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Skulls from mass grave in Yaroslavl, Russia, showing traces of violence. Source: Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences

800-Year-Old Russian Mass Grave Illustrates Extreme Mongol Violence

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DNA testing has proven that three people who were found in a mass-grave in Russia dating back 800 years ago belonged to an elite family.

Reading the words ‘Russia’ and ‘mass-grave’ in the same sentence probably leads you to think of the world-shattering events of July 17, 1918, in Yekaterinburg, when a Bolshevik firing squad executed and buried Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, the couple’s five children, and four attendants, as detailed in this Smithsonian article. But you’d be wrong in this instance. This grave goes back to the time of the Khans.

A team of researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology  announced the results of their new study at the eighth Alekseyev Readings conference between Aug. 26-28 in Moscow. In a range of DNA testing programs they have proven “close genetic kinship” between three sets of remains recovered from a mass-grave created after the city of Yaroslavl fell to Batu Khan’s machine-like Mongol army and their flames of torture and destruction had blown across Russia in 1238 AD.

Mongol invasion: The massacre in the Russian City Suzdal. The Medieval annal. (Public Domain)

Mongol invasion: The massacre in the Russian City Suzdal. The Medieval annal. ( Public Domain )

Family Matters

The city of Yaroslavl was one of several Russian population centers that was devastated in the early 13th century by Batu Khan's army as he rounded on the Grand Duchy of Vladimir. Many of the corpses found in the mass-graves have been found brutally scarred with traces of extreme violence, including “unhealed piercing and cutting wounds”, according to the scientists in their paper.

Asya Engovatova is deputy director of the Institute of Archaeology, RAS, and head of excavations on the Yaroslavl city archaeological site, and in an article on PHYS.org she is quoted as saying, “we now see the tragedy of one family during the fall of the Russian city in AD 1238.” The DNA samples prove that the three people were a grandmother aged older than 55, her daughter in her mid-30s and a young grandson about 20 years old, and another relative was found to have been “thrown” into a neighboring mass grave .

A Wave of “Cruelty and Destruction”

In 2005, Russian archaeologists excavated beneath the city’s early 13th century ‘Assumption Cathedral’ and unearthed nine mass graves containing the "violently murdered” remains of over 300 people, which, according to the archaeologists, was “much more than in the other ravaged cities.” Engovatova believes this is because Batu Khan's conquest surpassed “any other event in cruelty and destruction” and that chronicle descriptions of a city “drowned in blood” are now established as dark historical facts.

Sacking of Suzdal by Batu Khan in February, 1238. Mongol Invasion of Russia. A miniature from the sixteenth century chronicle. (Public Domain)

Sacking of Suzdal by Batu Khan in February, 1238. Mongol Invasion of Russia. A miniature from the sixteenth century chronicle. ( Public Domain )

One of the mass graves, officially titled No. 76, is located at the center of the inner city citadel. This “shallow-pit” containing the bodies of 15 “high status men, women, and children” and it had been “dug on purpose”, which contradicts the other mass graves, which were mostly found beneath burnt out houses and barns, suggesting these folk had been disposed of “for sanitary reasons.” Tooth decay was more prevalent in these bodies which is caused by diets rich in sugars or carbohydrates, and the archaeologists think they could afford “more honey than their average contemporaries.”

The location of this grave at the center of the citadel suggests this family were of a higher class than most and confirming this a “hanging seal” was found indicating the family owned a “rich homestead” which was excavated only “3 meters from the grave.”

Blowflies Turned the Scientists’ Key

Identifying the blowfly species found within the rotting human remains, Russian entomologists calculated the “average daily temperature their larvae would reach the observed stage of development”. These results corresponded with environmental conditions associated with late May and early June, telling the researchers that in April or May 1238 AD the flies began multiplying on the humans remains, and that the people were buried late in May or early in June, Engovatova said in the paper.

Left: blowfly larvae found in the mass grave. Right: graphic reconstruction of the individual from burial No. 79. (Sergey Nikitin/Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Left: blowfly larvae found in the mass grave. Right: graphic reconstruction of the individual from burial No. 79. ( Sergey Nikitin/Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences )

Before this study, Russian anthropologists had hypothesized that the buried individuals were related “by epigenetic feature similarities” like the presence of spina bifida, and abnormalities characteristic of inbreeding. These new genetic studies have confirmed the three bodies were members of the “same wealthy, high-ranking family,” Engovatova said, which gives the scientists affirmation that their powers of speculation are bang on and confidence in discussing such matters ‘before’ formal studies begin.

Top Image: Skulls from mass grave in Yaroslavl, Russia, showing traces of violence. Source: Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences

By Ashley Cowie

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