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Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs

Elite Iron Age Scythian warrior discovered with bronze arrowhead embedded in his spine


The discovery of the body of an Iron Age Scythian warrior in central Kazakhstan shows that the warrior had survived a battle despite being wounded by a bronze headed arrow.

The warrior was discovered in a kurgan (a Scythian burial mound) at Koitas in Kazakhstan. The man was part of a nomadic warrior society. His bones were found scattered, and some had disappeared altogether. However, when archaeologists Svetlana Tur, Svetlana Svyatko, Arman Beisenov and Aleksei Tishkin reassembled his body they found a metal arrowhead embedded in the man’s spine. The discovery was recorded by the archaeologists in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology and later reported by Forbes Magazine. Such injuries in the historical record in which the victims survived are rare.

Illustration showing the inside of a Scythian kurgan

Illustration showing the inside of a Scythian kurgan (Wikimedia Commons)

The man was aged 25 to 45 at time of death and was 5’ 9” in height. This is probably an indication of his elite status and his ability to access resources. His bones have been carbon dated to the 7 th to 6 th centuries BC and they are marked by a fracture in one of the man’s ribs and the early stages of osteoarthritis in his spine.

Normally, a wound to the spine by an arrow would have killed its victim, but this man survived and the bone of his eleventh thoracic vertebra grew around the embedded arrow head. The shaft of the arrow was probably pulled out of his body, leaving the arrow head behind. In most circumstances, this type of injury causes peritonitis or haemorrhage, but in this case the man survived long enough for the bone to grow around the arrow head which then began to corrode.

No evidence was found for the application of medical care, but the presence of a fracture in one of the ribs together with the survival of an attack by an arrow indicates that the man was sufficiently tough to withstand a certain level of injury in battle.

The archaeologists used computed radiography and computed tomography to get a better look, and this revealed a triangular cross-section. The arrow head was also broken, probably from the impact of hitting the bone. From its position, the team concluded that the arrow hit the man’s body from the right and from above. Further examination with X-ray fluorescence showed that the arrow head was made from copper alloy with a high tin content. If it had been made from lead, the man definitely would have died, from lead poisoning.

The Iron Age followed the Bronze Age in Central Europe and is marked primarily by the distribution of iron and steel implements including weapons. In Western and Central Europe, the Iron Age began with the Halstatt culture, one of the earliest European Celtic societies which existed between 800 and 500 BC. This was followed by the La Tene culture (500 BC to 1 BC), named after an archaeological site in Switzerland. It was the La Tene Celts who raided Greece and Rome between 450-1 BC. These warriors used the two-wheeled chariot which they had probably adopted from the Etruscans. Unlike the Halstatt societies, which were concentrated in hillforts, the La Tene Celts lived in small, dispersed villages.

In ancient Scythia, particularly in eastern Ukraine, the Iron Age followed a different timeline, marked by the pre-Scythian Iron Age (8 th and 7 th centuries BC), the Scythian Iron Age (7 th to 3 rd centuries BC) and the Sarmatian Iron Age (3 rd Century BC to 4 th Century AD).

In Kazakhstan, to the east of Ukraine, archaeological investigations have shown that societies practised a mixture of nomadism and cultivation. This is shown primarily by the excavation of houses and environmental data.

Other Scythian remains have been found in Kazakhstan, such as the ‘Princess of the Scythians’, a young woman discovered in a grave in Urdzhar in eastern Kazakhstan. She was buried with a gold headdress and may therefore have been a prominent individual in her community. The headdress was decorated with animal figures and arrowheads and is similar to another Scythian burial, also in Kazakhstan, known as the Golden Man. This was the burial of a man who may have been a Scythian warrior prince as he was buried with around 4,000 gold ornaments. In 2010, archaeologists also found the tomb of a Scythian warrior who was called ‘The Sun Lord’ because his torso was entirely covered with gold.

Featured image: Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs (Wikimedia Commons).

By Robin Whitlock

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Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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