KHAZAR-ERA FORTRESS OF GOLDEN HILLS (ZOLOTIYE GORKI)

by Vladimir Klyutchnikov
Last Updated: February 19, 2006

The Golden Hills (Zolotiye Gorki) fortress is located in southern Russia in the lower Don region on a high terrace of Aksay river, 70 kilometers east of Rostov-on-Don.

In June 2002, the expedition of Rostov State University (RSU) and the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads (CSEN) began the excavations of the fortress. The expedition consisted of Russian, American, and English archaeologists and volunteers. The first season's work concluded in July 2002.

The geomagnetic research of a part of the territory was carried out. Additionally, about 100 square meters of the fortress were excavated. The most interesting objects on this territory were the stone walls of some buildings, the kiln for ceramics, a kitchen pit, and four graves. One of the graves had artifacts dating to the 8th-9th centuries A.D. Artifacts recovered from the graves included a ceramic jar and a spindle whorl. A big collection of ceramics pieces was found on the territory of the fortress. The discoveries are representatives of the Saltovo-Mayatskaya culture of Khazaria, but it is not yet known whether they are from members of the Khazar people or rather from other tribes of the kingdom during the Khazar era.

In the fall of 2002, artifacts and data from Golden Hills fortress were studied, and geomagnetic research results from the site became available.

In 2003, the team continued excavating Golden Hills, focusing its efforts on the north-western and south-western site sectors.

Rock-beds of two houses were cleared out in a trench whose area made 128 square meters in the south-western sector. The houses were preliminarily defined as dwelling or utility rooms. From the northern side these were enclosed in a stronger additional stone wall (120-140 centimeters wide). It is not inconceivable that the stronger wall, apart from its utility function, also served the purposes of protection. Rather, a strong mass of collapsed pieces of light-yellow raw bricks could be traced around the walls. We are possibly dealing here with raw-brick-and-stone constructions whose pedestals alone were made of stone. These newly-discovered raw-brick-and-stone constructions are a rather uncommon phenomenon for the lower Don region of the Khazar era. It should be noted that there was no significant difference between the pottery debris found in the lower layer (the one underlying the houses' foundations) and those of the upper layer (the one associated with the brick-and-stone constructions).

The results obtained during the 2003 excavations of the south-western site sector confirmed the geomagnetic prospecting data of 2002 with a high degree of accuracy. Another geomagnetic prospecting of a significant part of the site (in addition to the area of 2002) was carried out directly before the excavations of 2003.

A children's burial was cleared out in a trench of a 16-square-meters area located in the north-western site sector. This burial revealed the following finds: glass beads and a single copper coin. The coin, which depicts a double-headed eagle and has Arabic lettering, may date from the 10th-11th centuries. It is of a very rare type and its origin is not yet identified.

During the excavations, a private person gave the expedition as a gift an interesting collection of archeological artifacts presumably originating from the Golden Hills territory and its close vicinity. The collection included a rich pottery series and a group of bronze artefacts. These articles give us some grounds to assume that the place was inhabited for quite a long period of time within the framework of the Saltovo-Mayatskaya culture of Khazaria.

In 2004, the archaeologists again concentrated on the south-western and north-western parts of the settlement. The main goal was to study the remains of the complex of stone houses. Another task was to study the earlier layer (also from the Khazar era) that is located under the layer of the stone buildings. The excavations were carried out as far as the virgin land on the extremity of the settlement territory. A total area of 274 square meters was excavated during 2004.

In the south-western part of the settlement, the researchers studied a group of buildings with foundations made of stone and strengthened with clay that survived to the present day. Here they found several rectangular buildings fenced with a thick stone wall in the north-west. The most interesting artifacts in this part of the settlement were a bronze part of a harness and a broken hand-made black ceramic pot (both dating from the 8th century A.D.).

In the north-western part of the settlement, the remains of stone houses were also excavated. A small wall served as a fence and was paved underneath with flat stones. There were pits in the pavement; these might be the foundations of the wooden logs which supported the shed. They also found a small kiln that was used for making flat cakes. Several kitchen pits (maybe used for storing food) were studied in this part of the fortress. One of them was used as a grave by the local people when they were leaving the settlement. A male burial with parts of a harness and pieces of iron was found here. Additionally, four burials were excavated that supposedly date back to the time of the Golden Horde, after the Khazar settlement no longer existed.

Interestingly, when the archaeologists excavated a burial in one of the kitchen pits, they found the entrance of a shaft (leading to a catacomb burial) in the bottom of the grave. It was impossible to excavate this second burial as it was found during the last day of the excavation season, so the shaft was conserved until the following year. This shaft may lead to a burial of the catacomb culture (Middle Bronze Age), or perhaps to a Sarmatian catacomb burial, or less likely to a Khazar-era Alanic catacomb burial. Most likely it has the remains of a Bronze Age barrow that had been destroyed by the settlement. The barrow may date back to the second millennium B.C.

Excavations continued from June until August of 2005. A large area was excavated, including Khazar-era house foundations and kitchen pits, as well as burials which appear to be from a non-Khazar era. Also discovered, on the Lower Don Chastiye mounds, were two Khazar burials surrounded by a ditch, one which was robbed but the other of which contained many materials, including a complete human skeleton, the remains of a horse, a horse harness, a pot, a silver ring with glass decoration, and silver belt decorations.


Photos:

  • The hill where the fortress stood (March 2002, prior to excavation)
  • A broad view of the fortress hill (Summer 2004)
  • Broken artifact pieces from the surface of the ground
  • Excavation site
  • The excavators gathered around an ancient kitchen pit
  • A burial in a kitchen pit
  • Work with a skeleton
  • Section of a wall of a building
  • Excavators at work during 2003
  • Member of team excavating a child's grave
  • Beads excavated from the child's grave, restored to pristine condition
  • Copper coin found in the child's grave
  • A sector of Golden Hills
  • Collection of Saltovo-Mayatskaya pottery given to team as a gift
  • Excavators at work during 2004
  • Three excavators at work during 2004
  • South-western part of the settlement, with remains of stone buildings
  • North-western part of the settlement, with remains of a kiln and stone pavement
  • Foundation of a wooden log
  • A piece of ceramics
  • Bronze part of a harness


    SUGGESTED READINGS
    For additional information about Golden Hills, we recommend the following:

  • The Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, particularly an invitation to participate in the Golden Hills 2006 Excavations
  • Donskaya Arkheologiya also has an invitation to participate in the Golden Hills Excavations
  • Golden Hills - 2002 Excavation Report in English
  • Golden Hills - 2002 Expedition Report in Russian
  • Golden Hills - 2002 Expedition Notes by Todd Morrison

    "The Jews of Khazaria" by Kevin Brook contains information on the Khazar civilization.


  • An Introduction to the History of Khazaria
  • Znakomstvo s Istoriey Xazarii
  • Khazaria Image Gallery
  • Bibliography of Khazar Studies, 1901-Present

  • Khazaria.com Homepage