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Skeleton of Xiongnu female with coal buckle. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

Tighten Your Belt: 2,200 year-old Xiongnu Jewelry Made of Coal, Jade and Coral

By Sergey Zubchuk and Anna Liesowska

Eyecatching belt buckles worn by Xiongnu female invaders have been found buried on the banks of the Yenesei River in the modern-day Tuva Republic. Another buckle found was encrusted with carnelian, jade, coral and turquoise.

The Xiongnu were a Chinese confederation of nomadic peoples who inhabited the eastern Asian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD.

Mostly Female Necropolis

Women buried in a unique ancient necropolis went to the afterlife wearing intriguingly decorated belt buckles made of coal, new archeological finds have shown. They were also adorned with flame-shaped bronze decorations on their shoulders. In addition, they wore magnificent bronze buckles on their belts, while Xiongnu men wore buckles mainly of iron.

The buckles are artistically decorated depicting fantastical animals such as dragons as well as leopards, panthers, horses, yaks and snakes.

A coal buckle encrusted with carnelian, jade, coral and turquoise. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

A coal buckle encrusted with carnelian, jade, coral and turquoise. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

The women-only buckles made from coal are large - up to 20 cm in diameter. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

The women-only buckles made from coal are large - up to 20 cm in diameter. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

'The most interesting and richest finds are in the women's graves', said Dr Marina Kilunovskaya, who led the expedition to the Ala-Tei burial ground on the Yenisei River in the Republic of Tuva. 

The women-only buckles made from coal are large - up to 20 cm in diameter, decorated with carved animal images or beautifully encrusted with semiprecious coral, carnelian, turquoise, and jade.

'On one of the buckles you can see engravings,' said the scientist. 

On one of the coal buckles Scythian-style engravings can be seen. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

On one of the coal buckles Scythian-style engravings can be seen. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

On one side are two goats and arrows that pierce them. On the other, a horse is depicted in Scythian style. 

'Another was encrusted with carnelian, jade, coral and turquoise.'

She said: 'Evidently, their owners were very rich people who came from Trans-Baikal region or Mongolia. They found this material, it was interesting for them, and they used it for their decorations.' 

Ala-Tei burial ground located on the Yenisei River in the Republic of Tuva.

Ala-Tei burial ground located on the Yenisei River in the Republic of Tuva.

'Most of the remains here belong to women. My colleagues often describe Xiongnu as big warriors, invaders. But these invaders, as you can see, are women in fact - and they came northwards from the borders of modern-day China.’

Bronze Buckles Were Popular Too


Bronze buckles with animal images. (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

'First of all, in the central element of the belts are large bronze buckles with the image of animals - bulls, camels, horses, and snakes.'

The coal belt decorations worn by the women warriors 'were not for everyday use, of course, but for some special occasions, like weddings or funerals', she believes.

There are only ten such coal buckle decorations in the world 'and here we have four', with all being native to Siberia, said Dr Kilunovskaya of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences, in St. Petersburg.

They were also adorned with flame-shaped bronze decorations on their shoulders. (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

They were also adorned with flame-shaped bronze decorations on their shoulders. (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

'I started excavations in 2015, and there are 80 burials here with no mounds,' she told The Siberian Times.

'Most of the ancient people are buried in rectangular stone boxes, sometimes boat-shaped, or in wooden coffins or frames, with a stone covering. Some burials are without any construction inside. Many include the heads of horses.’

Bronze imitations of cowrie shells. (Siberian Times)

Bronze imitations of cowrie shells. (Siberian Times)

'Obviously, there was horse skin, too, which has not been preserved - so only the skull and hooves survive.'

'First of all, in the central element of the belts are large bronze buckles with the image of animals - bulls, camels, horses, and snakes.

'Other details of the female belt, in most cases, are also made of bronze - these are rectangular hexagonal plaques, bronze imitations of cowrie shells, simple and openwork rings, and Chinese Wu Shu coins.

Mirrors and Other Grave Good

Early mirrors of the Western Han Dynasty (2nd -1st centuries BC). (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

Early mirrors of the Western Han Dynasty (2 nd -1 st centuries BC). (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

'We found whole bronze mirrors or their fragments. Most of them are the early mirrors of the Western Han Dynasty (II-I centuries BC), but there were fragments of two earlier Chinese mirrors belonging to an earlier period.'

On male remains there were 'iron buckles on the belts'.

Finds included buckles for shoes, knives, iron rings and hooks.

Possibly a kind of lamp. (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

Possibly a kind of lamp. (Image: Marina Kilunovskaya)

'Another interesting find in the graves were strange small flat vessels separated in the middle by a septum with an opening in the center,' she said.

'These were located right above the graves. I believe these were kind on lamps.'

Dr Kilunovskaya admitted: 'Actually... I'm afraid to give this interview, because when the general public learns about such an archaeological site... we may find 'black diggers' coming. The only hope is that it is hard to reach this place.’

Burials in the necropolis of 80. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

Burials in the necropolis of 80. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

'There are quite a lot of burial grounds in this area - dated from Scythian times to the Middle Ages (2nd century BC to the 12-13th centuries) and they are being destroyed by water. When we came here for the first time, we saw a lot of skulls under a steep river bank and green bones there. Green because there were bronze items in burials. This looked terrible... So we try to save what we can.'

Due to climate conditions, work here can only go ahead during the summer months and more research will be undertaken next year.

Dr. Marina Kilunovskaya, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences, in St. Petersburg. (Image: Siberian Times)

Dr. Marina Kilunovskaya, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences, in St. Petersburg. (Image: Siberian Times)

She describes the finds as 'the richest belt decorations'.

'The belt is the main attribute of the nomads, so it was richly decorated with various plaques - mostly of bronze, but also coal.'

Top image: Skeleton of Xiongnu female with coal buckle. Image: Marina Kilunovskaya

The article, originally titled ‘ Chic women's jewellery made of coal, encrusted with jade and coral from 2,200 years ago ’ was first published on The Siberian Times and has been republished with permission. 

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