How Are Kurgans Used in Ancient Burials?

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Do you know what you have in common with your ancient ancestors? Modern technology makes it difficult to think that you may have shared the same thoughts, dreams, and worries as those who came before you.

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However, there are a few things that you may have in common with early people. You must work to fulfill your basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. You may value relationships with others, just like your ancestors.

Many cultures over time have chosen to bury the dead. Evidence of this can be found in ancient Greece, in early Ireland and Scotland, and in the Mayan culture. One form of burial is known as a kurgan mound. 

What’s a kurgan and how was it used? Let’s find out.

What is a Kurgan? 

A kurgan is a type of tumulus. Since you may not be familiar with this term, let’s define it before discussing the characteristics of a kurgan.

A tumulus is a generic term for a burial mound. The practice of creating a burial mound for the dead is centuries old. “Tumulus” comes from a Latin word that means “mound” or “small hill.” There are different types of tumuli, including a barrow, cairn, rujm, and kurgan. 

Some of the mounds covered stone burial chambers, while others were built simply over the remains of the dead. The tumulus held the cremains of the deceased for cultures that practiced cremation.

A kurgan is a particular type of tumulus. A clue of the meaning of the word can be found by its prefix. “Kur” means “to establish.” 

Kurgans are found in Central Asia, specifically in southern Russia and Ukraine. It’s difficult to pinpoint the specific cultures that used a kurgan, as they were used over the course of centuries by settled and nomadic people.  

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Who Used Kurgans?

Kurgans were used by a variety of cultures in Central Asia. Here are some examples, although it’s difficult to distinguish between the various kurgan cultures and subcultures. Some kurgans are described by the modern location in which they were discovered and other times, the kurgan is described by the culture that created the structure.

Krivichi Tribe 

Kurgans were used in protohistoric times by the Krivichi, a tribe of Eastern Slavs. 

Those who have studied the sites have found cinerary urns within the kurgans. It is assumed that the kurgans occurred as a “consequence of collective and simultaneous cremation.” This means that the group must have periodically set aside a date to exhume bodies from graves or above-ground burials for cremation. 

Scythian Tribe

The Scythians, a nomadic tribe, roamed the area of Inner Mongolia to European Russia as early as the 9th century B.C. The Scythian aristocracy left elaborate kurgans in the Valley of the Tsars (or Kings) near Arzhan. 

Excavation of their kurgans uncovered gold, bronze, iron, silver, and electrum artifacts. The decorative metal items were small, which makes sense for a nomadic tribe. They included depictions of real and mythological animals. 

Although the gold items are given much attention, the Scythians also excelled at decorative arts made of wood, leather, bone, and beads. The clothing was also elaborately trimmed. 

Kuban Culture

The Kuban culture left kurgans on the steppes of the Northern Caucasus region. The group, which lasted from the late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, is known for the royal grave at Maykop. This site showed elaborate grave furniture made from refined metalwork and ornamented with images of animals. 

Other Cultures

The study of kurgans is complicated as many of the cultures were nomadic and the architecture of the kurgans varied from region to region. Early excavators thought that kurgans were made of loose soil but further discoveries show that they were made with sod or soil bricks. 

Some kurgans were also used by different groups of people over several centuries. An example of this type of kurgan will be described later in the article.

Characteristics of Kurgans

Kurgans are not merely burial mounds. They are planned elaborate structures. Here are some attributes of kurgans (again, it’s difficult to pinpoint exact characteristics since they were made throughout time by a variety of cultures):

  • They include funeral chambers or tombs. 
  • Some had construction on the surface while others feature underground construction. Some have a combination of the two.
  • They look like a mound of earth or stone.
  • Some kurgans have an entrance and others do not. 
  • Some have an altar or sacrificial site in or around the kurgan.

Where Can You Find Kurgans Today?

Most kurgans are found in Central Asia, but others are located in Poland. 

Here are some examples of excavated kurgans. Some you can visit today. 

The Tsarsky Kurgan of Crimea

The Tsarsky Kurgan features an entrance hall with a vaulted limestone corridor. It was built by Greeks who inhabited the area at the time.

The Tsarsky Kurgan holds the remains of an ancient king, but the structure may have been inhabited by others throughout the centuries. Researchers discovered Christian writings on the burial room walls, which led some people to believe that early Christians hid in the room left by the previous creators. 

Nikolskoye Kurgan

A Russian farmer uncovered the remains of Samaritans in a kurgan near a village by the Caspian Sea. The remains were inside wooden coffins. Researchers guessed that the kurgan’s artifacts had been previously looted, even though several objects were near the human remains. 

Scythian Kurgan near the Caucasus Mountains

A kurgan was discovered near Stavropol when someone was tasked with excavating an area to make way for power lines. Looters had ravaged the 12-foot mound at some point during its history.

However, after deeper excavation, a stone box was discovered that held human remains as well as gold armbands and cups and a heavy ring. Further excavation showed a wooden roof, a standard feature for kurgans. 

Ipatovo Kurgan

The Ipatovo Kurgan is 23 feet tall and dates back to the 4th millennium. It seems as if the kurgan remained in use until the 1700s. 

The first grave contained two young people who were entombed in a sitting position. Researchers guessed the grave came from the Maykop culture. 

Also in the kurgan was a Samaritan grave of a woman buried on her back. This grave included golden jewelry, a gilded wooden cup, a sword and scabbard, and a cosmetic container. 

Finally, one hundred graves were found that dated in the 1700s. Researchers surmised that those graves were from the nomadic Turkic Nogai tribe. 

What About Your Final Resting Place?

As we explore ancient cultures, we find similarities and differences between how they lived and how we live.

You may be fascinated with the idea of burying the dead in a kurgan, but is it really any different than the burial customs we currently use? Maybe future generations will look at mausoleums or columbarium niches with interest, much like we look at old cemeteries today. 

The one thing that you may be able to take from your study of these ancient burial customs is that end-of-life plans matter. 

Do you want to be buried or cremated? If you want to be buried, what cemetery do you prefer? Would you want to be buried with items in your casket? What clothes do you want to be dressed in at the visitation?

You may not like the idea of making these types of decisions, but making your own end-of-life choices is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your family. Your loved ones want to gather together to share memories and reflections of your life instead of consulting with funeral directors. 


Sources

  1. “Communal Banquets and Related Practices - Slavic Region.” www.britannica.com/topic/Slavic-religion/Communal-banquets-and-related-practices#ref533510
  2. Curry, Andrew. “Rites of the Scythians.” Archaeology. www.archaeology.org/issues/220-1607/features/4560-rites-of-the-scythians
  3. Jarus, Owen. “Large Mound in Russia Reveals 2,500-Year-Old Skeletons of Elite Nomadic Tribesmen...And a Horse Head.” 17 May 2019. www.livescience.com/65498-ancient-russia-burials-elite-nomads.html
  4. “Tsarsky Kurgan.” Atlas Obscura. www.atlasobscura.com/places/tsarsky-kurgan
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