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.

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