In the late third and early second century BC, the Hsiung-nu lead a powerful alliance of tribes that dominated the eastern part of Central Asia. The alliance, which consisted of hunting and cattle-herding tribes, is fairly well known from ancient Chinese sources, and we also have archaeological knowledge of them – partly thanks to researchers from the Kyakhta museum in Russia who, in the late 19th and early 20th century investigated archaeological monuments in Central Asia.
Today, the largest collections of archaeological Hsiung-nu artifacts are housed in The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and in The Museum of Regional Studies in Kyachta. Kyakhta is a Russian town located very close to the Mongolian border, directly opposite the Mongolian border town Altanbulag. Many small Hsiung-nu cemeteries have been found in the Kyachta region.
Burials of the Hsiung-nu
Cemeteries of the Hsiung-nu were discovered by researchers associated with the Kyachta museum investigating the Trans-Baikal region in the late 1800s. One of the leading forces behind the discovery was anthropologist J.D. Talko-Grinzevich; manager of the Kyachta museum.
In 1924, an expedition headed by P. Kozlov found Hsiung-nu tombs in the Noin-Ula mountains of Northern Mongolia. The dead had been buried together with great riches, such as carpets, silver plates and items made from nephrite, which is one of two different minerals commonly known as jade.
The Noin-Ula discovery helped refuel interest in the Hsiung-nu, and from 1928 and onward several archaeological expeditions devoted to the Hsiung-nu were launched.
The Ivolga Complex
The Ivolga Complex is one of the most extensively investigated Hsiung-nu sites. The primary parts of the site is a large fortress, a smaller fortification, and a cemetery.
One of the chief archaeologists here has been Professor A. Davydova.
The large fortress is located in the Selenga River Valley, approximately 16 km from Ulan-Ude, which is the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia in Russia.
The fortress measures circa 350 meters from north to south, and roughly 200 meters from west to east. There are four defensive ramparts, with a breadth of 35-38 meters.
The creation of the fortress site must have been highly organized, sine the dwellings are neatly placed in rows and these rows are forming blocks.
During excavations of the southern part and inside part of the fortress (total area of circa 7,000 sq m), 600 pits and 54 dwellings were investigated by the archaeologists. Each dwelling had a fireplace in the northwestern corner, made out of slabs of stone.
Archaeological findings show that there were people living in the fortress who were engaged in agriculture, cattle-breeding, hunting, and fishing. Iron and bronze metallurgy was also carried out here, and jewelry was produced.
The cemetery was investigated by a team led by A. Davydova. A total of 216 tombs were found. The tombs, which are generally well preserved, contain items with which the dead were buried, such as clothes, belts, necklaces, bracelets, and beads. Especially interesting are the Ordos style bronze plaques.
Dureny-1 & Dureny-2
The Dureny-1 settlement
The Dureny-1 settlement, located along the bank of the River Thikoy, was excavated by a team led by A. Davydova. They found dwellings of the Ivolga type and evidence indicating that the population here carried out agriculture and cattle herding, and also made handicrafts. Ornaments of various types were encountered, including a bronze seal adorned with a picture of a mountain.
The excavated area is roughly 12,000 square meters in size.
The Dureny-2 settlement
The Dureny-2 settlement was excavated by a team led by S. Miniaev.
This settlement contains a total of 11 strata, with the middle ones (strata 5-7) being the remnants of the Hsiung-nu culture, including strata 6 and 7 which shows a combination of Hsiung-nu and typical Middle Age artifacts from the area.
Hsiung-nu fortresses in northern Mongolia
Examples of Hsiung-nu fortresses found in northern Mongolia:
Hsiung-nu cemeteries in northern Mongolia
Examples of Hsiung-nu cemeteries found in northern Mongolia:
The Derestui cementary
One Hsiung-nu cemetery that has been extensively excavated by archaeologists is the Derestui one, which was investigated by a team led by S. Miniaev.
This cemetery is located in the Dzyda River Valley, roughly 200 km from the city Ulan-Ude.
The barrows at the cemetery are organized in groups, with each group containing a large central tomb and several smaller burials. The large central tomb has stone slabs on the surface, a feature which the other burials lack. Generally speaking, the smaller burials contained the remnants of women and children, and these people had died around the same time as the person in the central tomb. It is possible that they were sacrificed to follow the deceased central person into the afterlife.
Many bronze items have been found in these graves, including bronze details from belts and other clothes. Plaques in the Ordos style are present. Artistic bronze items have been found on both men’s and women’s belts. The range of designs goes from simple to intricate. Examples of scenes depicted on belt pieces are those showing a predator, skirmishes between horses, or two dragons fighting. The belt and its fastening was probably a very important status symbol for the Hsiung-nu, displaying the wearers status within the group.
Generally speaking, the excavated Hsiung-nu burials feature bodies burred in the supine position, with the limbs extended. In roughly 90% of the known cases, the body is oriented northward. Each body is buried individually. Other bodies may be buried within the same burial complex, but there is always some space between each body.
The burials can be divided into these main groups:
- No inner grave or overgrave structure.
- Pit grave
- Pit grave with a coffin, but no overgrave structure
- Pit grave with a coffin placed in a timber frame, but no overgrave structure. In some cases, the coffin or the timber frame is lined with tin and vertical stone slabs. The pit can also contain similar slabs.
- Pit grave with a coffin placed in a stone chest, with overgrave stone setting. In some cases, the coffinis lined with tin and vertical stone slabs. The pit can also contain similar slabs.
- Pit grave with a coffin and a timber frame. Grave complex with several log chambers enclosed in a square stone setting. The pit has four or five stone walls throughout its depth. Sometimes these graves are as deep as 15 meters. In some cases, the coffin or the timber frame is lined with tin and vertical stone slabs. The pit can also contain similar slabs.
Graves with an overgrave stone setting are believed to be burials of Hsiung-nu nobility, and they are comparatively unusual. They might have been inspired by how Han nobility was buried in China during this epoch.