Khunnu society had family ties with other nationalities. The nomads were always fewer than the grain-growers, and the Khunnu’s constant participation in warfare reduced the steppe’s sparse population even further. There is a hypothesis that the Khunnu had to replenish their quickly decreasing population by incorporating captives and defectors into their clans and tribes. Though we are now dealing with the Chinese, the captives included representatives of many other peoples from the steppe and from the West. It is known that during the period in question (3rd year AD) Uchzhulu Chanyu signed appendices to the agreement with the Chinese ruler which prohibited the Knunnu from accepting defecting Chinese, the Wusun, inhabitants of the Western Land**, and the Wuhuan.

Therefore, it would be incorrect to consider the Khunnu only in respect to their eastern neighbor. Throughout its history the nomadic Khunnu state strived to control the trade routes connecting China and the West. This aspiration was, in fact, a basic prerequisite to the formation of the Khunnu Empire (Kradin, 2002). By the beginning of the Common Era the Khunnu had managed to prevail over the Western Land and practically cut off the Chinese from the direct trade routes to the western countries. It can thus be stated with confidence that the Khunnu must have had close cultural ties with western civilizations including the Roman Empire and that the Khunnu society integrated not only the Hans and representatives of steppe tribes but descendants of western urban civilizations. So the Khunnu elite positively had a dash of the foreigners’ blood. 

So far we have only archaeological evidence in favor of this idea – the Chinese were little interested in the Khunnu’s relations with their western neighbors, and there is no other source of evidence regarding this nation but the Chinese chronicles. At the same time, burial grounds of the Khunnu nobility display, alongside things of Chinese origin, woolen fabrics, embroidered canopies, magnificent silver decorations, and other objects made a far way to the west from Mongolian steppes.

Tooth ID

From the archaeological viewpoint, enamel remnants of the seven teeth discovered in the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan were a modest find. At first glance, it could not provide any clues to the identity of their owner since molecular paleogeneticists determine the sex, age, and race of the people buried based on their dental tissues, which in this case were not preserved. And yet, the find turned out to be extremely valuable: morphological properties of the dental crowns allowed to establish important anthropological characteristics of the person buried (Chikasheva et al., 2009). 

Until today the domineering viewpoint in the scholarly literature has been that the Khunnu were anthropologically homogenous Mongoloids. This, however, contradicts all we know about the Khunnu from written sources and does not agree with the history of formation of the Central Asian population during more ancient epochs. 
The well-known Russian anthropologists V. P. Alekseev and I. I. Gofman, who investigated materials from the Khunnu monuments in Mongolia and Zabaikalie (Trans-Baikal Area), noted that “at Khunnu monuments a wide variety of combination of anthropological complexes can be expected in any territory because local tribal communities, which had been attached for ages to specific places of residence, came to motion as they became part of the Khunnu tribal union”.
By way of example, they give results of studies of the two Khunnu graves located in Mongolia, Tebsh-Uul and Naima-Tolgoi: “Paleontological material of the former burial situated in the south of Central Mongolia displays pronounced Mongoloid features whilst the remains of the latter monument clearly belonged to Caucasians. To give an illustrative example, we can say that the people who left these monuments looked as different from each other as today’s Yakuts and Evenkis look different from the Georgians and Armenians”. (Alekseev, Gofman, 1987, pp.236—237)

The fist thing that became clear was that it was not a he but a she. Testimony to this was the gracious, i. e. not massive, dentition. Judging by the degree to which the woman’s teeth were rubbed off, she was young – about 25 or 30 years old. The woman was undoubtedly a Caucasoid; her anthropological variety belonged to the southern gracious odontologic type. 

As luck would have it, the woman’s teeth demonstrated not neutral but the most important race-differentiating signs which are not frequent in populations. Moreover, the combination of these signs made up a very rare complex characteristic only of several modern ethnic groups inhabiting the submountain regions and mountains along the western coast of the Caspian Sea as well as in the north of the Indus-Ganges interfluve region. In the ancient times, the same odontologic complex occurred among the population of the Caspian and Aral area. 

Thorough investigation of the teeth remnants helped to establish, apart from the ethnogenetic status, unique data on the personality of the person buried. 

Microscopic examination of the damaged surfaces of dental crowns done by the specialist in ancient technologies, Doctor of History P.V. Volkov (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences) has revealed that the teeth were rubbed off in two different ways, both of which indicated traumatic damages to the dental enamel. The first kind of rubbing off must have formed because of the contact between the upper and lower teeth with a particular occlusion. 

Of special interest was the second kind of rubbing off detected on the first left premolar. Its deformed zone was a flattened area with a smoothened edge, on which linear tracks and shallow caverns could be traced. This kind of deformation could have formed as a result of long contact of the dental surface with an elastic fibrous object incorporating fine particles. 

The archaeological finds suggest that the woman was engaged in needlework – embroidery or sewing – and had to bite off threads in the process. To do that, she gripped thread with her teeth and tore it off with a brisk, quick twitch downwards. The thread must have been spun wool – and it was this relatively soft thread that could have contained a lot of abrasive particles (sand, most likely). 

Parthian roots

So where did she come from, this young woman buried at the threshold of the Common Era, in a secluded valley in northern Mongolia, amid treed slopes of the Noin-Ula Mountains? 

Judging from the political and cultural situation in this historical period, the territories inhabited by the population having the same odontologic properties as the buried woman made part of or were controlled by Parthia***. These territories included northwestern India, where in the early 1st century BC the large state of Gandhara**** came into being. For a short time, it was under Parthia’s influence. 

From the ancient times, natives of northwestern India and Kashmir had settled in southern oases of East Turkestan forming mass Indian communities. It was this population that at the dawn of the Common Era transferred Gandhara’s Pre-Kushan Parthian culture into Central Asia. In addition, the Indian population suppressed almost all local beliefs and made Buddhism the domineering religion of East Turkestan’s oases (Vorobieva-Desiatovskaia, 1992). 

It can be stated with confidence that the woman whose remains were discovered in the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan was an Indian representative of the Parthian culture; she may have been a native of East Turkestan. 

This speculation is supported by woolen textiles of Parthian production found in the same burial. First of all, this is maroon woolen fabric with a typical weaved ornament depicting merlons – quilted to the fabric was the felt carpet covering the floor of the burial chamber. Analogues can be encountered among numerous fragments of woolen fabrics discovered at excavations on the territory of Parthia, for example, in Palmira (Schmidе-Colinet, Stauffer, 2000) and in the famous Palestinian Cave of Letters (Yadin, 1963). Frescos of a synagogue in Dura-Europos – a city in mid-Euphrates region which was under the Parthian Kingdom’s rule until 165 AD – show men in tunics made from a similar fabric (Schlumberger, 1985). Also, we believe that curtains embroidered with woolen thread and depicting the scenes that have not been deciphered yet can also be regarded as Parthian.

Evidence is being produced that the Khunnu knew about Buddhism, probably from the inhabitants of East Turkestan. Therefore, they had some things associated with the Buddhist cult like the golden idol confiscated by the Khunnu from the Chinese (Bichurin, 1950) or found in the Noin-Ula kurgans silk flags decorated with rows of triangular scallops (Rudenko, 1962), which are similar to the flags decorating Buddhist temples up to now.
The fabric from the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan on top the felt carpet, stitched to it with woolen cords, has analogues among the fragments of fabrics unearthed at excavations on the territory of Parthia, for example, in Palmira.
All the fabrics have a typical merlon ornament. The same ornament can be seen on the tunics of the men depicted on the frescos of the synagogue in Dura-Europos, the city which was under Parthian rule until mid-2nd c. BC

The 20th Noin-Ula kurgan contained an object whose presence in the burial was as unusual as the presence of the young woman herself – a silver antique plate. No doubt, this artifact has a story to tell: before it arrived at the bottom of the 18-meter-deep pit grave in the very center of Asia, it must have changed a lot of masters, one of whom made the antique goddess look Buddhist by depicting a tick on her face. Can the fate of this young woman and this plate be somehow connected? After all, they both have come from the West. 

Her face is the moon itself

What brought that young Indian woman to Mongolian steppes, to the Khunnu? Could it have been the extraordinary beauty characteristic of the women of this ethnic type?

The population of northern India shares the same complex of anthropological properties: dark skin, elongated face with a thin, moderately protruding nose, full lips… And this is a transformation of this unemotional anthropological description into a verse from Mahabharta: “Her soft, shining, and wavy hair decorated with a multitude of lovely flowers and the movement of her eyebrows is enchanting. When she utters a word, it seems that her face is the moon itself. The sounds leaving her lips are sweet. <…> Her beauty is intensified by her coquetry, infatuation, and joy, as though she has taken an intoxicating drink.”(Meyer, 1915).

We can picture the Indian woman’s appearance looking at the ancient depictions from Bagram – the city 60 km from Kabul that belonged to different states from 2nd c. BC to 4th c. AD. The diggings unearthed bone facings of wooden furniture and caskets with artistic drawings carved by local craftsmen, depicting scenes from the life of an oriental woman: “Sensuality and chastity display their special features that the Indianized East has created around a beautiful naked body” (Pugachenkova, 1963, p. 30).

What was that Indian beauty – the wife to a highly placed Khunnu, for whom this kurgan was erected, or did she just accompany a dead chanyu? When establishing the status of the woman whose remains were found in the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan, we should bear in mind the psychology of the nomads. Though cattle-raising cultures have been conventionally thought of as the men’s world, in which the mode of life and main occupations put the man in the center of the universe, it was the women that served as the main criterion of wealth and happiness (Golovnev, 2009).

Moreover, nomadic cattle-raising communities gave, in reality, equal rights to men and women, and the share of women’s participation in economy was much higher than that of the men. As a consequence, the only basic difference of the women’s burials from the men’s, for instance in the Pazyryk culture, was that they normally contained no weapons and had a particular set of decorations. Richness of many Pazyryk women’s graves pointed to their high social status (Polosmak, 2001). 

The same can be applied to the Khunnu women. Distinguishing of many women’s burials are extraordinary possessions such as exquisite belt plates, other precious decorations, and weaponry. The Khunnu women were renown for their courage; at the same time, the Chinese noted that “the Khunnu women are not engaged in embroidery or making luxury objects, which requires remarkable skills…”(Khuan Kuan, 2001, p.167). Was this Khunnu women’s “drawback” supposed to be overcome with the help of alien women skilful in needlework?

Finds from the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan suggest that at the threshold of the Common Era Han chanyus’ headquarters might have had dexterous needlewomen of Indian origin coming from southern oases of East Turkestan. On the basis of Parthian models they made magnificent embroidered curtains, whose large fragments were discovered inside the kurgan. Fragments of Parthian fabrics were also found in the 25th and 6th Noin-Ula kurgans by Kozlov’s expedition (Rudenko, 1962). It cannot be ruled out, however, that these curtains were gifts to the Khunnu from the Parthians in exchange for the possibility to have Chinese silk, or were part of the loot obtained from plundering caravans. The loot might have been the needlewoman herself…

Further investigation based on universal inter-disciplinary study of all the finds should help clear up the fate of the young woman buried in the 20th Noin-Ula kurgan. The answer to the question of who the owner of this remarkable kurgan was may be buried among the inventory and objects that accompanied the deceased. 

Remnants of the teeth and hair discovered at the burial were submitted to the Molecular Paleogenetics Laboratory with the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences. Scientists may succeed in obtaining new evidence that would help examine our proposals. 

No matter what the woman buried in the kurgan in the north of Mongolia was, her life has become another page of History which has come back to us.

Bichurin N. Ya. Sobraniye svedeniy o narodah, obitavshih v Srednei Azii v drevniye vremena (The Collection of Evidence about Peoples Inhabiting Central Asia in Ancient Times). – Moscow-Leningrad: Izd-vo AN SSSR (Publishers of the USSR Academy of Sciences), 1950. V.1 
Gumilev L. N. Istoriya naroda hunnu (History of the Khunnu People). – Moscow: Institut DI-DIK, 1998. -448 p.
Zubov A. A., Haldeeva N. I. Odontologiya v antropofenetike (Odontology in Anthropophenetics). – Moscow: Nauka, 1993. – 224 p.
Polosmak N. V., Bogdanov Ye. S., Tseveendorzh D., Erdene-Ochir N. Izucheniye pogrebalnogo sooruzheniya kurgana 20 v Noin-Ule (Mongolia).(Study of the Burial Structure of Kurgan 20 in Noin-Ula, Mongolia). // Arheologiya, etnografiya i antropologiya Evrazii. – Novosibirsk: Izd-vo IAET SO RAN (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, SB RAS), 2008. – # 2 (34). – P. 77—87.
Rudenko S. I. Kultura hunnov i Noin-Ulinskiye kurgany (The Khunnu Culture and Noin-Ula Kurgans). . – Moscow-Leningrad: Izd-vo AN SSSR (Publishers of the USSR Academy of Sciences), 1962. – 206 p.

* Chanyui is the Khunnu overking. The first ruler of the Khunnu Empire was Modu Chanyui (Maodun)
** Western Land is the name of all the lands situated to the west of China. Since 1—2 cc. AD, this term was also used to denote small states on the River Tarim. The route across the River Tarim basin along which the Chinese exported silk became known as the Great Silk Way 
*** The Parthian Kingdom is the ancient state that sprang up about 250 BC to the south and south-east of the Caspian Sea and by mid 1 c. BC subdued vast areas from Mesopotamia to the Indian borders
**** Gandhara is the ancient name of the area in northwestern Pakistan which in the 2nd and 1st cc. BC was part of the Sako-Parthian Kingdom and since the 1st c. BC made part of the Kushan Kingdom  

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