Spectacular Bronze Age Karasuk Culture Jewelry Found in Siberian Grave
A Bronze Age burial in southern Siberia has produced one of the most diverse and dazzling collections of high-quality jewelry ever discovered in an ancient individual’s grave. Inside the grave of a woman who was buried sometime between the eighth and 10th centuries BC, archaeologists from Siberia’s Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography found an array of funerary items or offerings, reports Siberian Times . This most prominently included a set of bronze jewelry manufactured by fine craftsmen associated with the Karasuk culture. Digs at other sites in southern Siberia have revealed the extraordinary metal working skills of the Karasuk, who occupied south central Siberia from around 1,500 BC to 800 BC.
Some of the Karasuk culture jewelry was found next to the elite woman’s head. ( Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography )
How The Karasuk Culture Prepared for a Luxurious Afterlife
The Siberian archaeologists found the woman’s grave in a Karasuk culture necropolis located in the Minusinsk Basin in Siberia’s Khakassia Republic . She was unearthed from a shallow 30-inch (76-centimeter) pit just to the west of a large stone mound or cairn.
She was buried lying on her back, and there were funerary items arranged about her on all sides. These included animal bones from some still unidentified mammal (they’d likely contained meat when buried and were meant to be a food offering), a now-smashed pottery vessel with a carefully ornamented rim, and the broken blade of a bronze knife .
But the standout discovery was the cache of Karasuk culture bronze jewelry . This included four large bronze rings that had been put on the fingers of the woman’s left hand, three temple rings and two triangle plates that had been laid next to her head. Further, a large, thick bracelet with a checkered ornament that had been placed near her wrist, and a 3.5-inch (nine-centimeter) circular pendant and eight tiny bronze buttons that were found next to her right elbow (the buttons likely fell off her long-decayed burial dress).
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This was a valuable set of jewelry, which indicated something about the status of the woman who was gifted with it as she prepared to transition to the afterlife.
“She was clearly quite wealthy,” said Dr. Oleg Mitko, the leader of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography archaeological team who conducted excavations at the burial site.
Dr. Mitko identifies the jewelry as ceremonial, meaning it would have been produced as a complete set after the woman’s death, for placement inside her grave.
“Usually we see tiny scratches, or other signs of an item being used,” he explained. “We’ll have another check when back to laboratory, but after the first study all items looked brand new. The size of the jewelry also allows us to suggest that it would not be convenient to wear it in real life - quite likely she did wear something similar, but smaller.”
Each piece of jewelry had been made by Karasuk culture metalworkers, in a style distinctive to this people and to the late Siberian Bronze Age period in which they lived. Based on discoveries at other Karasuk sites and the dating procedures carried out there, the archaeologists estimate the jewelry could have been made as long as 2,900 years ago.
An aerial view of the Karasuk culture grave where the elite woman and her bronze grave goods were found. ( Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography )
What Was the Karasuk Culture?
The Karasuk culture was comprised of various societies that resided in the southern part of Siberia in the second and first millenniums BC. They were agricultural people, growing crops and raising animals for food simultaneously. What little is known about them comes primarily from excavations performed at Karasuk cemeteries, since almost no remains of Karasuk settlements have been discovered.
To complement their activities as farmers, the Karasuk embraced metalworking and gained a high degree of expertise in that field. In addition to producing useful objects and decorative items for their own use, the Karasuk likely produced metal objects for trade as well. Evidence suggests their trade networks extended from northern China on their eastern flank to the Ural Mountains and the Black Sea to their west.
To make bronze jewelry and other valuable metal items, Karasuk craftspeople would first create wax replicas of the desired items, which were then covered with clay to form an outer mold. The clay and wax would be heated on a fire, to a high enough temperature to melt the wax and harden the clay, with the wax being drained from the interior through channels carved into the outer clay shell.
Once the clay mold had been fired, cooled, and hardened, molten bronze could then be poured inside it to create the final product. This might be a piece of jewelry, a tool, a weapon, or some other type of practical metallic object. After the bronze hardened the outer clay mold would be broken open, so the finely-shaped metal object could be retrieved.
Using this deliberate methodology, the Karasuk culture created a vast and diverse collection of Bronze Age metal items that made their lives easier and would have likely been considered highly desirable on the regional trade market.
The elite Karasuk woman has been dubbed the Siberian Lady of the Rings. This closeup of her skull shows the big earrings, which were part of her funeral jewelry. ( Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography )
The Fortunate Find of an Ancient Fortune
Archaeologists were fortunate to discover the woman’s grave at the Khakassia Republic site. Highway and railroad construction in the area has damaged a lot of historically valuable locations. Meanwhile, other graves connected to the stone mound were long ago dug up and looted by treasure seekers, who somehow overlooked the shallow grave just off to the mound’s side.
Many Karasuk cemeteries have been unearthed in the Minusinsk Basin over the past several decades. Unfortunately, ancient grave robbing has been common at just about all of them, limiting the ability of archaeologists to learn as much as they’d like about Karasuk burial practices.
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Of course, if it was common custom among Karasuk villages to bury jewelry and other valuables alongside wealthy people (or anyone else), it is hardly surprising to find that most of those ancient graves were plundered long ago. The Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography archaeologists know how fortunate they were to discover a burial site that hasn’t been plundered by human fortune hunters, and that is why they view the woman’s grave and its contents as such an important find.
Top image: The elite woman found in a grave in southern Siberia belonged to the Karasuk culture, which was known for its impressive skills in producing high-quality bronze which they cast in wax molds. The jewelry recently found in the grave is shown here on a living woman’s hand. Source: Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography
By Nathan Falde