But where the Asian Huns came from, what religious beliefs they held, and even what language they spoke still remain obscure.
Minyaev hopes to increase understanding of the Asian Huns and how they lived by comparing their burial practices with those of earlier societies in China and Mongolia.
"Analyses of the construction of the central burial complex, the spatial relationships between complexes, and artifacts and skeletal material will almost certainly provide important insights into the society and culture of the Xiongnu alliance," he said.
How the tombs are constructed and the bodies laid out, whether there is evidence of human sacrifice, and the richness of the artifactsall are important clues. Accompanying ceramics and other material increase knowledge about former trading routes and the spoils of war.
The site in the Tsaaram Valley where Minyaev and his team have been working contains 25 tomb complexesthe first elite burial grounds of the Xiongnu to be found.
The burial grounds, or barrows, of royal members of a kingdom are especially intriguing because they usually contain more material goods than the tombs of people with less status, and therefore potentially greater insight into a particular society.
The burial pits in Tsaaram Valley are large. A barrow that Minyaev began excavating last year is about 3 feet (1 meter) above ground and roughly 85 feet (26 meters) square. The entrance chamber is also large, about 65 feet (20 meters) long, and faces south.
The upper section of the burial pit is divided into nine compartments; the walls are constructed of wooden beams supported by rocks and compacted soil.
Last year the excavation team dug to 23 feet deep (7 meters), where they reached a layer of large stones and logs. The soil at this level yielded human and animal bones, and fragments of white jade and ceramics.
The scientists believe that the main burial chamber lies below this layer. They plan to excavate that lower chamber this year, after they secure sufficient funding to continue the dig.
Evidence indicates that the main chamber complex was ringed with sacrificial burials. So far, 8 of 25 sacrificial burial sites have been excavated, yielding iron arrowheads and belt parts, fragments of ceramics, and bone and horn implements. The graves contain the skeletons of men of different ages at the time of death.
The belt remnants, Minyaev explained, offer an example of the kind of insight into a particular society that various artifacts can provide.
Belts were important to cattle-breeding tribes such as the Xiongnu. The design and level of decorationsuch as the complexity of the buckle and the artwork of a bronze plaque worn at the center of a beltindicated a person's social status. A plaque that depicts a great battle between two dragons would have greater cachet than one showing the head of a goat.
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