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Section: Archaeology
The Necropolis of the Intractable

The Necropolis of the Intractable

Isle Bolshoi Ussuriiskii extends along the Amur for miles and miles. It is unique both because of its length and due to the cultural layer discovered by archaeologists at the depth of a meter and a half.

The Jurchens buried their dead there. Priamurye and Primorye were the homeland for that people, the people that expanded southward and made the present-day Peking one of the capitals of their Golden Empire.

The Jurchens of the epoch of developed democracy and victorious campaigns instilled terror into their neighbors, the peoples who earlier had encroached upon their lands. Actually, the defense of the native land passed into the offensive. Then there was the Empire. After that the warriors of Genghis Khan came laying everything waste with fire and sword. All of this lasted a mere two hundred years, but this brief, from a historical point, period became a subject for serious research in China, Mongolia, and Russia in the subsequent centuries.

In the previous issue of the magazine, we began to acquaint the reader with the Jurchen collection archaeologist Vitaliy Medvedev presented to us. The amazing discoveries resulting from archaeological excavations helped restore the picture of this people’s past life. Now, as we promised, the story is continued…

Since the 18th century, a great number of outstanding Russian orientalists have enriched our knowledge of ancient and medieval peoples, including the Jurchens. N.Ja. Bichurin put a lot of work into the study of Chinese historical chronicles. In the first quarter of the 19th century, he headed the Russian ecclesiastical mission in Peking. He became proficient in the Chinese language on his own. His contemporaries said that when returning home, Bichurin carried not only an enormous collection of documents accumulated in 14 years, but he also equipped a 15-camel caravan that carried about 400 pood (almost 6,400 kg) of most valuable Chinese books. He spent the following thirty years of his life translating and handling the materials he had accumulated in China.

Thanks to his numerous works and published books, N. Ya. Bichurin was well established in the circles of academic and literary community. He was on friendly terms with Pushkin, and, according to Pushkinist scholars, he definitely aroused the poet’s interest in China. There exist their compositions with dedications to each other.

All of the above is directly related to the subject of our interest, the Jurchens of Priamurye, since Bichurin in his book Statistical Description of the Chinese Empire wrote about the Jurchens. He described how they captured the capital of China, Kaifeng, “abducted two sovereigns and took them abroad, where they finished their lives on the banks of the Amur, in poverty” (the two sovereigns being the last Emperors of the dynasty of the Northern Song, Emperor Huizong and Emperor Qinzong.)

So, what kind of people was the Jurchens? They were a Tungus-Manchurian people that had lived since time immemorial on both sides of the present-day border separating Russia from China.

Some of the Jurchen tribes, primarily those from the southern parts of Manchuria (the Chinese People’s Republic), who in the 10th — early 12th centuries were subjugated to Mongolian-speaking Khitan, the founders of the Empire of Liao (Iron), were called “docile”.

The lower section of the Sungari basin and the land to the north-east of it, i.e., the portion including Russian Priamurye, were inhabited by the most militant Jurchens not subjugated to the Khitan; they were referred to as “intractable, indocile.” These Jurchen tribes became warriors and conquered their neighbors. But prior to that, they united their tribes first into an alliance, then into a state.

According to chronicles, after Aguda’s* troops had totally defeated the Iron Empire, he proclaimed himself Emperor in 1115 and said, “Though iron <…> is beautiful, it may rust. The only metal that never rusts and cannot be destroyed is gold. In addition, the Wanyan tribe with which I am related through Chief Khan’pa has always been partial to gleaming colors, like gold, so I decided to take this name for my imperial family. Thus, I name it Golden!”**

To be fair, it should be noted that, valuable as written sources are, little could be learned from them about the people’s material culture. The overwhelming majority of the sources connected with the material life of the Jurchens have been supplied by archeology.

The top layers of soil were removed from a section of the burial ground. One of the most responsible digging operations is the exposure of grave spots that indicate the shape and size of the grave. The contours of the spots are, as a rule, smeared and can be made visible on the background of the sand only after watering it. That is why the spots had to be “caught” either early in the morning, before the sand got dry, or after a special watering, or “sweating it out” with bunches of twigs

By the present time, a great number of necropolises with hundreds of burial places of hunters, warriors, stockbreeders, farmers, ceramists, blacksmiths, jewelers, and shaman priests, as well as sites of ancient settlement and other archaeological artifacts have been excavated and studied. The Korsakov burial ground located on Isle Bolshoi Ussuriiskii stands out among them for its exclusive archaeological value.

The burial ground was given its name after the settlement of Korsakov, situated five kilometers away from it, on the bank of the Amur channel. The isle is rich in small watercourses and lakes; its sappy water meadows smell sweet. Our archaeological team of North-Asian complex expedition of the Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy of the USSR SB RAS (since the year 2000, the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, SB RAS), which was working in the Far East at the time, was invited to come here.


It is not uncommon that archaeological monuments are discovered by pure accident, by people who are far from archeology. That was the case with the Korsakov burial ground. In the spring of 1976, G. F. Bardeeva, a milkmaid from Korsakov, went picking flowers and found two absolutely whole ancient figulines. They were lying on a sandy hill that had been dug out by a bulldozer.

We accepted this information gratefully, and that very summer started to investigate the burials. Other burial complexes were also discovered on the island. Yet, the Korsakov burial ground proved to be truly invaluable, a genuine treasure unequalled among other grounds both in the Russian Far East and in the contiguous foreign territories. The Korsakov burial ground belongs to the type of the so-called ground burials, where the dead, together with their belongings, were left in the pits dug in the ground and filled up with soil, without any burial mound raised up over them.

It is always difficult to find such burials since they have almost no traces on the surface, neither any pits, nor mounds. Yet, we discovered nearly 400 burials, some of them containing two or more deceased. Taking into account the fact that a burial served to bury, primarily, adult people and that infant mortality was high in the Middle Ages, one may conclude that the place was fairly densely populated.

In this necropolis we discovered the most typical and vivid evidence of the Amur Middle Ages, such as arming, clothing, belts, as well as ornaments, and elegant but somewhat mysterious paizi.

Burials, like no other archaeological object, have a capacity for exhibiting the spiritual culture of the people, because the methods and forms of burying their dead reflect ancient people’s idea of the beyond, their religious beliefs (in this particular case, mostly shamanistic). Besides, funeral rites are among the most stable ethnic features.

Historical chronicles devote little space to the description of funeral rites. The laconic data that is available concerns primarily the higher strata of society, which upon conquering the neighboring nations borrowed their customs and traditions neglecting their own. The greater interest acquire the burials of common Jurchens of Priamurye. They are the more valuable because they were found on the land that, since time immemorial, had belonged to “rebellious” tribes, carriers of an original, distinctive culture.

The most common method of burying in a burial ground on Isle Bolshoi Ussuriiskii was burying according to the dead body positioning (inhumation). The majority of the dead were lying on the backs, their legs bent in the knees.

The next in number came reinterment, not quite an ordinary rite. In point of fact, the remains of the deceased, first buried in the open air (in the trees, on some special columnar constructions), were subsequently reburied in another place. The Jurchens buried their children among tree branches or in tree hollows, as the Nanaians, Ulchis, Udegeis, Itelmens, Koreans, Yakuts, and some other peoples did relatively recently. It is noteworthy that many shamanistic peoples, in particular peoples of the Far East and Siberia, had a tribal family tree as a kind of a receptacle for the souls of clan members. This clan family tree was conceived as a mother’s place for birth giving.

Besides, we excavated a small group of burials that contained the deceased who had been cremated. This rite probably had to do with the person’s cause of death or with the fact that he belonged to an ethnic group with different sepulchral rites and funereal traditions.

Most burials contained sepulchral belongings. These objects are multifarious not only in the form and function (about 60 denominations), but also in the material they were made of. Artifacts made of metal (iron, bronze, silver, and gold), different sorts of stone, chiefly chalcedony and jade (about 600 finds), and burnt gault (earthenware) (almost 500 artifacts, including vessels and lids for them, as well as numerous sinkers for fishing nets) are predominant. We also found some glassware, ivory artifacts and artifacts made of other materials.


The results of the excavations show that the Jurchens attached great importance to arming and military art. In military science the most important part was attached to archers, both unmounted and mounted. Even earlier, the Bohai people had a law that prohibited young men from marrying until they had mastered the art of archery. The Bohai people were the nearest relatives of the Jurchens: they had created the state of Bohai (698-926), the direct predecessor of the Golden Empire. Almost everyone of the male population had iron (steel) arrowheads (neither wooden shafts, nor leather or birch bark quivers survived). Moreover, it is probable that women also shot from bows, judging by the fact that arrows were put not only in male burials but in female graves, too.

The Jurchens of Priamurye manufactured no less than 36 types of iron arrowheads. More than 630 specimens of more than ten different types (flat, faceted, armor-piercing, etc.) designed for different-purpose weapons were found in the Korsakov burial ground alone.

Besides, the warriors of the Amur region were armed with iron broadswords, spears, battle-axes, daggers, and clubs. Broadswords, rather expensive types of weapon for medieval horsemen or infantrymen, were fairly widespread among the Jurchens, along with bows with arrows. In the medieval Far East, broadswords were weapons of a peculiar kind. No broadswords other than Jurchens’ were found in the ancient or medieval burial complexes in that area. Chronicles contain some data that confirm the fact that the Jurchens of the Empire period, who lived on the right bank of the Amur, had mangonels for which they used iron pots filled with gunpowder. “They called the pots zhentian-lei (the heaven-shaking thunder). When a mangonel strikes and the fire flares up, it sounds like a peal of thunder… Exploding, the pot burned the area of 120 feet around and pierced the iron armor with sparkles of fire.”

Along with numerous offensive weapons, the burials of the Jurchens contained scattered or compact numbers of defensive arms, such as iron armor plates. Small-sized narrow plates were attached to textile or leather groundwork and constituted a scaly coat of mail. Similar coats of armor—breastplates, backplates, and shoulder straps fixed with the help of straps — or coats of armor in the form of sleeveless jackets were widespread among medieval nomads of Eastern Europe and in Russia.

Both whole and broken broadswords were found in the burials. The whole broadswords are 70-85 cm long. The blade is shaped in the form of a regular strip, 3.5 cm wide, and converges towards the edge. The hilt is short and is supplied with an iron grip for the wooden pieces to be fixed in it. The pommel of broadswords often had a shape of an oval pipe, open only at the hil

It is noteworthy that in some burial places we came across special niches used as hiding places, or caches. What valuables could the people who made the Korsakov burial ground hide in them? These valuables must have been connected with feats of arms. The coat of armor that consisted of seven rows of tightly attached plates is of particular interest. In another cache, we discovered the remains of a helmet. Helmets are rarely found in archaeological excavations, and if they are, they are found only in burials of princes and military leaders. Helmets were valued very highly at the time.


Digging in the burial ground, we found a large number of artifacts (primarily, made of metal) that served for decorating some kinds of clothing; as well as some scraps and shreds of cloth of which clothes were made. Belts with plates stand out for their especially magnificent appearance.

Belt sets occupied a place of importance in early-medieval societies of Asia and Europe. A belt was either an official’s or a warrior’s accessory. Belts were a kind of calling card of a warrior testifying to his services in battle. That is why belt sets in the Turkic burials of the second half of the first millennium are usually found in male burials.

The fashion for belts that reached at that time Priamurye, Primorye, and even Japan, manifested itself in all multiformity. There were belts of certain types that only Jurchen male warriors wore. They were decorated with square or rectangular iron plates that were imitating ancient Turkic specimens. The most impressive were belts with delicate lamellate plaques that I suggested calling Amur-type belts. Adults, males and females alike, as well as children, wore those belts, children’s belts having small-size “non-standard” plaques. The assortment of belt sets — the number of plaques, pendants and other accessories — depended on the social status of the deceased. Some rather elegant sets were put in male burials. Yet, the most rich and magnificent belts belonged to female shamans.

Incidentally, the burials generally contained, along with belts (sometimes up to as many as four artifacts in one interment), various ornaments, including some made of precious metals, as well as hairpins, crockery, tools, and other goods. The shaman’s indispensable accessories, such as breastplates and backplates with various bronze details, were found in shamans’ burials.

Jurchens’ belts that accumulated the technological and artistic achievements of medieval craftsmen are an exclusively important source of information. Before our discoveries on the isle, scholars singled out three natural habitats of medieval belt sets — from Pannonia (present-day Hungary and Austria) to Middle and Central Asia. I proposed that there be a fourth distinctive natural habitat, Middle and Lower Priamurye. This idea was accepted by my colleagues and received wholehearted support from them.

Personal adornment

Out of a great variety of adornments, earrings and beads that were often made in rich necklaces were especially popular with the Jurchens. The beads found in the Korsakov ground were made of magnificent stones; we also found some glass beads, which must have been made far from Priamurye. We mean the beads with inside gilding whose production was organized in Egypt as far back as the 4th century B. C. Because of complex technology of manufacture, beads with gold or silver streaks were made, even many centuries later, only in the countries of South-Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean. Even in the Middle Ages, only Egypt, Syria, and Byzantium were recognized as centers for producing gilded glass.

Beads were the most popular jewelry with Jurchen women; they were often arranged in rich necklaces. The most commonly used materials were stones like chalcedony, cornelian, agate, rock crystal, and turquoise. Frequent use was made of plain glass (dark blue, blue, green, yellow). Sometimes we come across multicolored glass beads (spotted or striped), and beads with gold and silver streaks

Several burials of the island revealed some extremely attractive artifacts, paizi. They were composed of gilded plaque-links tightly adjoining each other and fixed by shanks to a leather strip which, in its turn, was fixed to a wine-colored lacquered wooden bar.

Paizi could not have been used for utilitarian purposes. Rather, they were accessories of officials of a certain rank. From written sources it is known that in the 11th century the Jurchens gave a paizi to “an official for special commissions.” These unique artifacts, some of them totally preserved, were found as a result of many years of thorough excavations on that amazing Amur isle; they are Jurchen credentials that spanned centuries and reached new peoples of another civilization.

During our work on Isle Bolshoi Ussuriiskii, our archaeological team experienced various adventures and even extraordinary events.
For example, in the second half of the 1970s, someone informed the leadership of Khabarovsk krai that some archaeologists were digging the burials that contained gold, and that those graves were… Chinese. Of course, that was absurd. But, since the relations between our state and China at the time were, mildly speaking, far from being friendly, the matter took a bad turn. The deluded “competent authorities” occupied themselves with “the case of archaeologists” day and night.
And what frantic efforts were made! First they sent a helicopter with a special service detachment to capture “dangerous criminals.” The island was blockaded.
In the daytime, armed guards guarded the pontoon bridge so as to prevent us from getting to the mainland; at night the bridge was drawn. As a result, we had to smuggle in provisions and drinking water for the team. It was a mercy that the guards were humane and realized the absurdity of the situation.
To make a long story short, we held out; Oksana, my wife, then quite young (she devoted more than thirty seasons to field work), started to have grey hairs. In a couple of weeks, when it became clear that we were not Chinese spies, they left us alone. All the specialists, students, and schoolchildren who were enthusiastically working with us felt relieved at last.
A. P. Okladnikov, who always supported research connected with the medieval Far East and regarded it as priority, arrived in Khabarovsk to take part in an international conference. He used his influence to initiate an investigation aimed at finding out who it was who had misled hundreds of people.
When Aleksei Pavlovich learned the details of the incident, he advised me to write a detective novel when I grew old and retired. My friends and fellow-workers supported the idea…
Paradoxically, a part of Isle Bolshoi Ussuriiskii was recently given away to the Chinese, though there is nothing Chinese there.


V. P. Vasil’ev. The History and Antiquities of the Eastern Part

of Middle Asia, from 10th to 13th centuries, with applied translation of the Chinese proceedings on the Khitan, Jurchens, and Tartar-Mongolians. St. Petersburg, 1857. 235 pp.

M. V. Vorob’ev.The Culture of the Jurchens and of the state of Jin (10th century –1234). Moscow: Nauka, 1983. 366 pp.

The History of the Golden Empire. Assistant Editor V.E. Larichev. Novosibirsk: Publishing House of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, SB RAS, 1998. 286 pp.

E. I. Kychanov. The Jurchens in the 11th century in Siberian Collected Articles on Archeology. Ancient Siberia, issue 2, pp. 269 – 281. Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1966.

V. E. Medvedev. Priamurje from the end of the 1st to the beginning of the 2nd millennium. The Jurchen Epoch. Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1986. 206 pp.

V. E. Medvedev. The Korsakov Burial Ground: Chronology and Materials. Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1991

*Aguda is a grandson of Ugunai, the first head of the Jurchen state de facto, a commander. The founder and first Emperor of the Golden Empire.

**Here and further on quotations from book The History of the Golden Empire. Novosibirsk, 1998

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