Russian Tombs Hold Clues to Obscure Life of Asian Huns

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
July 12, 2001
Piecing together the lives of a people who have not left a written history of their own is a painstaking task, akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture. But that's what some archaeologists are trying to do on the steppes of Asia.

In the Tsaaram Valley not far from the Russian-Mongolian border, they are exploring royal tombs of the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes that dominated Central Asia for two centuries beginning about 2,300 years ago.

Known as the Huns of Asia, the Xiongnu (or Hsiung-nu) were fierce warriors. They were among the first to use a stirrup as they rode into battle on harnessed horses, shooting arrows and spears—a style of warfare that enabled them to easily defeat Chinese armies who fought in chariots and on foot.

Yet numerous questions and contradictions surround the existing knowledge about the life and society of the Xiongnu.

Sergey Minyaev, an archaeologist with the Institute of History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences, hopes that exploration of the Huns' royal tombs will help resolve some of the mysteries.

Minyaev's expedition, which has been supported by the National Geographic Society, is set to begin a third and final phase this year.

Contradictory Evidence

From the end of the third century B.C., the Xiongnu preyed upon their neighbors in China, stealing goods, enslaving people, and demanding tribute. These invasions are documented in Chinese writings of the time, so much is known about the political history of the Xiongnu. But there are contradictions between the Chinese written sources and archaeological finds.

For more than a century, archaeologists have been excavating the tombs with the aim of resolving the differences and drawing an accurate picture of this early society.

Early Chinese historians wrote that the Xiongnu had no towns, did not grow crops, and lived solely on the products of hunting.

Yet since 1896, when burial grounds of this ancient kingdom were first uncovered, scientists have discovered many Xiongnu cemeteries and settlements in the Trans-Baikal region of Russia, northern Mongolia, and northern China.

The archaeological findings show that the Xiongnu built walled fortresses and developed urban centers. There is evidence they grew crops, raised cattle, and produced objects from stone, horn, wood, and felt.

They were also masters of iron and bronze. The products of their efforts included tools, harnesses, and belt buckles, as well as an arsenal of war equipment: arrowheads, swords, daggers, and chest plates.

But where the Asian Huns came from, what religious beliefs they held, and even what language they spoke still remain obscure.

Unearthing Clues

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 artifacts—all 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 complexes—the 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 decoration—such as the complexity of the buckle and the artwork of a bronze plaque worn at the center of a belt—indicated 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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