Chastiye Kurgany Excavations - 2002

Todd Morrison
Doctoral student of Eurasian Archaeology at Queen's University of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Took part in Chastiye Kurgany excavations in 2001 and 2002.

Chastiye Kurgany is a complex of burial mounds that lies a few miles from the Seversky Donets river, near the village of Krasnodonetskaya. It consists of about 30 mounds, ranging in time from the Bronze Age to the late Middle Ages. The cultures represented in this cemetery (so far) are Catacomb, Srubna, Sauromatian, Khazar, and Kipchak. The unique thing about kurgany (the Russian word for ‘burial mound’) cemeteries, in general, is that they are the longest-used in the world. Chastiye is doubly interesting because so many cultures are in evidence and it is the first time the evolution and development of an individual cemetery has been studied. 2002 was the third year of excavation and the second year that Westerners have had the opportunity to participate.
Krasnodonetskaya is a small village associated with an old Soviet-era collective farm. The fields in the area, including the one containing the cemetery, are still in use and the farming operations are a daily sight. Lines of trees border the fields and the camps are situated in these. There is a student-camp near the site and our international camp is located about a mile and a half away, bordering an uncultivated, open part of the steppe. This area is criss-crossed with ravines and small creeks and is an interesting hike. The archaeologists maintain very good relations with the local people and the sheriff is an almost daily visitor to the camp and excavation.
The camp is well-shaded and quite cool, even when the weather in the open isn’t. The tents are situated between the trees so as to allow for considerable space to hang-out, nap, play guitar, etc. There is a large main tent for meals, lectures, and socialising. The kitchen has a supply tent and root cellar. There are male and female toilets, a solar shower, an area for brushing you teeth and hair, and laundry area. There are one or two full-time cooks, an interpreter, a doctor, and a driver. Tents are provided and they are quite roomy. Most of the ground is covered with straw, particularly under the tents. The camp is the most well-organised one I have seen in ten years of archaeology.
The weather can get very hot, so bringing lightweight (and light-coloured) clothing and a hat is important. And evenings can be a bit chilly so a jumper or jacket is advisable. Occasionally it rains, sometimes hard, so having something waterproof is a good idea. Bugs are not too bad on the steppe this time of year. It can also get dusty after dry periods. Of course, a flashlight is a good thing to have.
Daily trips are made into Krasnodonetskaya. Eggs, vegetables, and bread are usually obtained locally (fresh bread from Krasnodonetskaya is some of the best I’ve had). The daily trips to the village are a good time to pick-up beer (less than a dollar a pint), cigarettes (about 30 cents a pack), ice cream (about 15 cents), and snack food. There is a bar with a television (Olga and Volodya have an excellent documentary about Jeannine Davis-Kimball that includes footage of the Chastiye excavations) and a place to make phone calls. From the village we go to the river to swim for half an hour or so. The water is warm and the river is just wide enough to swim to the other side. A daily trip to the river is guaranteed and, after a morning in the dust and sun, it’s almost a religious experience.
The workday usually begins at the 6am bell, followed by breakfast at 6:30. We get to the mounds at about 7am and work until the 10am juice break, which includes a small snack. Then we work until 1pm, stop into camp, go to the village and river, then back to camp for lunch at around 2 or 3pm. The day is usually free for whatever you want to do after lunch. Evenings have lectures, campfires, music, parties, etc. Weekends have excursions to Novocherkassk or Rostov to visit museums, cathedrals, or the ruins of the ancient Greek port of Tanais (I study the Eneolithic and Bronze Age, but several months spent in southern Russia have given me a strong appreciation for Cossack culture). There is usually a trip to the sauna every week or couple of weeks, and one day a week remains open.
Kurgany can contain burials from the Eneolithic through the Middle Ages. Each culture found at Chastiye has its particular interesting aspect. If Yamna or Eneolithic graves are discovered in the unexcavated western portion of the cemetery, it will show the presence of strong contenders for the proto-Indo-Europeans. A Catacomb culture grave of the Middle Bronze Age was excavated this year, as was a mysterious religious sanctuary from this period. The person in the burial had been killed by an arrow to the back of the neck and was interred with a pot, brazier containing a burnt substance, and a bronze knife. The sanctuary was originally believed to be a Khazar grave, due to characteristic trenches noted during the excavation of an Iron Age mound the previous year. Removing the topsoil showed it to be a stone stele surrounded by ditches containing Middle Bronze Age ceramics. No comparable site is known from this period in the area.
A massive Iron Age Sauromatian-Sarmatian mound was excavated by the university this year. This year’s burial was surrounded by a large, yellow-clay rampart containing post-holes or pits. Kurgany from this period can contain wealthy female warrior burials (yes, the Amazons). Unfortunately, the grave excavated was heavily looted and yielded only a few bones from a 30 year-old woman and most of a bull (horse?). Herodotus writes extensively on the Sauromatian period and a copy is usually floating around camp.
The Khazars are another interesting culture whose burials have been excavated. They were a Turkic tribe from the early Middle Ages who, finding themselves stuck between the Christian West and the Islamic caliphates, converted to Judaism. The exact nature of this conversion is currently under serious study; e.g. was it the rulers or the entire tribe? To my knowledge, no artefact which has Jewish associations has yet been found in a burial. The Khazars, and their subject Alan and Bulgar peoples, inhabited the area for several hundred years and their distinctive pottery is found in the fields around camp. Their burials are quite easy to distinguish due to the above-mentioned trenches. They usually contain horse bones and, last year, we found bits of silver and gold in one.
The final culture that has been excavated at Chastiye are a series of Turkic Kipchak (also called Polovtsy and Cuman) burials from the late 1200s. These mounds are usually covered with large boulders so are avoided by the local farmers. Last year, we excavated two mounds with horses interred next to the body. One contained a female secondary burial. Each of the two mounds from this year contained the bodies of young women. Though, once again, the graves had been looted, an earring fragment showed the burials to be from the late 13th century, the period of Mongol dominance in the area.

The essay above originally appeared on Donskaya Arkheologiya magazine's website, which has since closed.

Further reading:
Khazar Burial Mounds at Chastiye Kurgany by Vladimir Klyutchnikov
An Introduction to Khazaria's History by Kevin Alan Brook


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