The Maykop: Lost Bronze Age Culture of the Exotic Caucasus Region
In 1897, Professor Nikolay Veselovsky, a Russian archaeologist and orientalist, specializing in the history and archaeology of Central Asia, uncovered one of the greatest archaeological finds of recent history in a small North-Western Caucuses town called Maykop. The Maykop Mound, or Chieftain’s Grave, contained countless ancient riches and spoils from a previously unheard-of Bronze Age civilization.
Comparison with similar artefacts from other cultures roughly contemporary with the 4th-3rd-century Maykop culture of the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. (LibReddit)
The Multiple Marvels of the Maykop Mound
The Maykop catacomb had a large central chamber split into three differently sized rooms which each held a body lying in the crouched position. The largest of these tombs was reserved for the principal occupant, who was adorned with a richly decorated garment, hundreds of semi-precious stones, a weapons set, a bronze cauldron, and a number of polished clay pots.
One of the most exquisite items was a black fur coat, the earliest fur garment found in Eastern Europe. The unusual tunic was made out of souslik fur, a type of squirrel endemic to the region, and it’s estimated 25 to 30 skins were needed to craft it. The silver pins found on the attire, and sheer amount of silver and gold, indicated the wearers highborn status.
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The treasure trove was so great that by 1898 the entire collection had been transferred to the Hermitage in St Petersburg and prepared for display for the Tsar and his family at the Imperial Archaeological Commission, where it became the star exhibit. In the following century, much would be brought to light about the mysterious Maykop.
Early Maykop objects from the chieftain’s grave at Maikop, Russia. The lion, bull, necklace, and diadem are gold; the cup with engraved design is silver; the two pots are ceramic; and the other objects are arsenical bronze. The bronze blade with silver rivets is 47 cm (18.5 inches) long and had sharp edges. (Erenow)
How Old Were the Maykop?
From its initial discovery in 1897, the age of the Maykop civilization quickly became a heated topic of debate. Archaeologists were mainly torn between a 3rd millennium BC or 4th millennium BC date.
In 1911, Tallgren proposed a 2000 BC dating by comparing the silver vessels found at Maykop to Priam’s Treasure, a horde of gold coins that had been excavated in 1873. But by the 1920s, an even earlier date was being suggested.
Rostovstev, finding similarities between the art of Ancient Egypt, refuted Tallgren’s argument, describing the Maykop objects as “more primitive” and “much older.” In addition, Schmidt, by analyzing the newly discovered artifacts unearthed at the Early Dynastic Royal Cemetery of Ur, joined Rostovstev in proclaiming a third millennium BC date.
During the 1930s to the 1950s, a plethora of archeological digs in the Caucasus region would contribute to a developing understanding of the Maykop culture and in particular their relationships with other primitive societies. They revealed that the Maykop were not bound solely to the Kuban area but occupied the entire northern Caucasus region.
In 1956, Alexsandr Iessen reviewed the available material and agreed with earlier claims that Maykop art had a likeness to the Priam Treasure and the art of Ancient Egypt. As a result, he proposed the early Maykop period to be between 2300-1900 BC, and the late phase to be between 2100-1700 BC. His framework, despite only resting on the evidence of less than 20 graves and only one settlement, was widely accepted in the academia for several decades.
The Maykop culture existed between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, with the Yamna culture to the north and the Kura-Araxes culture to the south. (Joostik / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Alongside this, extensive research In the 1950s and 1960s by Munchaev firmly established the co-existence of the Maykop and the Kura-Araxes people, an early South Caucasian kingdom, who were usually dated to 2800-2100 BC. Adding to this, Safranov in the 1970s placed the Maykop within the archaeological time period of Tripolie 2, which was conventionally dated to 2600-1700 BC.
However, Andreeva, using the same methods as Safranov, came to a strikingly different verdict. She argued that Maykop art resembled pottery of the period Gawra XII-VIII in Northern Mesopotamia, which strongly indicated a 4th millennium BC date. Over the next few years, the 3rd millennium and 4th millennium schools would play out their debate in academic papers, journals, and lectures.
But with the emergence of radio-carbon dating in the early 1980s, new and valuable insights surrounding the Maykop culture would emerge. In 1983, Kavtaradze, in the inaugural radio-carbon survey of the Caucuses area, offered a 4th millennium date for the Kura-Araxes who had earlier been established as contemporaneous with the Maykop, countering Munchaev’s 3rd millennium thesis.
Closer to home, in 1991, the first radio-carbon datings of Maykop sites were undertaken from animal bones found at Galjugal, in the valley of Terek. Korenevskij’s data recommended a 4th century millennium date, further reinforcing the link between the Kura-Araxes and the existence of the Maykop culture in the late Tripoli period of the area, with several studies in the 1990s further corroborating his hypothesis.
So, radio-carbon dating had finally settled the dating of the Maykop to the 4th millennium BC, a point of contention that had been blazing for nearly 100 years.
The 3rd millennium school was left severely weakened, especially since their conclusions were only based on the comparison of art objects, which ignored the archaeological context. Despite this, the resemblance of objects from the Great Cemetery at Ur to Maykop pieces by Schmidt, remained a persuasive claim. Yet, if the 4th and 3rd millennium dates were both correct, it would suggest that the Maykop survived for a staggering 1500 years. The uniformity of Maykop materials proved this was impossible and implied a shorter timeline of existence, for a longer chronology would inevitably contain objects of greater variation and divergence.
The busiest part of early human civilization in the Caucasus region, specifically between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the upper left of this map, included the pre-Maykop peoples, the PIE speaking peoples and the Proto-Uralic tribes. (Webspace Ship)
Pre-Maykop and Maykop Cultures
Throughout the years, two distinct periods of the Maykop were acknowledged, namely the pre-Maykop period and the Maykop period.
In 1929, the first evidence for the Pre-Maykops appeared at an archaeological excavation at Agubekovo. Additional discoveries in the 1950s and 1960s led academics Formozov and Stoljar to contend that Maykop-like settlements existed in the 5th millennium BC.
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Following on from this, a multitude of Pre-Maykop communities were discovered in the South of Kuban, the steppe of the Lower Kuban, and the Kislovodsk and Terek valley regions. The archaic objects uncovered in these areas were visibly distinct, and were commonly characterized with ovoid bodies without handles, pointed and rounded bottoms, grey, red, and brown colors, pearl ornaments, and rim incisions.
Further investigations revealed a unique set of Pre-Maykop treasures that had no comparison to other Maykop articles. Obsidian tools, stone bracelets, polished stone axes, human and animal clay figurines, and cross-shaped mace heads were all soundly dated to the 5th millennium BC. Supplementary radio-carbon testing of animal bones from Svobodnoe, Jasenovaja, and Mesoko again pointed to a date in the second half of the 5th millennium BC.
Silver vessel with animal frieze and landscape depiction, found in Large Kurgan of Maikop, Russia. (LibReddit)
In addition, an assemblage of graves from the Lower Kuban and Stavropol plateau, which included flint tools, rare pottery, small items of personal decorations made of stone, bone, copper, and shell clearly illustrated a society predating the Maykop. Signs of a typical Early Bronze age burial at Verkhniy Akbash, where the cadaver was crouched on the side with hands in front of feet, likewise confirmed a 5th millennium date.
Following the pre-civilization, it’s generally believed that the Maykop culture inhabited the foothills of the West and North Caucuses and the steppe lowlands of Lower Kuban, Manych, Terek, and Stavropol.
A unique type of grave sets the Maykop apart from their other Bronze Age neighbors. The body was usually placed on its side with hands in front of the face and with a layer of earth shoveled on top. Personal mementos and items of value were conventionally positioned next to the deceased.
In 2004, Korenevskij, using ceramic evidence, divided the Maykop into 2 types. The Galjugaj-Sereginskoe were distinguished by the prevalence of simple spherical and pearl shaped vessels with rounded bottoms, jars with short necks, cups with thin necks, cone-shaped clay objects, and vessels of precious metals.
The second kind were the Psekupskoe and Dolinskoe, who could be determined by more complex forms of pottery and decoration such as squat round forms which were decorated, patterned, and polished, and a noticeable absence of the spherical forms crafted by their Galjugaj-Sereginskoe compatriots.
Korenevskij intimated that the Galjugaj-Sereginskoe belonged to an earlier phase, with the Psekupskoe and Dolinskoe an Eastern and Western branch of the Maykop that split up at a later stage.
A gold diadem, massive gold and silver figures of bulls and gold lion plaques sewn on cloth, from the Maykop, or Maikop archaeological site in southern Russia. (The Mobile Megalithic Portal)
Influencers of the Ancient World
Most commentators believe that the Maykop were influenced by the Near East, an idea first proposed by Alexsandr Iessen in the 1950s because of the pervasiveness of foreign imports at Maykop burial mounds.
Fortifying this new strand of thought was Safranov, who, in the 1970s advanced the viewpoint that Maykop culture may have come from the Arameans of Harran, a semi-mythical people said to have inhabited Ciscausasia in modern-day northern Syria. She argued material from the Chuera collection, from as far back as 24000 BC, shared startlingly similar details to Maykop crafts.
A more recent examination linking the Maykop to the Sumerians, the earliest known civilization in Southern Mesopotamia, comes from Trifonov, Petrov, and Savelieva, who reanalyzed the scepters found in the Chieftain’s Grave, presenting them alternatively as tubes for communal beer drinking.
They compared the tubes to ancient Sumerian drinking vessels, which were often made of a long, hollow reed, and through residue analysis they found traces of barley starch granules. Furthermore, in an arrangement similar to the practices of early royal funerals of the Near East, the tubes were positioned closest to the body to emphasize the importance of feast in the funerary processions.
Some have gone further, stating that not only were the Maykop intertwined with the Near East, but that they had a sizable sway in the ancient world. In 2008, Ivanova-Bieg remarked on the numerous Maykop artifacts that reflected the developed stage of Near Eastern societies. She called for a “change in chronological perspective allowing for Maykop as a centre of innovation in its own right”.
Gold Bull artefact and silver vessel from the Maykop Culture of the Northwest Caucasus (c. 4th-3rd millenniums BC). (LibReddit)
Her call was answered in 2019 by Hansen, who, in his attempt to dismantle the grand narrative that all pre-historical technological advancements originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia, pointed to the Maykop as an important intermediary site for the formulation and spread of new ideas.
His new approach argued that Egyptian and Mesopotamian success was down to their adaptation of techniques produced in peripheral areas, like the North Caucuses where the Maykop resided.
Before, early theorists had recognized a strong Mesopotamian bent to Maykop objects, but usually attributed it to direct Mesopotamian influence on the Maykop.
Using later radio-carbon dating of the Chieftain’s Grave, Hansen showed that the crypt was built around 3700-3500 BC, a thousand years older than previous estimates, implying that it was the Maykops that influenced the Mesopotamians.
It revealed that the Chieftain’s Grave represented the oldest evidence for metal vessels and the earliest use of lion iconography in the heraldry of a ruler, showing that tentative steps towards state formation were already being made by the Maykop in the first half of the 4th millennium.
To add to this, similar copper tools found in the Chieftain’s Grave have also been found in Mesopotamia and as far as the island of Crete. The relatedness of the knives, swords, and axes in Maykop, Mesopotamia, and Crete, advocated the Maykop as an important middle-man in the spread of technology during the 4th millennium BC.
Maykop influence has been found even further afield than Crete. In an astounding discovery, Maykop weapons, bows, and quivers were found in Göhlitzsch, Germany, identical to similar armaments from a site in Novosvobodnaya near Maykop.
Thus, the Maykops had an impact on the development and distribution of technologies during the 4th millennium BC, being a major player in a system of innovation that incorporated the East, Caucuses, and Central Europe. No doubt the richness of the Caucuses region in ores, pastures, and timber proved extremely attractive to the evolving urban centers that the Maykop became inextricably linked too.
Auroch reconstruction based on the Gold Bull artefact from Maykop. (LibReddit)
The Maykop: Pioneers That Changed The Western Steppes
Andrew Sheratt has characterized the Maykop as the “world’s first barbarian society” operating on the peripheries of the urban centers of the Near East. Indeed, the Maykop were instrumental in the diffusion of lifestyle and technology to the steppe region.
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Acting as an intermediary between East and West, they were also an integral part of the technological revolutions of the 4th millennium BC, which included the wheel, wagon, the domestication of donkeys, sheep, and horses, and the cultivation of olives and wine. Several innovations in metallurgical and wool have been attributed to the Maykop, who were not only effective transferrers of knowledge but trailblazers in their own right.
Top image: The early Bronze Age Maykop culture of the Caucuses region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea dates to the 4th-3rd millennium BC and was connected to more places than you might think! Source: Google Arts & Culture
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
Betancourt, P. 1970. The Maikop Copper Tools and Their Relationship to Cretan Metallurgy. American Journal of Archaeology, 74:4.
Hansen, S. 2019. Technical and Social Innovations: A New Field of Research. Archaeology, Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia, 47:3.
Ivanova-Bieg, M. 2008. The chronology of the Maikop culture in the Northern Caucasus: changing perspectives. Academia. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/2543641 .
Trifonov, V. 2019. A 5000-year-old souslik fur garment from an elite megalithic tomb in the North Caucasus, Maykop culture. Paléorient, 45:1.
Trifonov, V. 2022. Party like a Sumerian: reinterpreting the ‘sceptres’ from the Maikop kurgan. Cambridge University Press. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/party-like-a-sumerian-reinterpreting-the-sceptres-from-the-maikop-kurgan/EFEEFA5BD92653748F5A0F04CD133184